Observation by Tutor – 6/6

“Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of. “
Socrates (Quoted in Xenophon’s “Economics”)

“To question well is to teach well.”  Henry Barnard, American Journal of Education, 1860

Chrissi Nerantzi observed me on 26th October when I was teaching a three-hour Radio News session to first year undergraduates on the Journalism BA.  There’s a maximum of twenty students in the class.  The session was about finding news stories so the first part of the session involved them getting together in small groups to discuss ways and places they could look for original story ideas.  They then fed back to the class and I asked questions.

This class of students is very engaged and their discussions are always well-focused.  They feed back to the class with confidence and are happy to question and challenge each other so this approach, I think, works well with them.  It’s also fair to say that I enjoy this kind of approach because it usually produces something unexpected!  It also enables me to get to know the students much better.

However, the feedback with Chrissi a few days later has really made me think about the way I handle these discussions and group exercises.  She observed that after I have asked a question, I don’t give students enough time to answer before providing the answer.  This was quite a surprise!  Obviously, in my head I DO give them plenty of time to answer but it seems this doesn’t actually happen in reality.

So since this conversation with Chrissi, I’ve started “observing” myself in class (and other situations!).  And it turns out she’s right!!  I do indeed have a tendency to leap in when I don’t get an immediate answer.

Why do I do this?  Hmmm, let me think about that for a moment.  (See what I did there?!)  I think it’s because I don’t like the silence of the pause.  I feel that, as the teacher, I should keep the session moving and waiting for students to find the answer to my question wastes time for everyone.  I also worry that the student is embarrassed and I’m just prolonging their agony if they don’t know how to answer.  It seems fairer to put them out of their misery and move on rather than keeping the whole class STARING at them expectantly, waiting for the answer.

So why do I ask questions in the first place?  I’m trying to tease out the information or an analysis of a problem.  I want them to draw on their existing knowledge and use it to construct the next level.  In an ideal situation, I want them to realise that they already have a lot of the skills and experience they need to solve a problem but they need to apply it differently.  I want the students listening to the discussion to benefit from the Q&A too.  How would they have answered the question?  I also want to keep the students engaged and alert rather than passive receiving information.  By asking them questions, I’m also assessing their knowledge.

So I see it as a really important part of my classes – which is why it’s important for me to ensure I’m getting the most out of the process.  I suspect I’m squandering a lot of very good learning opportunities by leaping in too soon with my own response to the question.

What type of questions do I put to students?  Whatever pops into my head, usually!  But perhaps I should think about this question more seriously.  There are different types of questioning.  Convergent questions are asked with a correct answer in mind.  Divergent questions are more explorative.  For example, how can a student use the experience of an exercise she’s just done to explain a particular concept.  This sort of questioning is trickier because it needs to be properly guided by the teacher.  How long do you let the student ramble before jumping in to do it yourself?!  (Biggs and Tang 2011)

But there are other ways of categorising questions – high-level and low-level questions – and this ties in with Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives.  High-level questions require students to analyse and hypothesise.  Low-level questions require the students to recall answers.  (Biggs and Tang 2011)

I think all types of questions are valid in different situations.  When teaching students how to use a particular piece of technology, I need to question them to make sure they can recall the correct sample rate to use when recording audio.  It may be a low-level question but it is extremely important!  However, when they are debating the newsworthiness of a particular story, they are required to perform activities from the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and so higher-level questioning becomes natural in this situation.

HOW am I asking questions?  Ah, it feels like we’re getting to the nub of the problem here.

“Wait time” is a concept explored by Mary Budd Rowe initially in the seventies.  She carried out extensive research on “wait time” and found that typically teachers wait between 0.7″ and 1.4″ for an answer (this is reassuring!  I’m not the only impatient teacher out there) whereas leaving just 3″ of silence after asking a question led to students answering more successfully and more deeply and, interestingly, more confidently.  Perhaps that’s because the student feels that by giving her time you really, really want to hear what SHE thinks rather than asking her to come up with the answer that’s already in the teacher’s head.

