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. Although students do need to know that they will be challenged, should value the results more than the process, and those rewards may be slow to emerge (and indeed may not fully emerge during the activity itself).

We should frame the experience in terms of transformative and not transactional terms. We shouldn’t set students against teachers to the detriment of both. 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”. 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:

  • “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.

We claim to teach students how to cope with uncertainty and deal with ambiguity. But this clashes with a requirement for detailed course specifications and written policies that cover any and all conceivable situations. We should allow room for culture to shape expectations, not bureaucracy.

Higher education requires you to take an ambiguous question with a long deadline and manage your time such that you deliver effectively.
If you can’t do that, and don’t want to do that, why are you paying lots of money to buy a certificate that says that you can?

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. Some argue that student-led classrooms can waste teacher skill. 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:

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.

Is an exam grade feedback?

I believe it is, since it provides clear information about performance. A burst of laughter at a comedy show, a burst of applause at a concert, a groan of frustration at a football match — there are all examples of feedback.

They are not particularly useful feedback, however, since they are difficulty to use as a basis for improvement. Knowing that something worked or didn’t work is very different to understanding why. Therefore feedback needs to cover both functions: a measure of performance, and an explanation of the reasoning.

Should I give feedback?

Yes, because it is how students learn. According to Phil Race, we make learning happen under the following conditions:

  1. Striving to enhance our students’ want to learn;
  2. Helping students to develop ownership of the need to learn;
  3. Keeping students learning by doing, practice, trial-and-error, repetition
  4. Ensuring students get quick and useful feedback — from us and from each other
  5. Helping students to make sense of what they learn.
  6. Getting students deepening their learning by verbalising, explaining things to each other, and to us.
  7. Allowing students to further deepen their learning by assessing their own learning, and assessing others’ learning — making informed judgements

Hence feedback helps us to make sense of what we’ve done.

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.

Some academics (presenting at the Advance HE conference 2018) trialed the use of audio feedback. They reported that students appreciated the ability to pause/rewind; responded to tone of voice; and felt that it built rapport. Recording audio can be integrated with Blackboard of other learning platforms and could be especially useful for online courses to compensate for a lack of classroom interaction.

Do students want to receive feedback?

For continuous assessment students typically want feedback that is timely; critical (i.e. helps them to improve); and provides an indication of their final grade. Note that if the grade is the goal, once the final grade is provided the value of detailed feedback may be low.

A study by Northumbria University found that there were three sorts of student responses to feedback. Most students simply didn’t care — only the grade mattered to them. For many students feedback was important but only if it was applicable to other modules. Detailed corrections for the specific assignment weren’t valuable, because that assignment wasn’t going to be repeated. It was only a minority of students who believed that feedback helped continual improvement.

In my experience, another minority of students want feedback as a means of mounting a defence. They want as much information about grading as possible in order to challenge their grade.

Detailed feedback is therefore neither desired by a majority of students, nor is it desirable.

Perhaps though the problem is they don’t know what to do with feedback when they receive it. To remedy this you can ask students to perform a simple exercise. In receipt of feedback complete the following:

  • Feedback action points
  • Things I can do to improve this
  • Where I will use this in future

This may help break the cycle of students not knowing how to use feedback, and instructors wasting time providing feedback that isn’t even used.

Do students want to give feedback?

Asking for constant feedback can have a downside. Although canvassing opinion can be crucial for gauging student feelings, they can also come across as needy, inconsiderate, and a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing. Some alternatives are peer observation, and personal judgment/self-reflection.

Should I experiment?

The heavy reliance on student evaluations encouraged risk aversion. And yet we preach that a university is a safe environment for students to fail. Do we extend that to instructors? Do we permit experimentation and show students how to deal with failure?

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” (Barrett, 2012) or “see these devices as a distraction with a… negative impact on productivity.” (Beland & Murphy 2015).

“Technology will never replace teachers, however teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not” Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

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.

A good use of technology

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. 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 (which, according to this HBR article, is because “typing notes encourages verbatim, mindless transcription”, or “shallower processing”). Handwriting may make you smarter. Multi-tasking impedes efficiency, and students who use laptops distract those who don’t (also see here and here). Many professors now report success from banning laptops. 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.”

As Alexei Marcoux remarked on Facebook once, 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”.

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! So instead of banning laptops, maybe we should start teaching note taking.

What is learning, and how do we measure it?

Learning is the process by which we acquire new knowledge and skills.

As the video below shows, over the course of a year Karen X. Cheng learned how to dance. But how would we go about measuring that improvement? A judge’s scorecard? YouTube views? Isn’t the expression of confidence and enjoyment enough to recognise that she has indeed learnt? Perhaps instead of trying to measure learning gain we should just concentrate on putting in place the conditions required for learning.

Learning Gain

Usually we measure what we do through some combination of:

1. Exam results (i.e. meeting learning outcomes)
2. Attendance
3. Student responses (e.g. teaching evaluations or surveys)

But very few people advocate these metrics. We need to be very careful of student evaluations, for example, if they exhibit gender bias.

Is it a problem that student evaluations favour better looking teachers?

Not necessarily. Physically attractive teachers are likely to have more lucrative alternative career options, so the fact they’ve chosen the teaching profession may indicate a particular motivation. If students pay more attention to teachers they’re attracted to, this may increase their enjoyment and performance. And finally, if students believe that better looking teachers are better teachers, this can increase the teachers confidence and improve their ability.

Should we ridicule and frighten students?

There is a temptation that when instructors take on the role of audience (e.g. in a group presentation) we generate a confrontational environment. The Apprentice depicts boardrooms as a hostile place where shortcomings are ruthlessly highlighted and people are belittled. Academic environments can be similar, with many graduate students fearing presenting a paper to a workshop. Judges like Simon Cowell have their insults lined up, all ready to go.

These dynamics can be entertaining, and extremely competitive situations can improve performance. But we need to be careful.

I prefer Penn Jillette’s style of judging on ‘Fool Us’. He treats contestants as colleagues and relies only on the strength of his observation and feedback to justify his position of authority. Alan Sugar, Simon Cowell, and Gordon Ramsay (when he’s on TV) are entertainers. Jillette is a mentor.

Should we force students to attend class?

If it’s a legal requirement, for visa reasons, then most certainly. But even though attendance is correlated with student performance, there’s no strong evidence of causal impact. Rather, attendance coincides with other good study habits such as time spent outside of class. So although it is easy to incentivise attendance we can’t pretend that it’s in the students own interests.

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, according to the LSE, 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).The solution must surely come from utilising “assessment methodologies that cannot be contracted out so quickly and cheaply”. My current strategy is if ever I encounter a suspiciously 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.

Note: this article was first published on Sep 14, 2017 but has been updated routinely since then.