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Funny Old Essays

2013 March 11
by Alice White
An attempt at making the process of essay writing more memorable and engaging.

An attempt at making the process of essay writing more memorable and engaging.

I created an Essay Comic (click for the full .pdf version complete with links) a little while ago to try and help my first-year students with their work. The main aim was to provide a fun little reminder of steps they might forget, like signposting or time-management. It’s maybe not the most mature way of going about it, but it seemed to go down well, particularly with my most lively seminar group.

Comments & thoughts always welcome!

Workshopping with Twitter #abetterseminar

2013 February 27
by cs444

By Courtney Salvey

When I first started teaching 5 years ago, my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles wanted to know all about it.  But since they didn’t know much about my subject matter (English), they talked about something they knew: behavioral problems.  Specifically, kids using mobile phones in class.

At the time, I was pretty neutral because I hadn’t had any problems with inappropriate ringtones or compulsive texters.  But my mind has changed in the last half decade: I now think smart phones can enhance classroom learning, rather than disrupt it.  Nearly all my students have electronic devices with which they can access information, interact with their peers, or create content.  Instead of nuisances, mobiles or iPads can become tools for engaging students in active learning.

Leading a first-year seminar on ‘Romanticism and Critical Theory’ for the School of English at the University of Kent, I’m responsible for teaching content and skills—reading, writing, and thinking.  Like many others, I’ve adopted workshopping as a way to cultivate some of these skills. Here is where mobile phones come in handy: one of my workshop exercises is structured around Twitter.

This module has two reading components: a) the literature of the Romantic era and b) literary theory and criticism.  We spend the first hour of the seminar on theory, readings which my students struggle to get through on their own, let alone understand or critique.  Needing an exercise to develop their reading skills and to boost their comprehension of theoretical concepts, I turn to Twitter.

I divide them into groups of three and ask them together to tweet an answer to a simple question: what is the main point of the theorist or critic we read for this week?  Before the seminar begins, I tweet my question and then each group simply replies to it.  If the theory can’t be readily summarized in 140 characters or it uses a lot of jargon, I will vary the question: what does Said mean by ‘Orientalism’? or what is an ‘imagined community’ to Anderson?

The functions of this exercise in my seminar are multiple, targeting content, skills, and classroom dynamics:

Content

  • it lets me check, correct, or challenge student comprehension of the material
  • it provides a takeaway mental handle students can use to recall the article or theorist when they prepare for the exam

Skills

  • it develops the skill of distilling someone’s ideas into a short statement
  • it makes students practice shortening sentences and jettisoning verbal fluff
  • it teaches students to use social media

Dynamics:

  • it makes students talk to each other, but gives them a physical focal point (the phone or tablet)
  • it frames classroom discussion as a project with a goal, not an aimless wander

And most of my students love it.  In individual meetings, they consistently tell me how much they like using Twitter in class.  But their segues into this approval reveal one of this Twitter exercise’s flaws: ‘once I figured out how to use it, I really started to like using Twitter.’  It did take a few weeks to get students comfortable with tweeting.

Specific to my ‘what is the main point exercise’, students sometimes drastically misrepresent or ignore significant parts of a theorist’s work so their tweet fits more easily into their allotted 140 characters.  But they’re slowly getting better, evidence that this exercise is helping them develop the skill of sifting and distilling ideas—of knowing what is important and why.  And this is exactly what I want my students to learn how to do through this exercise.

Have you used Twitter in your classroom? In your assignments? How?

Some teaching ideas and tips from Hannah Perrin

2013 February 15

In many ways, writing a lecture is ‘easier’ than planning a seminar – you have your topic, you come up with a logical plan to cover the key points, decide on illustrative material, you put it together.  A seminar can be trickier as not only do you have to think of something that develops the module outcomes and provides opportunities for students to learn in different active ways, but it can be shaped by the different abilities and comfort zones of your class.

If you are looking for some ideas for seminars, check out Hannah Perrin’s top ten tips for starting points in seminars.  Hannah bills this as being for social science seminars, but I think it will also be of use to people teaching a range of humanities subjects, too.

Other useful stuff from Hannah includes her advice on teaching policy analysis, as well as her top ten tips for starting teaching as a PhD student.  Read Hannah’s top ten tips as well as our series on teaching for the first time, with posts from Alice White.