Unfortunately, there is little immediate help for those of us who find the optimum wait time so hard to achieve.  Rowe even describes using an electronic device to flash a green light at a teacher when she’s waited long enough for an answer!  This, apparently, had limited success in changing entrenched habits.
Biggs and Tang are similarly unhelpful.  They suggest waiting up to 30″ for a student to answer a divergent question (citing Ellsworth et al. 1991).
If you might feel embarrassed by 30 seconds of silence, work out ways of not being embarrassed.” (Biggs, J & Tang, C 2011 p150)
I think my students would feel more embarrassed than I would, to be honest!  I think working up to 3″ of wait time is a more realistic goal for me at the moment.
I’ve not tried doing this consciously in class yet and I think it would require a very conscious effort to achieve this.  I think it would have an impact on the whole pace of my teaching.  I know I talk too fast (again, something which came up in my post-observation feedback with Chrissi but which I was aware of myself) so perhaps lengthening out the wait time would influence other areas of my speaking.  I’m going to continue to “observe” myself teaching – and perhaps in other areas too – to see if I can make myself wait 3″.  I will then reflect on how the extended wait time influenced the discussion and the pace of the class as a whole.  How will I feel about that terrifying silence?  I don’t know.  But having read the research which supports the value of an extended wait time, I think I will have more confidence to accept the silence.

What about Socratic questioning?  Socratic questioning is a process whereby students are guided towards a solution by answering questions posed by the teacher.  The questions are designed to enable the student to build on existing knowledge and/or experience in order to reach the required conclusion/answer.  The role of the teacher is to keep the discussion focused, follow up on the students’ answers and invite elaboration.  Socratic questioning is used to develop students’ critical thinking skills through active interaction between students and between the student and teacher. (Paul 1993 cited in Yang, Newby & Bill 2005).  Whilst the literature and case studies are fascinating, Socratic questioning seems to impose a purist structure on the classroom, an orthodoxy which can become an end in itself.  Does it elevate the art of debate above the need to ensure students are able to apply, analyse or explain new skills and concepts?

I think it is more useful as a background philosophy to inform an individual’s use of classroom discussion.  The art of questioning is such an individual process, dependent on personality, subject matter, student experience and interest that an over-reliance on a rigid structure could prove disastrous.

So this observation and the feedback with Chrissi afterwards has really made me reflect on the way I lead discussions in class.  But it’s also helped me find some interesting research into the subject so I can better understand the use of questioning and the importance of “wait time.”  There are lots of useful tips for teachers on questioning out there which I’m going to explore and I’ll try incorporating some of the more appropriate ones into my teaching next semester in keeping with UK PSF A3-A5.


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University.  Maidenhead. Open University Press

McComas, W.F. & Abraham, L. (2004) Asking More Effective Questions. USC Centre for Excellence in Teaching.  http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/material_docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf

Rowe, M. (1986) Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up!   Journal of Teacher Education 1986; 37(43) DOI: 10.1177/002248718603700110

Yang, Y., Newby, T., Bill, R. (2005) Using Socratic Questioning to Promote Critical Thinking Skills Through Asynchronous Discussion Forums in Distance Learning Environments.  The American Journal of Distance education, 19(3), pp163-181

Using Socratic Questioning (2012). Retrieved 10.12.12. from http://tfsc.uark.edu/180.php


Reflections before Professional Discussion

Well, I’m sitting in my local cafe trying to keep warm because my boiler’s been broken since Wednesday and it’s really quite chilly working from home. Do you think I should apply for a PMC on this assessment? 🙂


I’m looking back through my notes from the webinar and the session last week when I got together with my PGCAP peers to prepare for the professional discussion. I’m rereading my educational autobiography to see the journey that I’ve been on. I think I’ve found inspiration for my Lego model, at least! In my portfolio, I described being thrown in at the deep end when I started teaching last year. I felt isolated and unsupported. So I might make a model of myself at the bottom of a pit! There are no windows so I can’t see what other teachers are doing. I’m very much on my own. There are no resources down there so I have to rely on my own past experiences of learning and my own preconceptions. There isn’t much space down there and it’s dark so I can’t see what I’m doing to reflect on it! I coped and I like to think my students learnt something but I knew I was very
The PGCAP has enabled me to climb out of the pit and into the wide open spaces! It took a while for my eyes to grow accustomed to the light. But out here in the open I can see things much more clearly and I can engage with other teachers and learn from them. I can access lots of useful resources and learning. The light means I can be far more creative in my teaching. The extra space inspires me to experiment and take risks. I am now part of the wider university rather than being on my own, working in isolation.

