Tag Archives: timetable

Preparing Students for University … slowly

By Roy Peachey, Woldingham School

 

At the recent RGS conference, I drew on the principles of the slow movement to explore how schools can best prepare students for higher education, but the slow movement and slow education can be very easily misunderstood. Slow education is not speaking slowly or monotonously and it’s not interminable courses of study dragged out until students see sense and leave us alone. Slow education, like the slow food movement, is rather a response to modernity, to instant gratification and to omnipresent presentism. It is about breaking free from the artificial constraints of industrial and post-industrial time, from the time constraints created by and for the institutions in which students study. It insists that we give students the time they need, the time tasks take.

And, of course, the tasks we set as educators are often shaped by the needs and demands of the institutions in which we teach. The tasks I set my students are governed by the length of time our school allocates for homework, and by the (artificial) constraints of the school day, the school term and the school year.

But it needn’t be this way. Last year I visited a girls’ school in Hong Kong, where they had a cardboard cutout plane on display in their entrance hall. Why? Because students at that school, with a little help from a parent who was in the business, built a plane. A real plane. It took them seven years. It flew. It stayed up. It came down safely. But it took them seven years. Many of the students who worked on it had left before it had its maiden flight, but nonetheless they could say they helped build it.

Or to give another example closer to home: Charles Causley, who was both a poet and a primary schoolteacher, used to give his pupils a year in which to write their poems because that’s how long poetry takes. How many teachers would dare do the same today, I wonder?

But slow education is not just about the time we allow for particular tasks: it’s also grounded in how the brain works. In Elogio della Lentezza, Lamberto Maffei, Professor of Neurobiology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, quotes French Mathematician Jacques Hadamard on the three stages of mathematical creation: preparation, incubation and illumination, a perception that ties in well with Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument almost 200 years ago that “nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or the elevated portion of the sciences than meditation.”

Hadamard’s insight is as important in our contemporary situation as it has ever been. According to Josef Pieper in Leisure the Basis of Culture, “latent anxiety” is “the mark of the world of work”. Latent anxiety, I would add, also characterises the world of education. And latent anxiety kills creative thought. This anxiety can have many causes but an essential one is the dominant model of time that has emerged from what Pieper calls a world of “total work”, time as an economic principal. In the 19th century, we began to worry that we were wasting time. In the 20th century we started to manage it. In the 21st Century we are overwhelmed by it.

By contrast, slow educators give students the time they need to develop deep knowledge. They refuse to bow down before industrial models of time. They fight back against latent anxiety. Learning a language takes years. Learning an instrument or building a plane takes years. Learning anything that isn’t superficial takes years. And yet we rush our students as if knowledge could be acquired overnight.

So how do we actually prepare students for university using the principles and practices of slow education?

As part of my crusade against instant gratification, I keep copies of Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine, in my classroom at school. It is one of my weapons in a campaign for unintentional knowledge. I want students to stumble across it. I don’t want to set reading it as homework. Delayed Gratification is great because it deals with the news 3 months after it has happened – The Last to Breaking News is its strapline – but it’s not enough on its own. I also rescue books that libraries are offloading and have my own library that students can raid whenever they like. I deliberately pay no attention whatsoever to the curriculum and encourage idle browsing. What I want is for students to develop an interest in a topic because it’s interesting, not because it’s going to be tested.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time encouraging students to read, but my focus is gradually changing. I now encourage my 6th Form students not simply to read around their subjects, but to read two or three books really deeply. Preferably slowly and preferably more than once. I don’t want them to skim over the surface of knowledge but to really savour it. I want them to enjoy books as they would slow food, rather than as they would a Big Mac, because slow food – and books read deeply – taste better.

But slow education is not just about books. Any activity that promotes delayed gratification is to be encouraged. Growing vegetables. Using butterfly kits. Developing school ponds. All these help teach students that growth takes time. And intellectual work should do the same.

Intellectual work, Gilles Lipovetsky says, is “inevitably something done with craftsmanship and love.” This is not the language we usually hear, but it points us in the direction we need to go. If we are to prepare students for the slow university, we need to rediscover the value of craftsmanship, a topic both Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett have written about recently. We need to recover the importance of learning from the master craftsman over time. We need to recover the value of learning slowly – of refining knowledge and skills – through doing. We need to recognise teaching as a craft and we need to allow students to learn as apprentices learn.

Crucially schools and universities need to do this together. To misquote JFK, I want to ask not just what schools can do to prepare students for universities but what universities can do for us. If you are bothered by your students’ Maths or English, if you are concerned that your students can’t google effectively because they don’t know enough, if you think students aren’t prepared for undergraduate studies, then work with us in schools to change things. Work with our students so they can experience true scholarship. There’s no rush. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve got plenty of time.