Workshopping: reflections by Katrina Navickas on ‘flipping’ seminars

2013 February 4

When delving through all the various theories of learning on a PGCHE or similar programme, the relative uselessness of lectures as a means of creatively and critically engaging students with the subjects they are learning comes up fairly early on.  Lectures have a utility insofar as they are able to provide a large number of students with information, but the format lends itself more to surface rather than deeper learning.  Seminars have typically been the location where this more engaged, active and deeper learning takes place, if this format also has its problems.  What if the group haven’t done the reading, or struggled with it?  How to bring shy and/or introverted students into the discussion? How can we effectively encourage students to engage with the practical skills of analysis and engagement?

With all this in mind, it is great to see a blog post over the weekend by Katrina Navickas, a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, which outlines some of the ways in which Katrina and colleagues have radically reconfigured the way in which they teach and deliver classes in History.  We strongly recommend anyone interested in how teaching could potentially be rebooted have a read through this.

Teaching for the First Time – One Term In!

2013 January 22

One term in seems a good time to review my experiences so far as a first-time teacher, and to invite any comments or suggestions.

What are my thoughts on teaching? So far, I love it. My classes are good at engaging with the texts they are studying (sometimes with a little initial coercion required). Group work has been especially rewarding, and I love the pyramid technique that Kate and James introduced me to in a previous blogpost. I already hate marking with a passion, despite only having marked two assignments, but anecdotal evidence suggests this seems to be the feeling of teachers generally! However, on the positive side, the quality of the assessments so far has been a relief, and I discovered on the last assignment that marking on Moodle is easy and faster; I will be doing all future marking on there.

Now for the things that you can help me with (please!) by replying to this post, or tweeting to #unikentedu:

  • I find it difficult to know how much I suggest my students write down. On the one hand, I don’t want them to be distracted from seminar discussion, or to give the more shy class-members an excuse to avoid eye contact. On the other hand, there are some things that I thought I emphasised strongly during our sessions – on marking the assessments, it turns out I clearly didn’t do it strongly enough to remain in their minds by the time they got around to writing! This doesn’t so much even apply to literary or historical points that come up in seminars – these they seem to retain successfully – but to things that are important for their assessments like “Bullet point #3 says to include a sentence summary of the article you are critiquing. If you hide this in a paragraph and don’t introduce it with a keyword like “To summarise this article…” then I won’t be able to find it, so please make it very clear what your sentence is, whether through formatting or word choice!”. An additional point: I’m also aware of several Inclusive Learning Plans (ILPs) for students that indicate that they would struggle with too much note-taking.
  • I’d like to introduce some sort of “recap”, this-is-what-we-did-today, what-are-the-most-important-bits type thing at the end of seminars. However, seminars are only one hour long, and I don’t want it taking over, or there will be very little to recap! Any suggestions for how to do this efficiently would be great.
  • The next assessment for the module is an “Exercise in Good Writing”; the assessment states ‘You may want to do some research in preparing your answer and all quotations should be footnoted as usual but the two key skills under assessment here are your ability to write well and argue coherently.’ This seems to be one of those skills you are just expected to pick up as you go along, so although I have some thoughts on how I’ll actively try to teach it, any tips for teaching undergraduates how to argue coherently would be particularly interesting to hear!

Thanks in advance.

This week I have a workshop titled “Teacher Training: using technology in teaching”, so I shall try to summarise what that teaches me in a new post soon!

.@teachingtomtom, ‘Quiet please! Introverts and our love affair with group work’ (8 Nov 2012)

2012 November 23

A lovely post from Kylie Budge on why we do group work…

Ask yourself why it is that students need to do that task or project in a group. If there’s a good reason for it — for example, your aim is to encourage students to hear a range of opinions and have to negotiate to complete a complex task — then yes, it’s probably a good way to design the learning. If, however, we ask this question and find ourselves wondering about the real reason a group is needed for such a learning task, then perhaps we need to reconsider our thinking and redesign it as a solo task instead.

Link to the full post here.

