Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.

Second year blues…

Much has been written about the  dip in confidence and perhaps achievement commonly felt by PhD students during their second year . Apparently there is a now evidence for a similar problem in the second year of undergraduate degrees. An article by national teaching fellow Claire Milsom from Liverpool John Moore’s University in the Guardian Higher Education Network  reveals that many second year undergraduates experience a period of increased dissatisfaction, confusion about academic achievements and disengagement.

In 14 years as a personal tutor I have lost count of the number of times that I have provided tissues and sympathy to distressed second year tutees. I use the phrase “well, the 2nd year IS much harder than the 1st year because we spend the first year partly bringing everyone up to the same level”, but I’ve also heard colleagues say “the real work starts in the second year”, which is a slightly different way of presenting it! Whilst this offers an explanation, it doesn’t really deal with the complexity of the issue and nor does it offer constructive suggestions to the students.

Thinking back to my own second year as a physics student, and drawing upon many conversations with tutees, it is clear, as the Guardian article points out, that several things are at work. The assessment rate and frequency and complexity tend to increase. These assessments often become more discriminating (i.e. bits of them at least are harder) in order to provide more opportunity for all students to be challenged and this can mean that differing abilities within the cohort become more apparent to students as well as staff. On top of these thoughts surrounding your academic subject and progress, well meaning tutors start to ask questions like “what you want to do when you graduate?”. We do this out of concern for the future of our students, to prompt them to make the most of the university environment to develop “employment skills” (although it is also true that rates and destinations of graduates are an important metric used in league tables etc).. Finally, budgetary concerns may well be kicking in and the need to work part time in order to eat reduces “free” time. It is easy to see how this combination can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed even before you add in any social or familial issues.

I don’t like seeing my students in this state, but apart from listening and providing tissues, it’s certainly true that I haven’t done much to be more constructive. The Guardian article suggests three ways that Universities could better support second year students:

  1.  an induction week for second years
  2. market the second year appropriately particularly over the long summer break in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content
  3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.

Whilst in my Department, we are still thinking about items 1 and 2, we have already made some changes to our personal tutoring system, primarily to improve effectiveness and consistency of support to all our undergraduate students. Of course every student needs a tutor, but not every academic necessarily need be a tutor. The default has been that tutees are spread out so that each academic staff member has only 1 or 2 tutees. But this year, staff were given the option of being a BSc or MSc tutor (admittedly we have very small numbers of students and so have a lot more flexibility here than many places). Those that expressed preference for tutoring undergraduates were then allocated a group of 4 or 5 students in each of year 1 and 2 and the meeting schedule changed to include both an opportunity for one to one meetings and termly group tutorial sessions facilitating peer support. Indeed these group sessions can be combined with other tutor groups.

A further opportunity to make these group sessions more meaningful has been provided by a change in the term structure at my institution this year to introduce “Enhancement Weeks” in the middle of the two long 11 week terms. The 6th week of term is now free from standard lectures and filled instead with opportunities to develop study and employment skills. On offer are activities such as: a software development course for environmental scientists, sessions on industrial placements, an entrepreneurship competition, leadership skills sessions and many others from both Departments and the University centre. Some students are obviously taking advantage of this week to develop such skills, although I have also heard much talk about recharging the batteries via sleep and catching up on assignments! Formally measuring the success of enhancement week is likely to be a non-trivial issue.

However, my most recent experience of enhancement week was positive. On a sunny Tuesday morning, our programme director and undergraduate tutor team provided a tutor facilitated session on Skills for Employment. The introduction talked about the kinds of skills that key employers in our field are looking for, and the importance of being able to provide evidence of these skills from a range of activities. The students, a mix of part 1 and part 2, then congregated with their tutors and discussed the kinds of evidence they could use in future job applications. It transpires that the current cohort of students are perhaps much more used to doing this than their lecturers were when they were students – after all personal statements on UCAS forms require much the same type of effort.  Particularly relevant to the “year 2 dip”, the group I was with discussed how even “failures” could be turned round to demonstrate positive qualities (self-development, persistence, reacting to feedback).

None of these actions are particularly profound or novel, but sometimes they don’t need to be. What made me most happy to see was the willingness of students to talk about their current and past challenges, the first year students seizing the opportunity to ask advice from the second years (how do you stop yourself getting stressed out by assignment deadlines), and the second years passing on tips to the first years (pay attention to vector calculus even if you can’t see the point – you need it next year). Building a strong community of students willing to engage in peer support, will offer another way of smoothing the lumps and bumps of student life, whether that happen in Year 2 or at any other time.

Arran 2013 Part 1: Why I like teaching on fieldcourses

This week I have left the family and the office behind to teach on the joint Leeds and Reading Atmospheric Science field-course on the Isle of Arran. This course has been developed jointly over the past few years and has come to be one of the highlights of their degree for many of our students. This is my 5th year as a module co-convenor, and despite the organisational and logistical stress, and being away from my family, it is one of my favourite teaching activities. Here are the reasons why:

Total Weather Immersion: These days, I get all too little time to really get “into” the weather during office hours. On Arran, we are governed to a large extent the evolving weather situation. The main issue is scheduling the walk up the 875m high Goat Fell. Whilst we don’t wait for blue skies and sunshine, it would not be sensible to go up on days with high wind and torrential rain, so for the first few days we have to keep a very close eye on the forecast.  In 2011 we just about made it up there before we were all confined to the classroom during the passage of Hurricane Katia. The students take a range of measurements on the walk and at the field-centre, probing the local boundary layer and linking local observations to forecasts and balloon launches. A key educational benefit of this course is the opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from the previous 2 years of work. Although I have email access and will clear the inbox daily, there is little time, energy or inclination to do anything else resulting from my role as Head of Department .

Prolonged contact with students: We take a maximum  of about 30 students drawn from the final year  of BSc and MMet Meteorology degrees at Reading, and the final year of BSC Meteorology, BSc Environmental Science and BSc Climate and Atmospheric Science from Leeds. These are split into small groups of 4 or 5. This year we have 5 teaching staff as well as 2 technical staff, so there’s a really good staff:student ratio. We (and the students) work 7.30am to 9.30pm for 6 days solid, and it is fascinating to watch how the groups and individuals develop over that time. To have the time to sit down and really explain a bit of theory, get the students to draw out the key results and see them have a “discovery” or “realisation” moment is a rare treat in our (and their) busy learning journeys. I *think* the students appreciate this too.

Teaching collaboration: My involvement with this course, came about largely because the current Leeds convenor @JimMcQuaid and I were on a research detachment with the FAAM aircraft in Treviso in August 2004. I routinely collaborate with colleagues at many institutions on research projects, but collaborations in teaching activities, particularly those that contribute assessment towards undergraduate degree courses are much rarer. There is much we learn from each other, not just concerning our subject, but also teaching and communication skills, assessment ideas and feedback methods. I really value this time to reconnect with my teaching skills.

Simplified work-life integration: As well as the total immersion in the weather compared to other “work activities”, Arran is undoubtedly a chance to immerse myself in work compared to the rest of my life. I cannot deny that this is in part at least pleasurable. I feel very guilty leaving my young family for an extended period of time, and my 3 year old at least will take a while to forgive me, but it is a pleasant break from the constant plate spinning and transitioning. Any down time can be spent writing proposals or blogs or reading papers and manuscripts without feeling guilty that I’m not doing “domestic management” tasks. I am fortunate indeed that my support network at home accepts and understands this part of my job.

Expect some more field course related blogs in the next few days…