Teaching v. Learning, The Eternal Struggle

As week four of the first term concludes, I am left pondering the effect that my various teaching and learning practices have had on my students and on myself. I often struggle, as most lecturers do, with the idea that some of my students simply do not wish to be at university (or at least in my module) and nothing I do will affect their learning over the next twenty weeks. This year, thankfully, I am genuinely impressed by the level of dedication my students have shown. On the other hand, do all my tricks and tips actually help the learning process for my students? Do they even help the teaching process? Is it all just a lot of self-indulgent rubbish?

Case 1: X Marks the Spot in the Library

Last month, I spoke about a small-scale project I undertook with my students last year, in which they had to follow a trail of footnotes throughout the university library in order to obtain the answer to a set question.This year, the programme was rolled out to the entire cohort. The results were pretty clear cut.

The module is team taught, and I personally tutor about 40% of the students. I explained the project to them, assigned them pairs and sent them on their way. Over the course of the next week, I received four or five emails regarding the exercise, asking for assistance in obtaining certain sources or (politely) complaining that the activity could not be completed.

At our next meeting, students declared whether or not they had solved the question. In all four groups, at half of the students had successfully answered the questions and presented a completed bibliography for me to adjudicate. Overall, I was very much impressed by the accuracy of their bibliographies, although there were some minor errors, which I mentioned to them immediately.

The crucial part of the exercise, for me, was the final discussion. I asked my students where they had become stuck or, if they had completed the exercise, at which stage they had had the most trouble.  As with last year’s cohort, the primary stumbling blocks were

  • Locating mis-shelved monographs
  • Obtaining articles from hard copy or non-JSTOR electronic journals
  • Understanding how to obtain full bibliographic information from short footnote entries
  • Deciding when to use hard copy or electronic versions of a source
As I included two new treasure hunts this year, a new problem also presented itself. One footnote required students to look at a particular volume of a multi-volume series. Several pairs assumed that I wanted them to look at volume one, rather than the volume with the subtitle listed in the footnote.

I then asked if they felt the exercise had been worth while, or whether they had felt it to be busy-work. There was unanimous agreement that that it had been challenging, even frustrating, but absolutely worth their time and energy. Several students admitted that they had had no idea how to approach research in the university library before completing the exercise, and some had not even visited the library beforehand.

These, of course, were the reactions of my students. Having written the treasure hunts myself, I was able to gently guide them when they became stuck and verify where exactly in the library they would need to go. My colleagues, who also administered the exercise to their groups, were not able to do this. As a result, many of their students became frustrated with the hunt and declared the aim unachievable.

Moreover, rather than giving the bibliographies a cursory glance during the seminar, as a form of tie-breaker, my colleagues had had the students email their responses beforehand (or, more realistically, several days late). This placed much more emphasis on the bibliography writing stage of the exercise rather than the exploration of the university library. As a result, the ‘fun’ element was dampened and the exercise may have felt to drag on over multiple weeks as the answers trickled into the tutor’s mailbox.

Although there is an element of serendipity with group dynamics, I would suggest that, in future years, more attention be placed on the ‘learning’ aspect of the exercise in all groups, and far less on the ‘assessment’ or ‘judging’ aspect. 

Case 2: Example(ry) Essays in First year

This spring, I discussed the idea of using model essays with a number of colleagues at the What do History Students Want conference, held at the University of Loughborough. Proposed initially as a thought-experiment, with no empirical evidence to present, the concept of a student-annotated model essay seemed appealing to several listeners. Indeed, one of my colleagues has already integrated the exercise into his modules and achieved surprisingly high student engagement. By the time I began my own teaching, he had already deemed the project a success.

Bolstered by this good news, I too offered my students a chance to mark a model essay, annotating it with their own comments and queries. Crucially, the web programme I used was sheltered, via a long, non-intuitive web address, but did not require a log-in. This facilitated ease-of-access and also allowed students to remain anonymous for what they often felt were ‘stupid questions’.