Looking back at the goals you had set at the beginning of this module, would you say that you have achieved these and to what extent?
1. Become more reflective. I had very limited reflection at the start. I was often tempted to blame the students rather than reflect on my own practice. I’m much more able to reflect now – evaluate my practice and identify ways to move forward. Eg So much of what I did last year was standing at the front talking. I’ve been able to reflect on this from a student centric point of view, understand more about diverse learning communities, how students learn, and think about how I can put this into practice. I realised I needed to increase students’ active engagement with the subject – get them to do more stuff in class. Why should I write stuff on the board? They can come up and tell me what they know and between them they’ll get it.
2. Evaluate my teaching in the light of huge changes to my core subject – journalism. I’m getting involved in online communities to exchange ideas and learn more about developments in pedagogy in my area in keeping with UKPSF.
3. Using learning technologies. I’ve definitely embraced this because it’s also such an important part of journalism these days. It’s a vital part of lifelong learning that’ll part of institutions-wide ILOs. So I loved the fact that the PGCAP used so many different tools to engage students. I’ve been applying that in my own course with varying degrees of success. Some students like it more than others and I need to find ways of making it more appealing. I’m making much more use of the VLE than I ever used to and I think it helps engage different students in different ways. Eg wiki.
4. Create appropriate Leaning Outcomes aligned to the assessments. Through my wider reading, I’ve learnt so much about the importance of trapping students into a circle of learning! Now instead of just telling them what I’m gong to do in each lesson, I give them ILOs which are focused on their activities and give them guide to what is expected from them. My teaching activities are aligned to these. Eg a big part of the module is developing the students’ news judgement. Through a better understanding of learning outcomes and alignment, I thought about different ways of getting students to APPLY news judgement – rather than just listening to me take about it! Eg I got them to listen to a bulletin and discuss the news value of each item, why each story was in that bulletin, should it be. The students didn’t necessarily agree and so had to defend their positions. In fact, it sounded like a real life editorial meeting! I hadn’t expected that so I was really pleased and I can now develop this for next time. Reflection in action. The was also a strong level of assessment including peer assessment as they listened and challenged and reassessed their understanding.
5. Need to learn more from relevant literature on teaching/learning in HE. This is an ongoing process but the more I engage, the more confidence I have to experiment and explore because what I’m doing is informed by evidence. Usually….!

What does achieving these things mean to me?
It means I’m out of that deep pit and feel part of the university’s learning environment. I feel I’m doing the best I possibly can for my students.

What challenges did I encounter and how did I overcome them?

This has all been very new to me. I had felt very isolated from the university community. My peers have helped enormously.

What have I learnt about myself as a practitioner in HE?</strong

I can talk spontaneously so I can let go a bit. I used to think I had to script every minute of the 3hr sessions because I was terrified of running out of material – a broadcaster’s nightmare. But I’m not a broadcaster, I’m a teacher and it’s OK to observe, reflect in action how things are going and just go with the flow.

I do reflect in and on action. See above! I’m always making notes of things to do differently next time – more of this, less of this, what about this.

I’m impatient and need to think more about how I use questioning in class. This came about from a post observation conversation with Chrissi. I was initially surprised but I’ve “observed” myself since then and she’s right. I need to reflect more on this. I think it’s because I can’t bear the silence, the thought of losing time whilst somebody thinks. So I need to find strategies for dealing with the waiting time, encouraging students to take time to answer. I need to read some relevant literature on Socratic questioning and think about how I could apply this. I shall rite a reflective post on this – perhaps in the form of Socratic questioning?!