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Take it home and do it: open-book exams

By Dr Lynda Yorke, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University and Dr M. Jane Bunting, Geography and Geology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull.

Context and rationale:

Traditional exams (e.g. write 2 unseen essays in 2 hours) are not popular with students, often described as irrelevant by pedagogues, and don’t reflect the realities of the working world.  As a result, exams are being displaced across the HE sector by a variety of coursework based assessments, where students have several weeks or months to produce demonstrations of their competence.  However, report production on deadlines of a few days is commonly required in a range of jobs, and requires particularly efficient research and synthesis skills.  Since assessment drives learning for the majority of students, giving them an incentive to develop these skills and an opportunity to demonstrate them is in their best interests.  Independently, we both addressed this situation by developing ‘take home exams’, with a 48 hour turn-around, for the final year modules Rivers and Environment (Lynda) and Quaternary Geoscience (Jane).  We both wanted to encourage students to read widely and develop a sound understanding of a complex and evolving literature; being able to interpret and synthesise reports produced by specialists is an important skill for GEES graduates.

 Format:

We have employed two different approaches: an essay and a report.  Both had a length limit of 2000 words.  For Lynda’s essay-based exam, students are given a choice of two broad questions that require them to draw on the module content and other resources, presenting evidence and critically evaluating paradigms in fluvial science. The format was chosen to complement the mid-semester, report-based assignment.  For Jane’s report-based exam, students are presented with a selection of data from a simulated Quaternary section and tasked with producing a report which identifies and describes stratigraphy units, proposes an interpretation of the environment present when each formed, and assigns stratigraphic ages.  The report format is familiar to students, through previous coursework reports on their own datasets from field and lab work, and the option to write a report on a different dataset for formative feedback was offered as preparation.

 Effects on learning:

Some students told us that the take-home exam format changed the way they studied throughout the module; they focused on collecting and organising relevant resources across the subject rather than reading a small number of selected items in detail, since they had less scope for ‘question spotting’ and knew the assessment would require them to use a range of ideas from the module.  This led naturally to them looking at more articles, as they sought to fill in gaps in their collections, and to creating their own ‘map’ of the subject matter as they worked out how to organise and label their notes, books, web links and electronic files for easy relocation during the 48 hour period.  The quality and range of references cited was at least as good as in a normal coursework essay, where students have up to twelve weeks to write about a single topic.

 Skills, employability and challenges:

Embedding employability and transferrable skills is increasingly important, and students want to be able to recognise that this is happening.  The take home exam format seems to ‘make sense’ to students in both the academic content and employability contexts, and clearly addresses some of their anxieties around the artificial but ‘high stakes’ nature of exams (“In the real world I’d just look that up!” is a common complaint).  The format requires students to draw on their knowledge from the module, and their skill in locating, understanding and synthesising information and key sources of literature. It does not rely on cramming knowledge for a 2 or 3-hour exam, but on students being able to use a range of resources efficiently to help them work through a problem.  One student commented to me (Lynda) that they “… learned about lateral thinking, applying skills and knowledge in new and different ways”.

A few students over the years have not liked the approach. One of Lynda’s students observed that “… even if you were asked to write a report in 2 days in the workplace you would not be asked to read, research and cite academic papers …”. Of course, this is exactly what you could be asked to do, and reflects some naivety on the students’ part, but also a lack of clarity on ours.  We have addressed this via pre-assessment review and preparation seminars.

Our advice:

  • Give clear instructions. For example, students are often concerned that those students that are able/happy to ‘pull all night-ers’ would be at an advantage; Lynda emphasised that students should aim to work standard graduate working hours* (9 – 12 hrs/day) on the task.
  • Timetabling the exam. Concerns about clashes with other assessment at the end of semester and during the exam period have to be clearly addressed.  We were allowed to tell the students which week the exam would be in, then wait until all the other assessment deadlines were out to identify the specific 48 hour period, avoiding clashes.
  • Alternate assessment arrangements. Since the take-home exam gives students control over their environment, it reduces the need for alternate arrangements.  One challenge we both encountered was the issue of students who would, under normal exam circumstances, be entitled to additional time based on their personal learning needs; university protocol required that a 48-hour exam be treated the same as a 2 hour exam in this case, and students were given individual deadlines with the appropriate percentage of added time.  Our experience is that most students submit within the 48-hour period even if they are entitled to extra time.

