From the vault – reflections of a first time lecturer

A few years ago (2003, actually), I was a Visiting Lecturer in Roman Archaeology. This was my first experience of teaching a regular undergraduate class (my prior experience being in continuing education and with mature students). I was hired one week prior to the start of term, to teach a class designed by somebody else. This person had designed into the class an oral examination for the final assessment exercise. I had never conducted an oral examination before – or prepped anyone to take one – so that was really going to be difficult…

At the time, I was also enrolled in a post-graduate certificate in learning & teaching in higher education at the same institution. As part of the course work, I had to keep a reflective diary on my teaching (if I were doing it today I guess I would have kept the diary as a blog). I found that diary this morning while I was searching for something else, and it occurred to me that it might be of interest to others.

A lot has changed since then, so it is useful to have reminders of how things went down. I wrote the diary before the students took my oral exam…

Reflective Diary

The Reflective Diary is based on my experience teaching the ‘Cities of the Roman Empire: History, Architecture, Planning and Society’ class. The class was conducted over 12 sessions, between two to fours hours each in length. The following entries cover at least 20 hours’ worth of lectures.

October 14
Do my students understand what they are doing in my class? Do they see the point of what we are trying to accomplish?

Last week’s class felt like an overall flop – stony, unresponsive faces, no flicker of life anywhere. Part of the problem I think is that I tried to fit too much into one class. The contract says ‘four hours of teaching per week’, but that’s quite a tall order for just one meeting.

This week I tried to structure my lecture (‘Republican Africa and Other Urban Traditions’) around two or three themes. I kept coming back to these themes, hammering them again and again, over two hours with a fifteen minute break in between. The last two hours I kept open for anybody to come in and talk to me privately (not that anybody did – but the walk back to main campus was productive, as those fifteen minutes are filled with chit-chat about the class, and questions were asked that I think they felt would have been ‘too stupid’ to ask in front of their peers).

In today’s class, there was much more dialogue, with a backwards and forwards discussion of the ideas, with students bringing some of their own experiences to bear. One or two have some formal archaeological experience, which helps, and others have traveled. The Romans are not ‘just like us’, so experience of foreign cities/cultures helps get people into the right mindset.  One fellow – V – doesn’t speak much at all, which might be trouble (English is not his first language – does he understand what’s going on? He’s in his second year, so presumably yes).  I had assumed that all students had a prior background in Classical Civilisation if they were taking my course. One student, E, informed me that she has no idea what I am alluding to half the time, which I should have found out on day one. On the plus side, she is one of those students who has no fear of saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t get it’, which I think the rest of the class is secretly pleased about, because it forces me to slow down and rethink what I’m trying to say. When she says ‘whoa!’ I have to concentrate on ‘connecting-the-dots’, which is a difficulty I’ve always had in my academic work. I tend to assume that everybody else sees the same connections that I do.

This is the third class, and it is now dawning on me that I’ve pitched things at slightly the wrong level.  But as I get to know these students, I’m starting to make things ‘click’. My discussion about how built space affects society (and vice versa) was happily corroborated today. I asked them to think about the fact that there is only one small passageway connecting D College to F College. What did that suggest about the relationship between the two. ‘A’ said that the students at the two colleges compete fiercely against each other in all endeavors (and other students chimed in with their own experiences), which proved my point (built space is a reflection of social space).

They are quite nervous about the seminar presentations. I promised to do a model seminar for them next week, so that they could see what is expected.

October 20

I wanted to find out if the students were with me, following on from last week’s reflection (during the first few meetings my main concern was simply to get the class rolling. I think I was in panic mode, more worried about what I knew than on what my students were there for).  I also wanted to get them thinking about what I might ask them on the written exam (because there is an oral exam scheduled for this class, I think we are getting too fixated on the oral side. The written is worth more to the final mark after all!). After the main lecture and break, I asked the students to imagine the sort of question they might find on an exam for this class. I had in mind the mid-term examinations I used to do as an undergraduate in North America. We’re at the point in the calendar where a mid-term would’ve taken place there, although the academic year is shorter here.  We spent a few minutes doing this. Then I asked them to exchange their question with their neighbour, and in point form indicate the kinds of things that would go towards answering that question. Then I got them to read their question and answer points out to the class, and we discussed each question in turn to work out what a good answer to that question would involve.

Most of the questions all touched on the same two or three points from last week, so I know that that much of the lessons has got through – but the earlier ones did not (reasons for which see October 14!). V, whom I was worried about, came up with quite an excellent question, so it would seem that he is with me.  About half the class (mostly the third year students) are ‘getting it’, but the other half is not so switched on. Is it because they are simply that much less experienced?

Moving on, they were worried about doing the seminar presentations, about why they are doing it, and the terror of filling 20 minutes with their own work. I explained again that the concept is to provide case studies of the different issues I bring out in the lectures, and that 20 minutes, if you know your stuff, is not that difficult to fill. It is also training for the oral examination.  I began the model seminar, giving them a handout to critique for style and content. I was pleased that the major criticism was the lack of a structure or main points I was to cover. At the end, they were surprised by how fast the time went. I also want them to mark each other’s seminar presentations, using the same criteria as I use, so that when it comes time for the oral exam, they will have a good understanding of what constitutes an excellent presentation, and what the examiners are looking for.  In that spirit, I asked them to mark my performance so far in the class (anonymously).