I’m approachable. I care about my students. I’ve out a lot of effort into getting to know them, not just their names but also a few facts about what they’re interested in, what experience they bring to the class. My students know they can come to me in breaks and after class, they often email questions or ideas asking for feedback. It’s time consuming but feels important.

I’m prepared to take risks and experiment. The PGCAP has given me permission to do this! I love trying new things eg the Dragon’s Den game which I’ve now “sold” to Julia! I was even brave enough to ask for feedback from the students and will incorporate that into my reflection on the game and how I could improve it.

I need to learn how to critically engage with literature. This is important in terms of my broader academic development since I am involved in a research paper! I’m booked onto Victoria’s writing course and I’m going to seek advice from some ex radio journalists I know who are making a similar transition from journalistic to academic writing.

I enjoy using technology.. I’m quite evangelical about this. Venture capitalist, Fred Wilson, writes about giving a talk at NYU Poly and being asked what advice he had for someone “who isn’t technical.” “They should try to get technical, ” he replied. This has been my inspiration this year! I’ve made myself try all sorts of new stuff I’d always avoided on the grounds of not being technical. I started to learn JavaScript and have set p a coding club at school. More importantly, I’m trying to incorporate different technology into my teaching and encourage students to embrace different ways of engaging this way eg wiki where they can add any information about useful digital tools they come across. I love the way the PGCAP uses different technology which has helped to push me further in this direction. I’d love to pursue it further and prove that ANYONE can get technical if they make that decision. It’s part of lifelong learning which I’m trying to pass on to my students. It also helps to engage students in different ways.


What impact did your engagement with the module have on your thinking and practice?
I’ve become more creative in my teaching. The module taught me the importance of creativity and gave me confidence. I’m particularly interested in the importance of creative play to that students are able actively engage with the learning. I’ve also realised that I’m much more visual than I thought and I can utilise that in my storytelling, for example.
In fact, storytelling itself has been another revelation. I’d not really that of that as a teaching tool before. But being asked to give a presentation to my peers about storytelling helped me to look at it in a whole new light. Storytelling enables us to see situations from multiple viewpoints. I’ve used this to help students prepare for their Newsdays by producing a strip cartoon! Without the PGCAP, I would never have considered doing this!
My relationship with the students has changed. I reflected on this a great deal in the early weeks of the PGCAP. I realised I’d allowed a barrier to come between us. It felt wrong but I think I was just trying to replicate how I’d been taught. Through discussions with peers, observations and engagement with the literature, I’ve been able to evaluate my actions through the students’ eyes and come up with a very different approach which actually feels more natural, more me. I’ve done really simple things like name badges in week 1 and 2. I also took a leaf out of Chrissi’s book and got students to take photos of themselves holding up their names and unaided them to our Flickr account. I can now have that set of photos on my iPad at the start of the session so I’m able to greet each student by name. That just feels nice! I encourage interaction online and in class. I really care about my students and I think that enables them to do the best they can because they are perhaps less anxious about assessments, for example. I tell them I’m looking forward to seeing their work!
I’ve helped students catch up when they’ve been off sick and asked for help. Apparently, I was the only tutor who did this which shocks me.
This relationship is important because it creates a positive learning environment. They know I’m on their side.

What further development plans linked to teaching and learning to y have for the near future?
I’m going to think more about how I use questioning in class with my students. This came to light following an observation discussion with Chrissi. See above.
Academic writing
I’m going to continue to engage in CPD by accessing more literature on teaching/learning in general and specifically n my subject area. I’m going to continue to connect with fellow journalism teachers.
I’m going to develop different approaches to feedback and assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching. Eg I created a fairly realistic newsroom activity in class whereby students had to listen to an interview from the Today programme and find a 20″ clip they could use in the next news bulletin. They did this individually and my plan had been to go round the class talking to them individually about what they’d chosen and why. But as the session developed, I had an idea for doing it very differently because it would take ages to go round to everyone and boring for the others who were waiting. So I got them to stand up and find other people who’d chosen the same clip as them so we’d eventually have several groups of students. It meant they had to discuss the exercise with each other. I also meant we could see immediately that different students had chosen different clips it one had been much more popular. One poor student found herself in a group of one but was brave enough to stick to her guns! So there was lots to talk about and reflect on and it was a great way of us all giving feedback in different collaborative ways. I actually agreed with the solitary student, btw!! We then found ways to develop the task further.