After a somewhat slow start (owing to a incomplete mass-mailing to students) they were off and running. The comments have become increasingly insightful (and demanding of the author) as each new reader adds his or her thoughts. Indeed, an electronic dialogue seems to have developed without any direction from myself. For example, one student, upon reading the somewhat prosaic introduction commented:

Give a direct answer to the question, set the scene later.

Blunt, but fair. Another followed up this comment with:

Agreed – use terms of question straight away e.g. their definition of Amerian exceptionalism. Also are they looking at art or literature?

Finally, a third student offered this balanced critique:

The Introduction answers the question by claiming at the end that American exceptionalism saturated literature and art. However, the introduction offers much in the way of contextual information but very little detail as to the broad ideas of how and why exceptionalism influencenced art and literature. It does give the reader any idea of what structure and argument the essay will present.

What is particularly interesting about these comments is that they demonstrate an understanding of essay construction that is rarely brought to fruition in first-year essays. By reading an introduction that offered only a minimalist answer to the set question, they have realised the error in simply offering ‘context’ and applaud its efforts to provide an indication of structure as well. Moreover, by collaborating with each other as to the ‘correct’ way to write an introduction, the students have created, independently, a set of writing values that will help their acculturation into university-level academic writing.

Case 3: Build-your-own bibliography

My third learning initiative was a student-built annotated bibliography. The idea behind this learning activity was to encourage students to become active researchers rather than passive readers for each and every seminar discussion. In previous years, I have had students develop a reading journal, but found this ineffective for a number of reasons:

  1. Students felt they took a great deal of time to complete each week, which would be better spent researching essays or completing other preparatory work.
  2. They were only read by me and therefore often reflected a desire to demonstrate that they had obtained the ‘correct’ answer rather than offer an exploration of the text.
  3. From my perspective, it took a great deal of time to mark and give feedback on weekly submissions and, considering their content, the value of this feedback was not clear.
Rather than leap head first into reading blogs, which have a wider audience but can be extremely daunting to first year students, I offered the student-annotated bibliography as a gentler middle-ground.
Each week, students complete 2-3 required readings on a given topic. They are then asked to obtain a 3rd or 4th reading on a similar topic from the university library. During the first few weeks I offered additional aids such as suggested keywords and shelf numbers. They then answered, in less than two sentences each, the following questions:
  1. Full citation
  2. What is the argument?
  3. What is the evidence used?
  4. Is the work convincing?
Ideally, these three questions should only take students a few minutes to complete and on-line submission  allows for the work to be completed at any time during the day. 
After removing the students names, I can quickly compile the list into an annotated bibliography for students to use in their essay research. By pulling their efforts, they can explore a much wider range of reading as well as obtain more information about stray comments from their peers in class. Although these are still un-assessed pieces of work, website controls allow me to restrict viewing to those students who have completed the assignment for any given week, offering a potential carrot for timely and consistent completion.
After 4 weeks, I am very much impressed by the general quality of their submissions, especially as many are first-year students with little practice in written critiques. Moreover, with only very minor exceptions, they have consistently pursued a wide range of scholarly literature and in only one case used a non-peer reviewed source. Although this project’s success will ultimately be decided by its impact on future research and writing projects, early indications are very promising.


So, after four weeks of teaching, how convinced am I that my students are learning as much as I am teaching? Although seminar silences are still prevalent and glazed eyes do occasionally stare back at me during lectures, I find myself increasingly convinced that my students are taking an active role in their learning. Although all three of these activities were un-assessed, I have had at least 98% of students fully complete the exercises, and all with surprising diligence. I am much more convinced of their ability and comprehension in week four than I have been in any other academic year and I am increasingly convinced that better assessment of learning needs to be implemented to replace the omni-present essay / exam regime.

They may not be memorising everything I say in lecture, but I am certain learning is occurring week-to-week.

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