I found out some hard truths. They liked the interaction between myself and them, the back-and-forth, but thought that everything went on for far too long. They also found my lectures hard to follow, and would like more illustrative material. What I found very interesting was that they wanted more of the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of classical archaeology: architectural orders, building types, straight history, etc. So much for my anthropological slant on the growth of cities!

What Kind of Teacher am I?

It can be difficult to stand back, and consider ‘objectively’ what kind of teaching style one employs. I used the Prosser and Trigwell (1999) ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ to evaluate my teaching style, with reference to my course, ‘Cities of the Roman Empire’. The course was already a month underway when I completed the inventory.

On the ‘sub-scale: conceptual change/student-focused approach’, my ‘intention items’ score was 17/20. I was pleased with this score, given what I think to be my philosophy of teaching. However, I wonder to what degree my high concurrence with the statement ‘I feel that it is better for students in this subject to generate their own notes rather that always copy mine’, reflects a certain amount of laziness on my part, rather than a ‘student-focussed’ approach to note-taking? While I believe that the action of note-taking, where the notes generated by the students themselves, creates a better chance of becoming lodged in the brain, perhaps it would be better to at least provide a note-framework for the students, to guide their note-taking?

With regard to the ‘strategy items’ in the student-focussed section, I scored 12/20.  My lowest scores centred on making teaching time available for the students to discuss the difficulties they have with the subject, and their changing understanding of the subject. Given that I believed myself to be a student-focused teacher, this might be an avenue to explore.

The most significant of the items under the teacher-focused approach inventory I believe concerned the assumptions I bring to my course design. Except in the case of first year classes (‘Cities of the Roman Empire’ is an upper years course), I have tended to make assumptions on what the students already know. While this makes planning and writing lectures simpler in the sense that I can ‘cut to the chase’ and discuss the aspects most interesting to myself, it usually back-fires in that I have to spend time on lengthy asides, filling in the details I had assumed the students already knew. However, I have already started to adapt, and my students only have to yell ‘whoa!’ three or four times a class now.

In general, my scores for the teacher-focused approach intention and strategy items were much lower than my scores for the student-focused approach. The inventory has highlighted aspects that I need to develop and change.

October 27

Today was the first of the seminar presentations. I have designed the seminars to act as preparation for the oral examination. This university has a defined set of criteria for oral presentation assessments. What I wanted to do was to use self and peer assessment to guide the students towards what an acceptable presentation during the exam would be like.  I prepared a handout two weeks ago called ‘Points to Ponder’. I directed the students to remember the learning outcomes for this class, and to structure their presentations around those outcomes. I also asked the students to write and hand in a brief synopsis of what they intended to accomplish during the seminar; after the seminar, they were to write a synopsis of what they did accomplish, and to indicate where they felt they could have made improvements.  For students listening and participating in the discussion, I prepared an anonymous marking sheet to hand in afterwards.  My idea was that these marking sheets would help the other students stay engaged, and would help them become familiar with what I as the tutor was looking for in a presentation. The following week I intended to discuss with the student how the seminar went, how the other students felt it went, and areas for improvement for the oral examination.

Three students presented. It soon became obvious that although the stronger students had understood what I intended for the presentations, the weaker student did not. Her information was solid, but her presentation did not convey the information to the rest of the class particularly well. Her presentation did however stimulate discussion in a way the stronger presentations did not.  This I think is partly explained by the class dynamic. The weaker student is usually very garrulous, and her sudden shyness elicited a sympathetic response from the class. The other two students were so confident in their material, that discussion was limited to technical points.  I need to spend some more time on the basics of presentations and public speaking. I did not penalize her as harshly as I might have, realizing that to a degree I did not adequately prepare her and that public speaking for the shy can be torture.

I was disappointed that the class on the whole did not take the peer-assessment exercise overly seriously. I had expected the marks on the peer-assessment sheets to tend towards the high side, but where a student circled all the ‘5’s I think it is fair to say that he or she was simply in a hurry to get out of the class-room.

Now that the course is moving into the seminar presentations, my former style of lecturing and discussion is not going to be appropriate. I have designed the seminar series to cover the learning outcomes in the course handbook, and I am relying on the students to give good presentations. I have explained to them that this phase of the class is no longer about me giving them information, but rather about them guiding all of us into new areas.  I’m trying to foster in them a sense of responsibility for their own learning by adopting an ‘all-for-one and one-for-all’ approach. I’m trying to harness peer-pressure for the greater good of the class, and create co-dependencies. If one of them does a good presentation, they will all gain; if one of them does a poor presentation, then they will all lose.  If that happens, then it will be up to me to guide the discussion and cover the relevant information. I have told them that there will be questions on the final exam based on their presentations.