Observation by mentor – constructive alignment 5/6

The final observation of the module was when my PGCAP mentor, Dave Randles, came to watch my session on Building a Radio Bulletin on 09.11.12.  Dave lectures in online, sport and digital journalism amongst other things.

As I wrote in my pre-observation form, I was mainly interested in discussing constructive alignment – whether Dave felt that the teaching/learning activities I introduced in class where aligned with the intended learning outcomes I’d written for the session and with the assessment (which I hadn’t written).  The assessment (the second one they do this module) comes in two parts:-

1) They participate in two Newsdays during which they run a newsroom and produce bulletins of radio news to a specified length at specified times.

2) They individually produce and submit a recording of a 3.5 minute radio news bulletin they’ve made which must include at least one story they have originated themselves.  They also write a commentary in which they reflect on how they went about the task, what they learnt, what they need to work on to improve.

Were my students ‘entrapped’ in a web of consistency? (Biggs and Tang 2011)

I thought it would be interesting to look back to how I’d planned this session with last year’s students (i.e. my first year teaching).  This was my introductory slide then:-

Not many verbs there.  I was simply listing the topics to be covered.  I wasn’t thinking about what and how I wanted students to learn, to what level and how that related to the assessment.  As a result, I suspect my students weren’t thinking about these things either.  I’d basically just given them my timetable for the next three hours!  It was a teacher-centric, Level 1 approach.

This year, I started from scratch and tried to think in a more student-centric way in keeping with UKPSF K3.  This is what I came up with:-

I’m not saying these are perfect but I can see an improvement.  I used Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) and the revised version (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001) to devise ILOs using verbs appropriate to the kind of “understanding” I wanted students to achieve.  I also made reference to the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982 cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) to help me define the level of understanding I wanted the students to achieve.  Most of the verbs I chose would suggest I’m seeking a relational approach – can students compare and contrast different bulletin styles to draw conclusions about how they could produce their own bulletin for a target audience?

In this way, I think my learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities and assessment were aligned in this session.

The other element comes from “constructivism” whereby students construct meaning from what they do to learn.  I definitely did not do this last year.  I cringe as I write this!  In order to get students to understand (NB vague verb) that there are different kinds of news and bulletin styles for different audiences and networks, I played the students a series of examples and after each one gave them information about the station’s target audience etc.  No wonder their eyes glazed over!

This year I used the same exercise (with updated examples, obviously) but flipped it round.  I put the bulletins on Blackboard and divided the students into groups.  Each group listened to one bulletin, analysed it (I gave them some suggested questions to think about) and did a bit of research about the radio station to set it all in context.  They then presented to the class so I could assess their understanding, question them and get the whole class to further explore the issues raised.  This teaching/learning activity, I hoped, would help them to to build their understanding of how bulletins vary considerably depending on a station’s news values and target audience.  I feel this approach more closely fits in to UKPSF A3, A4, K3, K4.  However, in order to improve, I need to think more about K5.  How can I evaluate this approach?  Do I note the quality and depth of the students’ analysis?  Do I look at the quality of work in their assessment?

Dave and I discussed this constructive alignment approach and he said he could see clearly how my ILOs and TLAs fitted into the finished product – the assessment.  He observed how well the students engaged with the activity beyond what he would expect from a first year group.  He noted that every single member of each group spoke up during the feedback to class – something which I hadn’t explicitly required of them.  This felt very positive and suggested that the students were motivated to learn in this scenario, possibly because they could see the link between the TLAs and the assessment.

As we discussed constructive alignment, we found it hard to think how you could avoid it in a journalism course!  To adapt Biggs and Tang (2011)’s driving instructor analogy – the intention is that students learn how to be journalists, the teaching focuses on doing journalism while the assessment provides feedback and grades a piece of journalism they produce and how they went about the task.