Overall, we find that this kind of assessment is popular with and makes sense to students, creates desirable learning behaviours, directly addresses employability concerns as an embedded part of the module rather than an add-on or a checklist, and is rewarding to mark, since we have both seen very high levels of performance as students rise to the challenge of the task.  We strongly recommend it as part of the designer’s tool kit for GEES curricula, and would be happy to discuss our experience with any interested colleagues.

*http://www.thejobcrowd.com/employer/pwc/working-hours

Fieldwork: always have a plan B.

by Julie Peacock, University of Leeds

I updated the risk assessment for a second year field trip to Middlesmoor, Upper Nidderdale, early in the Academic Year, 2015/2016. I noted the comments, ‘In the event of extreme weather, the trip will not go ahead.’ I’ve seen and even written this on risk assessments many times, but I’d never needed to act on it.

We planned two, one day field trips with 81 second year students, one in early November followed by one in March.  This fieldwork is part of a larger skills module. The students work in groups to plan, then complete a research project focusing on Ecosystem Services. The first field trip, covers key techniques and familiarises students with the site. The second enables students to carry out their projects. In between these trips students work to prepare projects and present proposals to a panel of academic staff who provide feedback.

The second trip was to take place on a Friday. Monday brought a bleak weather forecast.  Students were emailed to remind them to bring suitable clothing and asked to review their field plans to ensure they could work efficiently even in poor weather conditions. On the Thursday, the landowner advised postponing because snow was forecast. We thought it was unlikely the weather would be that bad. Crucially, there was nowhere else in the timetable for the fieldtrip, considering availability of 81 students and six staff, not to mention re-booking the labs for student’s sample analysis.

I considered the options. What if one of the mini-buses got stuck? Would the students bring suitable kit for the weather? Yet, if we didn’t go how could the students complete their projects to meet learning outcomes given timetable inflexibility?

By the time I got into Leeds University at 7am on Friday, both the landowner and local farmer had called to say not to come.  Roads were shut and still it snowed. In some ways I was relieved; the decision was made, but what now for our fieldwork?

The campus at the University of Leeds is urban. Although significant work has been done to improve biodiversity and sustainability on campus, including a sustainability garden, it has no open ‘wild’ space. It is incomparable with Nidderdale! Nevertheless, urban ecosystem services are increasingly important as urban areas continue to expand.

By 7.30am an email had been sent advising students to meet in the department foyer. One lecturer wrote the risk assessment and gained necessary signatures; university estates had granted permission for soil sampling; two large teaching spaces were booked (fortunately, it was reading week); mini buses were cancelled and colleagues who were to meet us at Nidderdale were updated.

At 8am, the planned bus departure time, students were briefed. The trip to Nidderdale was cancelled, but they were to spend the next two to three hours re-planning their work to study ecosystem services on campus.  Inevitably, reactions were mixed, some students were glad (given the weather), others understandably disappointed not to be working on well-planned projects.

Students worked in their groups with academic staff mingling to discuss ideas. The VLE was populated with links to the University’s Biodiversity Action Plan, maps and useful literature. The field stores made a wide range of equipment available and taught students to use kit they hadn’t planned to use previously. Lab technicians made themselves available to talk to students wanting to undertake different analysis.

Changing the assessment brief was probably the hardest part. Students had worked hard on projects and were due to be assessed on a scientific report. Many would have started their literature reviews and methods. It was decided to ask students to review both Upland and Urban ecosystem services, writing up both methods, one where months of planning had taken place and one which had been planned rapidly.  Students found this brief hard given the unchanged word count to meet the advertised assessment. However, no alternative seemed ideal.

Field work was successful, despite the dreadful weather, with laying and falling snow, then heavy rain. Staff circulated to provide advice. A statistics expert stationed in the foyer answered questions.  Our students demonstrated resilience as they planned new projects. They showed they could work effectively under pressure, transferring learning about planning projects to a new situation. They learned in fieldwork too, Burns’ cliché holds that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley.’

This last minute change to fieldwork with such a large group of students couldn’t have worked without university staff’s teamwork and enthusiasm.  Students had a valuable learning experience, and we learned too.  In fieldwork planning is always key.  A contingency plan for extreme weather should occur.  Many HEIs have local areas which could be used.  Permissions for so-called ‘Plan B’ fieldwork could be gained, a risk assessment completed and students advised of the contingency plan including its impact on assessments, so if it is implemented it is not a shock. It’s useful to have a plan B and for the students to know it exists.

What have you done in similar situations? It would be interesting to hear.

 

With thanks to the following for making the changes work on the day: Karen Bacon, Janet Chapman, Dom Emery, Rachel Gasior, Rachel Homer, Jamie Mullen, Graeme Swindles, Clare Woulds and others who added useful documents to the VLE over subsequent days.