Twitter in the classroom – Powerpoint tools

2012 November 9

We found some excellent resources for using Twitter in Powerpoint presentations, including as an alternative to Turning Point, thanks to a pingback from Charles Shield’s blog at Loughborough.  We recommend the blog itself, which you can access here.  The blog also refers to Timo Elliott’s pages on best practice in using Powerpoint and Twitter and a free download of Powerpoint and Twitter tools, which are well worth a look.

Teaching for the First Time FAQ – part four

2012 August 27

In the fourth in our series of posts looking at FAQs for first time teachers, Kate and James respond to questions from Alice White - a PhD student in the School of History who will be teaching this year for the first time. As mentioned in the previous post, we welcome comments and questions.

Alice: What do you suggest in terms of handling email?

K: Who mentioned email???  *Runs off and hides in a cupboard…* There are no fixed styles with email, and you need to do what works for you.  You do not have to respond to an email from anyone immediately, that’s for sure.  You have other commitments and tasks you need to complete, and it is unreasonable to for anyone to assume otherwise.  The trouble with responding to email immediately is that, if you aren’t careful, you find you are using it as a reason not to do something else or to fill time – I am always very preoccupied with my inbox if I’m finding it tricky to write an article! The key to keeping email under control is to set and manage expectations:

  • Discuss email expectations with your students as part of your housekeeping at the start of the year.  For example, evenings and weekends are times when I don’t respond to student emails, but I make it clear that I will respond at the first opportunity normal working hours.  Other colleagues of mine deal with their email at 2am.  Both are fine.  Students get their answers.
  • Learn to love your out-of-office assistant.  If you are going to be away or not looking at email, put your out-of-office on, with clear instructions about what needs to be done by the person sending it to you. This manages people’s expectations about when they will hear from you, and if it really can’t wait, they have a Plan B.
  • Consider having a virtual office hour, using hashtags on Twitter or using the wall on your School/subject group Facebook page, if you have access to this.  I’ve done Revision Q&A this way and it really does help in terms of being able to share ‘routine’ info about essays etc with the whole group, rather than having fifteen emails asking the same thing.  A tip I got from James was to use Storify to capture the conversations, which you can then post up as a link on Moodle.  You can also embed Twitter feeds into Moodle too, using the RSS feed function, which will mean that the posts are up on Moodle for non-tweeters.

J: I know I have some bad habits here: responding too quickly, at odd times, and from my mobile… However, I have a few thoughts to add with a view to both managing student expectations and freeing yourself up to complete other tasks:

  • Point students towards your office hour. I always keep my emails to students brief, with the expectation that the conversation is completed during my office hour. This ensures you don’t spend too long on email and reminds the students of different ways the School can provide support and feedback.
  • Be prepared to send mass mailouts. If you get a number of similar emails about an assignment, it is likely that either the course handbook or your instructions have not been clear enough.  Kent’s SDS has the capacity to email all students on a module or in each seminar group, so this feature can be used to clarify a point without having to respond to every email individually.
  • Deadline day. You will, inevitably receive more emails around the time of assignments. As someone who remembers essays panic you may, therefore, feel obliged to respond to every email quickly to ensure students are fairly treated. This can be a huge timesink, so I find laying down a few ground rules here helps. For me, I make it clear that I will respond to no emails about an assignment (expect for technical details – word limit, footnoting, extensions) within 7 days of a deadline. The week before that, however I promise to respond quickly and make myself available for bookable appointments outside of my usual office hour. This helps me manage the deluge, with the added bonus of encouraging students not to do everything last minute, for they know if they do they’ll get no help from me on their essay.
  • Twitter. Use of social media is very much a personal thing, so I’d say this is not so much a recommendation as just something I do. During my first seminar with each group I share my email and Twitter handle. What I suggest is that if anyone has a quick question (what is the word limit? where is your office? can I cite lectures? is X a good book?) or want to send me a quick message (“I’m running late for the seminar”) that Twitter will get to my first. This does mean non-tweeters get slightly worse treatment, but it does limit the number of silly questions that come in via email. Also, as Kate has suggested, you can publish these conversations via Storify as a point of reference for both tweeting and non-tweeting students.

A: Do you have any advice for people who have their teaching all in one block like me, or for those readers who might have a more scattered timetable?