Having said that, I managed to avoid it last year by focusing far too much on TLAs which were not aligned to the assessment and led to student passivity although at the time I thought I was giving them the appropriate knowledge to complete the assessments.  Engagement with the theory and practice of Constructive Alignment has enabled me to reflect on my previous teaching, identify teacher-centric approaches which discouraged deep learning, explore new ways of teaching, apply them and then evaluate how it went.  Thus I feel I have evidence to support my claim that I am thinking about and utilising UKPSF V3.

Dave then added that he too found himself doing too much of the work in classes instead of getting the students to construct their knowledge from their own activities.   So even though we agreed that constructive alignment was common sense, we were forced to admit that it was all too easy to slip back into traditional, teacher-centric roles and a level 1 approach to teaching during the actual sessions.

So although constructive alignment can seem like the golden bullet to solve all our problems – such as student passivity, surface learning – it still provides only a framework for our teaching.  It does not automatically make us better, more student-focused teachers.  Teachers still need to reflect in-action on their engagement with students and their use of questioning.

For example, Dave spotted a few occasions where I could have further questioned students as they were feeding back their analysis of bulletins.  I’m going to look in more detail at the use of questioning in a separate post because I think it’s something I do need to work on.  But in the context of this post, I’d like to suggest that although we agreed my TLAs were aligned well, I didn’t maximise their potential to construct student knowledge.  I find this very frustrating and wish I could go back and do it again!

I’m reassured (and challenged) by Dr Warren Houghton who was commissioned by the HEA Engineering Subject Centre to explore constructive alignment, its advantages and misinterpretations.

Constructive alignment is actually extremely difficult to achieve: it is virtually impossible to get it right first time, through so-called rational top-down course design. That is why the ILTHE, for example, emphasises the importance of the reflective practitioner; the teacher who constantly modifies course design and delivery, constantly trying to work closer to the unattainable perfect constructive alignment. (Houghton, W. 2004)

He continues by saying constructive alignment is only possible in an institutional system which allows “frequent modification of module descriptors.”  This is because the inevitable unintended but desirable learning outcomes should always inform course and assessment design in a constant process of reflection and evaluation.  Sadly, as a lowly, hourly-paid member of the teaching team, my input to module design may be minimal.  I may never get to achieve perfect constructive alignment!

But I do have control over how I design my learning sessions and how I check that the students have achieved the learning outcomes I designed.  So I disagree with the somewhat pessimistic powerlessness of Houghton’s predictions.  Instead of focusing on what I can’t change, I should ensure I’m making the most of my opportunities within the “delivery” of the module.

Assessment is the key part of ensuring the success of delivery because it has such a profound effect on student learning (Biggs & Tang 2011, Gibbs 2004 and others).  I grade and provide summative feedback on the two assessments but I’m also assessing how they perform specific journalistic tasks during the newsday simulations so I can observe and give feedback on a whole range of skills.  I provide formative feedback at several points during the news days too which they can then incorporate into their learning in order to continue improving their performance.  At the same time, peer-assessment is built in to the process because students are working as a team to produce the best on-air news bulletins they can.  They critique and select each other’s work.

In fact, exploring the literature on this subject and applying it to my module, I can see numerous ways in which I do give formative assessment throughout the module and opportunities where I could increase this.  I can see how assessment, properly done alongside teaching,  supports learning rather than being a separate entity especially when it fulfils key conditions such as timeliness, frequency, quantity.  Crucially it needs to focus on aspects the student can work on rather than personal characteristics which they have no hope of changing. (Gibbs 2004).

Formative feedback is built into the delivery of the module in informal ways too.  Students discuss their assignments with me, face to face or by email.  This enables me to see what conceptual changes have taken place during the module as a result of learning. Eg do they have a stronger sense of what makes a news story now?  If I see a problem, I can pose a question to encourage the student to go deeper or look again at a particular issue.  On several occasions, I’ve found this informal feedback has had a very positive effect on student learning.

