Student Engagement Leader: NWMS Visiting Lecture, May 2014

Learning from our stateside partners from North West Missouri State University, Dr Michael Hull and Dr Rick Toomey delivered an inspiring workshop presentation around rethinking and developing our student engagement strategies. In their presentation, ‘More than the sum of its parts: The Student Engagement Leader in the First Year Experience’, they shared their expertise in developing lasting, memorable and (perhaps most importantly) impactful student experience activities in the classroom.

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(C) North West Missouri State University

These case studies offered insight into the benefits of the use of problem solving within the classroom to generate deeper engagement with content and its rationalisation, the use of student-response technologies to assist us in developing our own delivery and approaches to teaching, as well as highlighting the key significance of the use of partnership working and the role of the ‘Student Engagement Leader’ to foster support and positive relationship building.

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NWMS take over CELT office

Offering a candid account of their own areas of concern for development in the classroom, Hull and Toomey challenged us to rethink our approach to the perennial issues of how to assist in developing all students to a set of core standards; enabling those who fall short of that standard, whilst simultaneously stretching those who are well within its capacity. While academic capability is a small part of that engagement, they highlighted the impact that opportunities to engage on a deeper level has the benefit of developing a more meaningful engagement with course materials and assists in developing a long term relationships with both the material and the course. Through the continuous and on-going use of student-feedback technology within the classroom, academics are able to act in a responsive manner to areas that students identify as requiring further attention, in a dynamically reactive and responsive manner that builds trust and respect whilst affirming the value of our students’ opinions and contributions.

However, perhaps of most interest to me is the role of the Student Engagement Leader as a key figure in the development of such initiatives, the driver of student-led opinion, the provider of grounded context and the window of access that this offers in breaking down the imperceptible divide between the student and the academic. Long gone are the days of the academic as a supreme figure of authority in the classroom. University learning is about a shared engagement, and while the dynamics of expertise are still there, our student body have a lot more to offer than perhaps previously they have been given credit for. Move over and make way for the new breed of academic who is willing to take on the challenge.

Academic participation in activities such as these not only extend the offering to our students, but also enables a much closer and trusting relationship with our student body from the perspective of the staff. Teaching is a joy and so should the classroom environment be. Any steps that we can offer to redistribute that perception of power the better, I say. By placing students firmly in charge of their own learning, they not only become fully immersed, but so too do they develop significant engagement levels as a result. Aside from anything else, this extends the fun factor as a central part of their develop in the classroom context, and this extends to my own practice as an academic. Frequently I am surprised by my own students’ capacity to surprise me, in taking the odd risk, they get the opportunity to stretch their wings in an environment that is nurturing and safe. As academics it is our responsibility to build confidence in our students’ values in their own opinions and return to the core values of a higher education – to assist in developing the future thinkers of tomorrow. This is only possible if we allow them to think, to question and to challenge, and that includes us! Long live debate, dialogue and critique.

In a recent conversation surrounding flipped-classroom learning between a group of my own Film Cultures’ students and those from another course, the following dialogue took place:

Media student 1: We don’t do lectures in Film Cultures

Law student: What, no lectures?

Media student 2: No, we watch pre-recorded lectures online before we come to class and then we spend the session looking at what we want to look at

Law student: Doesn’t this mean that no-one comes to class?

Media student 1: Nope, full house. Kerry totally smashes it!

Media student 2: The workshops are totally focused around following our interests, but are linked to the lecture for that week and we always go off doing different things to investigate, like looking at marketing portfolios, doing audience research and star analysis in the media…

Media student 1: And then each of the groups present what they have found, and they are always on different stuff because the choices are ours

The overwhelming result is one of an engaged and committed class for those brave enough to try it. Having worked on some of these issues myself over the course of the last few years, I can wholeheartedly say that this has completely changed my approach to learning and teaching. As indicated above, the practice of flipped-classroom as one such development offers up a much more reactive environment to match the student needs. Each year group is different, with different interests, so rather than be led by horror and science fiction (as my own areas of research interest), the class guides the content, but within managed boundaries of inclusion. Far removed from the didactic approach to learning at the start of my own academic career, long lectures punctuated with small pockets of activity have been replaced with a focus upon student driven directives and activities which hang around a central core set of guiding principles – a process through which we are all happy and we all learn a thing or two in the process. But best of all feedback for both staff and students is constant and ongoing.

Thanks go to the Bearcats for both affirmation and further inspiration!

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