K: Scattered or block, think about how you can maximise your time on campus.  I have a scattered timetable of blocks (!!) so the way I work it out is to put aside time on a Monday, my first teaching day of the week, when I get all my teaching prep for the following week done – in my case, putting together my slides, seminar activities and refreshing my knowledge of the seminar readings.  I’ve been teaching my modules for several years, so I am updating my lectures and thinking up seminar activities on the back of previous runs, which helps immensely.   The amount of time I give over to this prep depends on my timetable for the week – a week of multiple guest lectures on top of my usual classes will entail an earlier start to the Monday prep proceedings (often called “Sunday night”).  The rationale for doing it a week ahead is that if you are ill, it snows or there is some other impediment to your getting to campus, the work is there, sitting on Moodle. Also, if you are about to discover a problem – say you can’t find the book in the library you wanted in order to make some photocopies from it for the seminar – you have time to do something about it, rather than having a mad scramble the morning it is due.  You can also give handouts to the students for the following week in your class so that they have time to prep it in advance.  If you have teaching in a block, you could try getting at least some of your prep done for the next week before your classes start, mopping up afterwards; if you teach in a more staggered way, choose one of your days for powering through your advance prep.  Whilst you will be popping off to teach throughout the week, it does mean that you have cleared the rest of the day for your PhD.

I’d also recommend having a check-list printed off and up on the wall where you can see it of all the admin tasks you need to do before you leave for the day: it’s a given that people need to return registers, but you might need to return equipment etc.  You will start doing it like clockwork in no time, but whether you are a block or a staggered teacher, this will help you get into the swing.

J: I have nothing really to add here, apart from to reiterate the necessity of getting into a routine of prep, then teach, then admin. With specific reference the the block of teaching you have, remember that classes begin at 5 past the hour and end at 5 to the hour. That 10 minutes can be hugely valuable in the cut and thrust of a 4/5 hour teaching block – for extra photocopies, for replacing worn out board pens, for buying a cup of coffee – so use it wisely. Also, as you will be sharing an office with other Associate and Assistant Lecturers (including me!), I’d strongly recommend trying not to let your colleagues distract you from your routine too much. That said feel free to use us as a little support network during busy days. As you get into a weekly routine you’ll realise who else teaches on the same day as you, and who might be generous enough to put the kettle on in time from your return from a 3 hour teaching stretch…

A: How do you get a debate going? Especially in shy classes or in cases of consensus, where the class all seems to be in agreement on something?

K: The way to head such silence off is to use the pyramid technique.  Divide the class into groups of two or three, with a task to complete in a short amount of time.  When the time is up, get them to join with another pair, so that you have groups of four, or whatever, and set them another task to be done within a set amount of time.  Repeat the process as necessary, building up to two groups or the whole group if you like – or you can stop at an earlier juncture.  The point is to build up your students’ confidence in talking to each other, and feeding back to the group.  It’s a flexible technique that lends itself to lots of different activities, and you can engineer the activities so that, for example, you can’t have a consensus because you have asked the groups to work out and produce mock-ups of the manifestos of different political parties.

Here’s a worked example from the world of history: with a seminar group divided into pairs, I would assign each pair a different primary source to work on.  They’d have ten minutes, say, to come up with an analysis of it.  Then I would ask the students to make groups of four, and the pairs would compare/contrast their primary sources with each other.  Probably at this stage I would keep them in groups of four, and ask one person from each group to feed back on the conclusions they had.  I would act as a rapporteur of sorts, writing down the findings on the whiteboard and then using it to pull together a whole group discussion on the topic before moving into my plenary/round up.

One top-tip on small group activities… always walk around the room, and listen in on what groups are doing.  Partly this is to make sure that your students are on task, but also it is a good opportunity to make sure they know what they are talking about.  I always ask them how they are getting on, and most of the time I nod, make some suggestions and ask them to nominate someone to present to the group.  It gives them affirmation that they are not going to say something foolish in front of the class, and also if they are barking up the wrong tree you can get them back on track.  It also gives you a sense of who works well with whom.

