Is this a record? A blog post that was started about three months ago that is only now seeing the light of day? Whatever about the realities of student life, the realities of my life are showing some creaks in my blogging scheme. But as the late great Leslie Nielsen said, that’s not important right now and instead I’m going to focus on what I did want to write about – namely ‘Teaching for the Realities of Student Life Today’. This was the theme of a recent Sipping Point teaching conversation session at DCU and it’s the theme of this blog post.
The goal of the above session was to develop awareness of common life challenges faced by many of our students and talk through some ideas that might help for the benefit of both students and lecturers. Dr Dónal Mulligan, DCU School of Communications, focused on commuting-related issues he is increasingly witnessing and gave some ideas for potential approaches to consider. Dr Claire Bohan, DCU Director of Student Support & Development, presented a timely snapshot of the types of issues reported by students and shared insights on what seems to make a difference. What follows is a quick rundown on what was discussed.
Dónal Mulligan began by exploring some of the issues about the impact of commuting on the educational experience, particularly when compared with student renting models that might have been pretty standard in the past. For starters, there is clearly a higher percentage of commuting students attending university today, illustrating the wider impact of exorbitant rent prices. Having conducted a straw poll of first year students in one undergraduate class, he discovered that 81% commute daily with more than half of those spending upwards of 90 minutes each way.
This trend is clearly having an impact on what is happening in the classroom: Dónal uses peer review extensively in his teaching and he has noticed an increasing perception of ‘lack of contribution’ being attributed to commuting students in group project peer reviews. In other words, commuting students were in some cases being seen as doing less work outside of class but in self-assessing their contributions, these same students did not seem to perceive this as an issue. This type of pattern “extending over multiple projects, or longer-term group-based work, increasingly isolates those students, with sometimes stark effects on grades, participation more generally, and wellbeing.” In programmes where group work is high stakes and indeed pivotal to the learning experience, this is obviously a very big deal for all concerned.
Claire Bohan then talked about the view from her side of the house, outlining a picture of the student body in terms of diversity and entry routes. She began by reminding us that the numbers of students at DCU have increased dramatically in recent years – there has been a 77% increase in student numbers since 2002 so perhaps not surprisingly there has been an increase in the demand for various student services. She then presented a snapshot of the types of issues reported by students and shared insights on what seems to help, including a sense of belonging and speedy access to advice.
Can lecturers make a difference?
Claire’s point about the value of informal reassurances from staff when interacting with students is also reflected in a useful chapter from Bamber & Jones (2015) that is worth checking out. Bamber & Jones advise that lecturers make efforts to build/facilitate community, and take steps to help students manage the learning process (eg time management) in conversations and guidance. Among Bamber & Jones’ other recommendations are a call for regular ‘reality checking’ in order to get a sense of topical and important student issues – a quick online poll or show of hands might be all it takes to get a powerful insight into the profile of students in the classroom and what matters to them at that time. Throughout the session the following questions and comments were made by those present:
- How to address the challenges of group work within the confines of 12 weeks? It was suggested that communicating a very clear rationale for why group work is happening helps and ideally this type of group work ‘induction’ should happen early in 1st year. Dónal now explicitly teaches team dynamics and project management (eg delegation, process, remote collaboration) as early as possible, even in just a 30 minute slot if that’s all that is possible. He has also developed an adaptable Google Forms-based tool to enhance self and peer review practice and facilitate early lecturer intervention in addressing/minimising potential group issues.
- What about the issue of loss of small/quiet spaces to work? This was acknowledged as an ongoing problem, with some good news that more spaces and furnishings are on the way to address. It was strongly recommended that for first years especially, it helps if rooms are booked for collaboration and if collaborative working sessions are timetabled during regular teaching hours – this can act to drive home the expectation that there is more to the process than simply showing up in class.
- There was an interesting comment that for many their friends on the train are their ‘real’ cohort of social friends at college, given the amount of time spent in their company.
- The timetabling question was raised – One attendee asked can it be rethought to enable more intensive teaching and time in the subject rather than fleeting hours here and there which may be much less effective.
- Might digital tech play a role in all of this? There were some reservations that simply putting course materials or activities online may not be as impactful as it might seem.
- Struggling students – what should the lecturer do when someone just doesn’t get it, despite repeated efforts to explain? Claire highlighted the success of the maths learning centre and encouraged referrals there if needed.
- Finally there was a comment that perhaps the loss of career guidance at second level could be affecting student expectations as to what their courses really involve.
There were some silver linings to it all with the news from Claire Bohan that a spanking new ‘Leadership and Life Skills Centre’ is being developed at DCU. As well as leadership programmes at different levels, this will include students creating their own Personal and Professional Development Plans aimed at addressing many of the challenges described above. The availability of mindfulness workshops was also praised, particularly given the difficulties some students may have with worrying and switching off. I’m quite sure there is much more to be written on this overall topic from both staff and student perspectives (eg the experiences of first-in-family students) but my own immediate realities are closing in and so that is it for me for now.
Bamber, V. & Jones, A., 2015. Challenging students: Enabling inclusive learning. A Handbook for Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 152-169.