02 December 2015

Students vs staff

One of the big challenges of teaching, I find, is getting the students to speak up if they don't understand something. If you do a lecture and ask if anybody has any questions you tend to just stare into the sullen faces that avoid your gaze, with a deadly silence hanging over the entire room. And quite often, you know there MUST be questions, but they just won't speak up.

When the students had to get going on their assignment based on the Laugharne fieldwork I gave them an introductory lesson. At the end I asked if there were any questions; there were none. That didn't prove they got it, though. I would later find out just how small their understanding was.

When I got the assignments I was a bit shocked. This cohort had done so much worse than last year's! And they had got better preparation. Last year I had no idea how they would do. This year I had flagged up all the common issues I had encountered the year before, and told the students how to avoid them. They should sail through! They clearly hadn't. I wanted to know what had gone wrong, but I knew from their deadly silence during the lecture they wouldn't be keen to speak up. I figure they'd only be happy to do so from the comforting shelter of anonymity.

As soon as the marks were released an explosion of student indignation followed. The student-staff liaison officer (or whatever that's called) called me in for a meeting. He had had a lot of complaints. The students claimed the questions were too long and unintelligible, the methods were unclear and unexplained, the reference list was not up to date, pretty much everything was wrong and unfair and awful. And they wanted a higher mark. And it was his job to mediate; what did I think?

I explained the students had not flagged up any issues during the preparatory lecture, and they had asked me some questions by email, but none of these were addressing understanding of the actual questions. I wasn't sure why they had done so badly. The students were not happy with that. They admitted that hardly anyone had come prepared to the lecture, in spite of me urging them to read the assignment in advance so they could ask if something was unclear, but they seemed to think that was something I had to compensate for, not them.

In order to get an idea of what had gone wrong I had decided to open a discussion forum online where they could post anonymously. Do I need to even mention that triggered a storm surge of filth thrown my way? I tried to just take it as information and nothing more, but I found it impossible to not be affected. And it wasn't particularly helpful even; some students flagged up reasonable things, such as that a word limit would be helpful, but most of it was just unfiltered ranting. In a way I understood; they had blown the chance of learning, but they still had a chance of getting a higher grade, if only they managed to pile all the blame on me, and not themselves. They scraped the barrel in order to find fault in me. I tried to shake it off (note the modern popular reference) but I didn't go into the weekend feeling very happy.

With the issue not solved by mediation it went to the Head of School. I did not speak with him, but I heard the result. He had judged that indeed the students had had plenty of opportunity to raise questions and had wasted them. No further action required. It was nice to have my name cleared, but I was still bothered by the fact these students had done the entire assignment without ending up with a proper understanding of palaeoenvironmnetal reconstruction, especially using foraminifera. Not very satisfying!

The module is not over yet; they still have an exam to sit. I decided I would offer them an hour to come and talk through the whole thing. That way they had a chance of learning something, and as they would still benefit from it grade-wise they would probably even bother. It would be frustrating to sort out another session while they had so clearly wasted the previous one, but in the end it is for the better. I don't think this lot will ever become a fan of foram work, but if they at least understand how it works I'll be satisfied! And I hope next time they'll bloody ask those questions they have, and to do so BEFORE the grades come in...


Henco said...

(Beste-stuurlui-aan-wal-opmerking :)) Have you tried (or better: is it allowed) to activate students by asking 'concept-check' questions during your lessons; instead of making space to let them formulate questions you could maybe try to ask someone to explain to you some concept you just explained? And if they can't you can give a hint to them like 'You could get such a quesion on your exam you know'?

(I recognize the same frustration in my work (though nothing like education); I deliver documents to developers with big disclaimers (if ANYTHING is unclair PLEASE communicate) and see through testissues that it doesnt work).


Margot said...

Spiffing idea, I might next time ask a student to explain a question. They might not be able to but then at least they realise they aren't and may pay attention to the explanation!