J: I do this, yet had no idea that is was called ‘the pyramid technique’. I would reiterate the getting involved bit of this. As much as it might be tempting to do some admin – say the register – while the students are talking in small groups, it looks bad and gives the students little incentive to discuss the problem at hand. Also make the students move around. Don’t allow them to try and discuss along a row, but get them to move tables and chairs so they can work together effectively. This may sound obvious, but students seems to have a strange aversion to moving furniture. And that 30 seconds to a minute of moving things around is surprisingly effective at reducing any tension and nerves.

Another technique I like (and students love to hate) is the snap presentation. For this, I divide the room into 3 or 4 groups, hand out board pens, marker pens, and giant post-it notes. I then set each group a problem or question and them 20 minutes to plan a 2 minute presentation during which at least 3/4 members of the group must speak. This really focuses minds. And if you time things right, allows plenty of room at the end for general discussion.

A: Do you, or any readers, have any tips for other labour-saving techniques?

K: If you prefer to do things in chunks of time, apply the pomodoro technique, in which you give yourself thirty minutes to get on with a task, then a five minute break to look at Facebook or eat a biscuit.  Repeat as necessary.  This works well for getting through email pile-ups, as it stops you over-writing responses (and being distracted from your PhD!)  It’s also very good for getting back into your PhD writing or reading if your head is spinning after emails…!

Smartphones are also lovely for allowing you to use being stuck on a bus in slow moving traffic to nuke your email inbox, or downloading an article that you’ve been meaning to read…

J: Google Docs. Much as their T&Cs are terrible, GDocs is a remarkably effective in class tool. I always have it open during a class, and use it as a way of projecting prepared questions, making a note of discussion points, or organising student responses into lists. Unlike notes made on a whiteboard I can tidy up the notes after class and then share the document via Moodle, which gives students a reference point of notes for every seminar (and handily doubles up as something you can refer to if you teach the same class again during the next academic year). GDocs has the added bonus of saving automatically, so you don’t need to faff around with Dropbox or a memory stick when leaving class. All you need to do is close the browser.

Teaching for the First Time FAQ – part 3

2012 August 23
by Alice White

Thanks Kate and James!

It was a relief to hear I wouldn’t need to rush out and purchase a wardrobe full of tweed before term begins (although there are some nice tweed things in shop windows currently, so I won’t rule out doing this through choice!). It’s good to be reminded about jargon – I remember being terrified of the term epistemology when I was a first year – I’ll make a conscious effort to steer clear or explain. The idea of setting questions I can’t answer there and then as something for the questioner to do before the next seminar is one of my favourite pieces of advice from this blog, as it makes me feel significantly less nervous of not knowing everything there is to know. I’ll feel more confident going in knowing that I’ve got a way of dealing with such situations. The other biggest fear I think I have is silence. How do you get a debate going? Especially in shy classes or in cases of consensus, where the class all seems to be in agreement on something?

It’s good to know that you both believe it’s possible to keep a teaching – research balance. Following your advice, I have already begun doing some reading for my teaching, and actually found that it’s an excellent way to ease into work in the morning or wind down again in the evening, an unexpected bonus! I shall also try to keep different spaces for work. I’ve just received my teaching timetable for the year – three seminars on a Friday (not too early, beginning at 11am). Do you have any advice for people who have their teaching all in one block like this, or for those readers who might have a more scattered timetable?

The main follow-up question that springs to mind links the idea of balance and the discussion of investment in students: I have heard from many friends who already teach that one of their biggest issues is regarding student emails. Some feel obliged to respond immediately, saying that they can’t concentrate until they’ve dealt with questions, some schedule a set amount of time per day to deal with such queries, but then get bewildered students if they break their regular pattern, and many complain that whilst emails aren’t a problem most of the time, come reading-week they are swamped! What do you suggest?

I feel rather guilty over not considering that “laziness” might actually be intimidation, especially because I did realise this when teaching some visiting school groups! It’s easy to forget that undergraduates are not so far from those wearing the uniforms! The “working smarter not harder” tips are a great plan! I have found a labour saving tip I will definitely pass on to students in the form of another blog. This one is aimed at new undergrads rather than new teachers, and I love the reading list diagram, may have to give out copies to my students: link.

Do you, or any readers, have any tips for other labour-saving techniques?

