The Faculty Roundtable

This article is supposed to simulate a faculty lounge conversation, similar to Kitch, Edmund W., ed. 1983 “The Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Economics at Chicago, 1932–1970.” Journal of Law and Economics 26(1):163–234

How should students view themselves?

Students are not customers and we are not hotels, desperate to please a fickle populace. Although aspects of university services (for example library facilities, catering choices, or general cleanliness) should match expectations, and satisfaction feedback is appropriate, this doesn’t apply to taught content. We need to remove the pathetic “you said, we did” mentality. We know their educational journey better than they do because they’re still on it. And it might be hard to communicate effectively as to what this journey entails. So, if programme coherence isn’t possible we must highlight why variation is valuable. It’s a conscious, deliberate objective to cultivate epistemic fluency. We want students to appreciate that there are different ways of knowing, and they will sample many of them.

We are not a gym. We’re not being paid to make them suffer, to be a taskmaster, to exercise their organs. It’s not about how much “they” put in.

We should frame the experience in terms of transformative and not transactional terms. We are not service providers but a basis for joint responsibility and personal development. They will experience different rules, norms, and methods and that’s ok. They should sample each opportunity and judge it on its own terms.

What are we? We’re a business school.

Do students have different learning styles?

Not according to the many esteemed educators who wrote a letter to The Guardian claiming that there’s “no evidence to back idea of learning styles”.[1] Students undoubtedly learn in different ways, and it’s intuitively appealing to reflect on whether we have a more auditory, visual or kinesthetic preference. However the notion of specific learning styles can “lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.” Indeed the letter writers report that, “Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style”. Emphasis added.

Should professors tell students exactly what to expect?

A transparent and clearly communicated marking criteria is usually seen as being a standard requirement, and fits in with a university’s desire to provide assessment. However, in an interesting post, Frances Woolley pointed out some potential downsides:[2]

  • “Expectations anchor students. The minimum becomes the maximum, and limits what students achieve”
  • “Overly explicit expectations are an inadequate preparation for the real world”
  • “They create a contractual atmosphere”
  • “It’s a lot of effort to draw up a rubric, and if you draw up the rubric before you start grading the papers, you may get it wrong”

Do we want to test student’s ability to read and follow instructions (in which case surely there’s simpler ways?); or their ability to ascertain what matters? Do we want imitators or innovators?

I do use a rubric when grading, and give students a rough overview. But my concern with detailed ones is that students narrow their objectives, use it as a basis for negotiation, and gives false promise that we will eliminate any amounts of subjective judgment.

Should I lecture?

The reasons lecturing has survived for so long is because it’s robust. Anyone with a competent grasp of a subject can lecture successfully, and whilst some lectures can be dull and boring they almost always serve a purpose. Making sessions more participant-centred can generate some spectacular classroom experiences, and we should all try to achieve this. But be wary that a bad case discussion, or a bad simulation is a genuine waste of people’s time. A lecture is a good default and shouldn’t be undervalued. And a good lecture should be celebrated.

Should I be an authoritarian?

If you’re a teacher then you are an authority figure, and students are authority dependent. The quickest way to make students believe a course is good is to tell them that it’s good. So if the course really is good, say so! (It’s a sad dog that won’t wag it’s own tail). Don’t put yourself or your institution down. Take pride in your position and affiliations, and demonstrate positivity. You are a role model, so be a positive one.

Why don’t we have teaching awards?

We do, probably, in a far off land. And they’re a nice idea — they signal the importance of teaching, and recognise great performance by some teachers. The downside though is they have the potential to be divisive and reduce motivation amongst everyone else. If teaching awards aren’t communicated in a way that clearly demonstrates what is being rewarded, there’s zero chance it can be used for driving improvements. And if they’re simply a function of student evaluations… let’s not even go there.

Does content matter?

Yes, but as Alan Mortiboys says, we have three things to offer our students:[3]

1. Our subject expertise (which may be based on academic qualifications or professional experience).
2. Our knowledge about how to teach.
3. Our emotional intelligence.

Even if an instructor has excellent content and appropriate methods, classroom opportunities can be wasted if they fail to engage on an emotional level with students. We shouldn’t consider emotional intelligence to be an additional quality, but critical to good teaching. It shouldn’t be accidental, but part of our session planning. We should devote energy to getting it right.

Should I incorporate topical issues?

Students say that they want class material to be topical, but they also like structure and well thought out session plans. How does the flexibility to invite special guest lecturers, (or address current events) tie into increasing requirements to communicate content at the beginning of the semester, and release previous exam papers as a revision guide? My preference is to leave the course as is, but incorporate topical issues as a separate lecture. This has an added advantage of reaching students across multiple programmes, and gauging demand for such events. Crucially, the menu of such events should be presented to students as an integral part of their study, and not merely an incidental or random extra.

How should I give feedback?

Don’t underestimate the power of immediate, face-to-face feedback. For example: tone of voice; body language; facial expressions; eye contact. A simple thumbs up or continued eye contact until a student correctly answers a question is personal and powerful.

Should students be allowed to use laptops in the classroom?

We don’t want to be luddites. A principal in 1815 wrote,

“students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when we run out of paper?”