I understand what you mean now, it will be coming from the wrong angle. To make this newsworthy I need to interview a local business near by to see how it’s affected.  (Extract from student email)

It also enables me to assess my own teaching – what difficulties can I see and how can I address those?  (Nicol et al 2004)

In most cases, it seems they start planning their assessment task quite early on – looking for a story, checking in with me for formative feedback.  So the assessment and learning take place simultaneously rather than rushed into the final few days before it has to be handed in.

However, in spite of the obvious benefits of formative feedback, I still find difficulties in providing it fairly to all students.  The students who put themselves forward receive more feedback than those who shyly hide at the back.  There are still one or two students who haven’t asked for any feedback at all during the preparation of their first assessment.  The first time they will get detailed feedback from me will be on their first assessment which they’ll receive very close to the end of their module.  I’m still considering ways in which I can assess these students earlier in the course but it’s difficult when they participate less in group work and discussions.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Houghton, Warren (2004) Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Learning and Teaching Theory for Engineering Academics. Loughborough: HEA Engineering Subject Centre.  Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/engineering/constructive-alignment

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 1. pp.1-31

Juwah, C., Macfarlane-Dick, D., Matthew, B., Nicol, D., Ross, D. and Smith, B. (2004) Enhancing student learning through effective formative feedback. HEA. At http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/resources/resourcedatabase/id353_senlef_guide.pdf

Group working – observation by peer 4/6

Having observed David Kreps’ teaching earlier in the course, it seemed appropriate that he should return the favour and observe mine.  He observed part of a three hour session with first year radio news students in which we were discussing newsworthiness and how to find news stories.

Shortly after the observation, David and I had a face-to-face discussion.

The first interesting comment was that my students were “quiet, compliant and attentive.”  I  felt proud to hear him say that.  What did that reveal about my relationship with my students? I think it shows that I care about them and I care what other people think about them.  I want them to shine!  I hope it also suggests that, between us, we’ve created a comfortable learning environment where people want to participate in activities that are meaningful to them.  This would comply with UKPSF A4:-

“Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance.”

The session consisted mainly of group work then coming together to share thoughts.  I wanted to find out David’s thoughts about how I handled this and whether this was an appropriate way to help the students achieve the intended learning outcomes I’d set out.

When we discussed the session, David said he felt I’d given clear instructions about the task the students were required to carry out and that I’d mingled to make sure everyone was happy doing what they were doing.  There was a “good mix between being present and leaving them to it.”

I find myself including more and more group work in my sessions.  By group work I mean tasks which rely on student-student interaction with minimal input from the teacher other than to outline the task.  Just from observation, I can see that my (quiet and compliant!) students engage really well with these kinds of tasks and their energy levels are much higher than if they’re simply sitting listening to me talking.  Abercrombie (1969) writes (cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) that, “students readily identify with each other’s learning in a way they do not do with top-down teacher-directed learning.”

I certainly enjoy setting group work and hearing the students’ discussions and conclusions.  However, the success of this approach does depend on the dynamic of the group.  My current group of students (the groups are selected purely on alphabetic order) is very engaged so the peer-to-peer learning works well.  They know each other well and are happy to work together towards a common goal.  With other groups, it can be harder to generate the right enthusiasm and focus; the size of the class is also significant.  I’ve taught  much smaller groups of students where there didn’t seem to be the same kind of willingness to cooperate.  Perhaps the students didn’t know each other so well.  Faced with a group of individual learners, it feels easier to adopt the “top-down techer-directed” approach.  So perhaps the first task of the teacher in these situations is to find ways to transform a group of individual learners into a co-operative!  I would like to think more about how I might achieve this.

Even when group work is going well, I do still struggle to determine what my role should be when students are engaged in the actual group work.  David said he liked the way I’d “dived in” to correct a student who’d made an incorrect assumption during the group discussion.  But I’m not so sure I should have done that.  If I’d left them to it, would the group dynamic, the student interaction have led them to that conclusion anyway as Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest?