Teaching for the First Time FAQ – part 2

2012 August 6
by James Baker

In the second in our series of posts looking at FAQs for first time teachers, Kate and James respond to questions from Alice White - a PhD student in the School of History who will be teaching this year for the first time. As mentioned in the previous post, we welcome comments and questions.

Alice: Do I need to look and sound like a teacher?

James: As a first time teacher you are unlikely to pull off the curiously authoritarian mad professor mumble and dishevelledness. That said I’d be cautious of over-dressing or trying to be someone you think you should be. Students tend to respect honesty, and if you are yourself (if for the length of the seminar/lecture a slightly more shiny, preened, and unsustainably enthusiastic version of yourself) you will feel more confident in your ability to command respect in the long term.

Kate: It depends what you mean by ‘look’.  Wear what you feel comfortable in. I wear smart casual clothes that are fine for moving freely around lecture theatres and seminar rooms, have the right number of pockets for office keys, board markers and memory sticks, are smart enough for meetings yet make me look approachable to students.  But ‘look’ is not always just about what you wear, it is also about comporting yourself.  You have to trust in the fact that you are the teacher in the room, it’s your classroom and you are in charge.  It can be nerve-wracking the first time you are in a seminar thinking, ‘cripes… they think they should listen to me!’, but the students will be looking to you for a lead and to be the authority in the room.   If you feel comfortable and confident in what you are wearing, that’s part one in this.  In terms of sounding like a teacher, there’s no need to channel Mr Bronson fromGrange Hill, butyou need to be clear in your speech, remember not to talk into the board or use jargon that your students won’t be familiar with (yet).  Don’t feel as though you need to know the answers to everything – if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and set the student in question the task of finding out for the next class.

A: How can I teach without my research suffering?

J: The time you have to research will be reduced as a result of teaching. This is an undeniable fact. Yet your research should not suffer. Think of juggling teaching and researching (and funding proposal writing, tea breaks, real life, et cetera) as preparation for an academic career. Also, do not underestimate the value of teaching with texts you may not have read for some time or have never read before. Free from the baggage of studying for a number of years, students (especially first year students) have a habit of coming up with refreshing interpretations of texts which feed into your own work. For this reason I thanked my students in my thesis acknowledgements. There are, then, clear perks to what might seem a huge amount of work.

K: I would add the need to keep things in perspective when it comes to prep.  It is not uncommon for people starting out teaching to think they need to have read everything on the reading list, to know everything about the topic.  You don’t.  Your job is to facilitate the learning of the students, not to read for another undergraduate degree whilst doing your PhD!  As above, you don’t need to know the answer to every question you might possibly be asked.  If you are doing something that is fairly (or totally!) new to you, I’ve always found it useful to set aside a week or so before the start of term to read around the module, so that when you start teaching, you have had time to assimilate the wider stuff, and then can focus on getting the seminar readings done in term time.  If it is a familiar topic, then you might want to have a day or two for refreshing your memory.  Teaching something new is always harder work than teaching something for the second time, and it is, as James says, a fantastic foundation for the teaching you will do later in your career.  I would also advocate trying to keep a little hygiene between research and teaching days.  If you commute to campus to teach, chances are you probably have most, if not all, of your teaching on one or two days. If you can, designate those days as teaching days, when you’ll do your stuff in the classroom, and then have some time to get on with your prep and admin whilst you are there on campus, so that your other days are clear for research.  If your teaching is spread across the week and you tend to be based on campus all the time, then be strict with yourself – designate separate times in the day for teaching and research, and stick to them.  It might also help to move rooms if you can… if your department has a hot desk room for part-time teachers, go there to get your teaching stuff done, then go to the PhD students’ room to get cracking on your thesis.  And most importantly: if you feel like things are getting out of balance, talk to your supervisors and/or the module convenor.  They can help you get everything back into perspective, in practical ways as much as giving you moral support and a different perspective on things.

A: Is it okay to invest myself emotionally with my students?

J: Well obviously this depends on how far you go (I need not describe what might be seen as too far). As a younger colleague you will inevitably end up with a few students who latch onto you (turn up at most office hours, follow you on Twitter, want to share their personal dramas). The challenge is to detach your when it comes to assessing their work. I’ll admit to having a little cheer when handing a 70+ to one hardworking student who have been gradually improving all year. But I didn’t give her a first because I thought she deserved it, but because her work deserved it. So long as you get that balance right, emotional involvement shouldn’t be seen as a problem.