So let’s move with the times and not treat laptops as the enemy. As Zoe Hinton has put it, the dilemma is whether we “adapt to this new student and the way in which they learn by harnessing mobile technology”[4] or “see these devices as a distraction with a… negative impact on productivity.”[5]

Whilst the potential for distraction is obvious, many faculty believe that it’s their job to prompt student engagement. If you can’t compete with Facebook, this may be an important signal in terms of how interesting your material is. But then again, Facebook is designed to be addictive. Students get authentically anxious when they’re not on their phone. It’s a somewhat unfair battle.

We shouldn’t allow our misunderstanding of technology impede its use. Remember the photo of children beneath Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in Amsterdam, all glued to their smartphones? When in fact they’d already spent time studying it and were now completing an assignment utilising the museum’s pioneering app.[6] Students use their devices in a way we may not immediately recognise, and if this is the case, it can be disruptive to ban them. But some faculty would point out the evidence that note taking by hand leads to better knowledge retention than by computer[7], that multi-tasking impedes efficiency,[8] and students who use laptops distract those who try not to[9]. As Clay Shirkey says,

“Students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.” [10]

As Alexei Marcoux has remarked, students aren’t court stenographers. There, the objective is faithful transcription so “the mental focus is on words” and it can be done in a disengaged manner. By contrast “note taking requires mental focus on ideas, to separate the (literally) noteworthy from the noise”[11]

Students may point out that the workplace is shifting to a paperless system and their way of doing things is better suited to the future.

But we’re not meant to replicate the workplace! We’re a place of learning![12] So instead of banning laptops, maybe we should start teaching note taking.

How should I respond when students arrive late?

Some faculty members lock the classroom door to make it impossible for students to arrive late. Others will stop the class and publicly embarrass latecomers. Others will shame late comers by shunning them.

Some have just given up.

How can I verify whether students are signing in for each other?

A quick headcount can be an effective way to estimate whether there are phantom students present (i.e. those on the attendance sheet but not in the classroom). In the present of phantoms, the best way is with an old fashioned roll call. Unfortunately when you come across someone who is signed in but not present you cannot penalise them (they’re not there!) and you cannot ascertain who signed in on their behalf. But you can ensure that they are marked as absent, and that you are taking the matter seriously.

Making students realise that they are being monitored is sometimes all it takes. Prior to handing out an attendance sheet I take a quick headcount and write the number at the top of the sheet. That often works.

How can I ensure students bring their namecards?

The best way is to incentivise it through a participation grade. If students forget their name cards it is relatively easy to create their own, and this has the added benefit of being more likely to reveal the name by which they wish to be called. If a student raises their hand you don’t want to say, “go ahead, [squints] Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff”.

Should all students in the same group get the same grade?

Generally speaking, this is how most faculty operate. But one option is to require them to do a presentation and then grade them orally. If there are significant problems with group work (i.e. free riding) faculty can discuss the matter with all group members and then if appropriate penalise the individual concerned. In some cases it may be appropriate to raise the grade of the remaining members.

How can I prevent free riding?

Free riding is a fact of life! Students need to get used to it, and get experience at finding ways to deal with it.

Having said that, some students care greatly about their grade and are motivated to do well. They shouldn’t be penalised if they are randomly assigned a group mate who genuinely doesn’t care.

Some faculty members will offer dysfunctional groups individual grades but only as a last resort (i.e. following evidence of attempts at resolution) and only if the problems were raised in advance.

Is contract cheating a problem?

Yes. “Contract cheating” is where students pay companies to complete assignments on their behalf. Interestingly there’s a vast gulf between how serious the problem is seen by students (who feel an appropriate response is to fail the paper), compared to the UK higher education sector standard (which states that the student should be expelled).[13] The solution must surely come from utilising “assessment methodologies that cannot be contracted out so quickly and cheaply”.[14] My current strategy is if ever I encounter an especially good sentence I Google it, and invariably find a source. However, although that works against plagiarism, custom-made essays are an entirely different beast. More needs to be done.

Endnotes:

[1] “No evidence to back idea of learning styles”, The Guardian, March 12th 2017 [https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/12/no-evidence-to-back-idea-of-learning-styles Accessed April 2017]

[2] Wooley, F., “Should professors tell students exactly what they expect?” Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, April 2017 [http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2017/04/should-professors-tell-students-exactly-what-they-expect.html]

[3] Mortiboys, A., 2006 “Teaching with emotional intelligence”, Higher Education Academy, [https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/2237_Teaching_with_Emotional_intell]

[4] Barrett, 2012

[5] Beland & Murphy 2015

[6] See Picardo, J., “Technology and the death of civilization”, Medium, January 2016 [https://medium.com/@josepicardoshs/technology-and-the-death-of-civilisation-5e831b3f8b5]

[7] McGloin, M., “Largely because typing notes encourages verbatim, mindless transcription”, “What you miss when you take notes on your laptop”, Harvard Business Review, Jul 31, 2015. Also see Hotz, R.L., “Can handwriting make you smarter?” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2016.

[8] Strauss, V., “Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology in class”, Washington Post, September 2014

[9] Strauss, V., “Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology in class”, Washington Post, September 2014

[10] Strauss, V., “Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology in class”, Washington Post, September 2014

[11] via Facebook

[12] This is a great account of why one professor banned laptops: Gross, T., “This year, I resolve to ban laptops from my classroom”, Washington Post, December 30, 2014

[13] Newton, P.M., and Draper, M.J., “University students are buying assignments — what could, or should, be done about it?” LSE Blogs, February 2017 [http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/02/28/university-students-are-buying-assignments-what-could-or-should-be-done-about-it/]

[14] Ibid.

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