In a sense, what I am trying to do has a basis in Game Theory. I have in mind the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, two individuals have been arrested and are held in separate cells. The police ask them to inform on each other. If they both remain silent, then the police can only arrest them for a lesser crime, and they only receive one year in prison. If one informs and one remains silent, the one who informs goes free and the one who remains silent receives a three year sentence. If they both inform, they will share the blame and receive a two year sentence.  If this game is played only once, the rational thing to do would be to inform because otherwise the prisoner could end with the very worst possible result. In this case, an equilibrium is reached with both prisoners informing. However, if they had both kept silent, they would have received the best possible outcome (Shennan 2002: 214).

In my version, by making the ‘pay-offs’ clear, I hope that the incentives to cooperate (and do the necessary work for a good presentation) will prove greater than the selfish desire to be lazy.  Game Theory suggests that the best pay-offs for everybody will be to cooperate, but we shall see.

November 24
While some of the presentations have been very good indeed, others have been simply deplorable.  I have made myself available after class, by appointment, and set up a dedicated email address for them to reach me, and no one has contacted me or come to me for extra help or guidance. This shows in the quality of their presentations. They cite their sources but rarely, and when they do, the source is not tremendously reliable. Most of the poor presentations have relied on the internet exclusively, and I get the impression that they were cobbled together immediately prior to class. On the other hand, the peer-assessment marks are beginning to converge with how I’ve been marking the presentations, so some of the message is getting through. I had to spend a good portion of today’s lecture by discussing with them the potentials and perils of websites, how to cite them properly, and what ‘peer-reviewed journal’ actually means for them as students.  I had done this a few sessions ago, but not in as great a depth as (evidently) I needed to.

Last week was our museum trip to the London Museum, to see its display on Roman Londinium. This was during the reading week, but I understood that many classes conducted field trips during this week. We had spent quite some time the week before arranging a day and time to meet that was convenient for everyone. On the agreed day, it rained quite hard. Although the museum is only 30 to 45 minutes from the University, only one student showed up. This was extremely disappointing, to say the least. After a forty minute wait, another student arrived. I had intended the visit to be fairly unstructured and allow students to follow their own interests and I would act as an extra resource for them during the visit. I had also envisioned a ‘treasure hunt’, with the students divided into two teams, searching for displays and artifacts which tied into the learning outcomes.

Today therefore I expressed my unhappiness with these recent developments. It is all well and good to try and structure my teaching around the needs and foci of the students, but if they do not participate…  Which leads to the question, did they not come because they are not engaging with the class? Or did they not come because they are simply lazy?  When I put the question to them directly, there was an embarrassed silence, and no response. Interestingly, each of them approached me individually afterwards with an excuse. Given that we had agreed a day and time and place, and that they all had ample opportunity to warn me ahead of time that they couldn’t make it for whatever reason, I’m inclined to think that our field trip fell victim to laziness.  I really don’t know what else I can do to engage these students.

December 15
When I started this course, I relied quite heavily on my lecture notes, and worked from the idea that ‘lecturers lecture’. This was not a particularly good strategy for a number of reasons. Formal lectures are a cost-effective way of delivering a large amount of information to a large number of people, but not necessarily for those people to retain that information. For the number of students in the Roman Cities class, it was in fact faintly ridiculous to be lecturing to them from a prepared text.  Asking ‘any questions?’ at the end did not achieve anything but a quiet stare.  I soon changed my style, abandoning formal lectures and lecture notes. I started to extemporize, actually talking with the students about the topic, rather than speaking at them.  This frequently touched off fierce discussion amongst the students themselves, with me needing only to speak now and again to guide the discussion around the learning outcomes.  My handouts became clearer and more structured as I began to rely on them to structure my lectures, rather than using pre-written lectures.

Looking back at the material that I have given to them, I think that the biggest mistake that I made was at the outset with the course handout. I did not divide up the bibliography into logical coherent sections, leaving them to decide which articles/books to read and to guess which would probably be relevant to the scheduled topic. If I were to do this again, I would be more careful about clearly indicating what should be read when, what was absolutely crucial, and so on.  I did in fact provide the students each week with photocopies of crucial articles and book excerpts (to forestall the inevitable ‘I tried the library, but the book/journal wasn’t there…’ whine) once I realized the mistake.

As for the seminars, after my quiet discussion with them about their responsibilities as students (and the fact that their success on the oral exam and the final exam depended to a certain extent on everybody doing their part in the presentations), the quality picked up again, and there was a marked improvement in attendance.  I think perhaps that when they thought I wouldn’t care about them attending, or doing well, they themselves cared little; when it became obvious that I was extremely disappointed in them, it helped re-kindle their own commitment to the class.  I think by the end of the twelve weeks we had established a compact of sorts.  At the end of class today, ‘A’ told me I was a ‘right jammy geezer’, which I assume is a good thing.

Over the last two weeks, my marks and their assessments of the seminars have coincided almost perfectly, so I am confident that they now know what to expect in an oral examination, and what constitutes a good presentation.