K: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting your students to do well and caring about their welfare, but remember – there is only one of you, and lots of them!  As a first time teacher, particularly one involved in a PhD, you are on an emotional rollercoaster of your own.  Whilst it is absolutely fine to be supportive, caring, encouraging and sympathetic, you do need to be able to detach yourself and to step back.  Students often come to early career teachers because they are often far more approachable beings than the lecturers!   It’s easier to catch you after a seminar, and it might be less daunting to speak to you about certain kinds of issues. The lecturers, however, have as much a duty of care to you as they do to the undergraduates, and that includes making sure that you are not overloading yourself emotionally.  Be a sympathetic first point of call, but remember that you are a link in a much longer chain.  In other words, don’t take on all the pastoral support for students, but refer up/across as appropriate, be that to the module convenor, a personal tutor/academic advisor, to the learning support services, to counselling, to the union advice shop.  Also, as your career develops, you will find that as much as you root for your students, you also have to do the less pleasant jobs… giving a poor coursework mark, asking someone to explain why they have plagiarised their work, making a decision that a student doesn’t like.  Caring about your students is about doing the right thing by them, and being able to take a step back is important.  Having a space for debriefing with the module convenor is useful – this need not be every week, or take more than 5 mins, but it gives you the opportunity to flag up issues of concern, get someone else’s perspective on things and benefit from their experience.

A: How do I deal with the extreme students – the ones who really don’t seem very bothered and the ones who are working themselves to death?

J: Those who work themselves to death will eventually tire themselves out, find a level, and continue to achieve. The only advice I ever give them is to keep in mind quality over quantity of work. And to share labour saving tips (don’t reading whole books, use indexes/contents heavily, essays are marked on selection over sheer quantity of evidence).
As for those who ‘don’t seem very bothered’, I’d say be sure to report repeated non-attendance to your Student Support Officer, try to engage them directly when you do small group work in class, ensure you ask them how they are getting on generally during essay feedback sessions, and reward them when they contribute in class (a simple ‘Thank you Mary’ will suffice). You’ll often find those who don’t seem bothered are in fact very shy and worried about sounding stupid in front of their peers. Making it clear that there are no stupid questions and answers in your class may help here, but a little personal intervention never hurts.

K: ‘Not being bothered’ has several causes.  Shyness is often one, and James’ point about creating a comfort zone is an important strategy to take.  I find making it clear that everyone will need to participate at the start of the year helps, and choose your seminar activities to reinforce this – for example, you might make available a list of questions about the seminar reading ahead of the class, so that students come to the seminar having thought about the questions, but not knowing which of them they will be asked!  On the other hand, if you are ever confronted with a room of students who haven’t done the reading or refuse to admit to having done it, then don’t be afraid to sit there in absolute silence until one of them cracks… or the class is over.  As with James’ tips, make sure to thank the students who do contribute, and use their comments as a springboard for the next element of the discussion.

The other cause of ‘not being bothered’ can be a student who, for whatever reason, finds that they have chosen the wrong module or even degree programme.  In this case, you need to help them to act quickly by getting them to talk to their personal tutor, module convenor etc.  Universities have time limits on when such changes can be made, hence the need to move swiftly.  Even if these deadlines have passed, then the student needs to have decent advice on what to do next, and this is usually best done by Directors of Studies (as we call them at Kent) and admissions officers in the case of transfers to other programmes, here or elsewhere, as well as by the union advice shop, in terms of the financial implications.

Whatever the root cause of the not botheredness, don’t let it linger – and don’t be afraid to escalate it to your module convenor.  After all, it is a form of passive-aggressive disruption, and it impacts not only on the other students but also on your ability to run a class and also on your confidence.

As for the over-workers… it can be useful to incorporate smarter working techniques into seminar classes.  Some overworkers are doing it because they love their subject, others because they are ambitious, and others because they are anxious about their performance… sometimes all three at the same time.  Some will get their balance, as James suggests, others will benefit from reassurance, in class or otherwise, about working smarter, not harder.

The next post will be a response from Alice, so stay tuned for updates.

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