“Some teachers find it hard not to correct a student, not to be seen as the expert or to arbitrate in disputes between students.  But to become the expert arbitrator kills the point of the exercise, as students then tend to sit back and wait to be told what to think.”  (Biggs, and Tang 2011, p165)

So I need to bite my tongue and hold back.  I know I’m very impatient.  It’s something I will try to observe in myself as I continue teaching and see if I can stand back more and let the peer-to-peer interactions work.  (Please see post 6/6 where I look at this specific point)

Jackson and Prosser (1989) observed in their study into introducing group work into a first year politics course that the teacher does need to yield some control in order for the students to benefit from the group work.

..that is precisely what some students need in order to be active. Since the prior education of both students and teachers has been that monitoring and correcting by the teacher are the only means of learning, small group activity can be confusing and distressing for both parties. At the very least students will be confronted by the variegated interpretations of their peers and they will have the responsibility of comparing, contrasting and criticising these interpretations for themselves. They cannot sit back and wait to be told the right answer, as they invariably are in conventional lectures and tutorials. Active learning in small groups is much more like life after graduation than lecture learning is. 

Group work is very well suited to journalism studies.  Indeed, a project to determine and share best practice was set up 2000-2004 called Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice (GWAMP).  The lead coordinator was the University of Bournemouth.  GWAMP includes a number of case studies and resources which I’m exploring with a view to picking out the elements most applicable to my students and my teaching aims.

But I also need to think about issues which could affect the functioning of group work.  Moon (2009) has looked at this primarily from the students’ viewpoint, providing tools for “academic assertiveness” to enable all students to benefit from collaborative work.  I am concerned that an over-reliance on group work and presenting back to the group could disenfranchise quieter students who may find it difficult to speak up.  Moon lists many factors that can be obstacles to group work so this is another area I need to explore so that I can find ways to allow all of my students to benefit from our teaching sessions in keeping with UKPSF V1, V2, V3.  In a session with a small group of international MA students, I experimented with writing rather than speaking their answers in one exercise.  It was interesting to see that the quietest student in the class who perhaps struggles to express herself clearly in English seemed much more comfortable with this.  She needed  a bit more time than the other students, but produced interesting answers.

In our conversation, David pointed out that not only the dynamic of the class but the environment could be a factor in successful group work.  He wondered if I’d tried using the communal facilities in mediaCity to create “breakout zones” where students could leave the confines of the classroom to work on an exercise in a different area.  This is definitely something I’m going to try and bring into my sessions.  I think it would work particularly well with my MA International Journalism group which consists of only 6 students.  We could go anywhere!  Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest “outside under the trees is preferable, weather permitting.”  There aren’t many trees in MediaCity and the weather rarely permits but the comfy sofas would be the next best thing.  This is something I need to reflect on more.

The discussion with David has made me think about how I can use more peer-to-peer interaction in my journalism teaching.  I think there’s scope to extend it further to get students to assess and feedback on each other’s work.  Certainly, this would align very well with professional industry practice where every piece of a journalist’s writing will be seen by a “second pair of eyes” and commented on.

In 2009, Rachel Matthews, a Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Coventry University wrote a paper for the Higher Education Academy about a trial she conducted with her journalism students.  Her students needed to be able to write court reports to a professional standard.  This required a lot of feedback to help them improve their writing style.  The problem was there wasn’t enough time to provide feedback in the traditional way – the teacher reading all the written work and providing feedback on it.  Plus, she wasn’t altogether convinced that kind of feedback was really having the desired effect.

So, she decided to get the students to assess each other’s writing and provide feedback “as a way of increasing opportunities for formative assessment in a way which actively engages students in the process and which is also practicable in terms of staff time.” (Matthews, 2009)

Significantly, she involved the students in setting the criteria by which their written work would be assessed.  Matthews reported that the final work submitted to staff at the end of the module was “very good.”

She concludes that, “peer-assessment is a valuable tool in explicating the standards required of journalism students and one which can be used in all spheres of journalism practice teaching.”  (Matthews, R. 2009)

I think there are potential problems with this approach.  It requires the students to be comfortable enough with each other to accept scrutiny from peers, something which Matthews acknowledges.  But more importantly, it relies on an assumption Matthews makes that students, as consumers of journalism, recognise good writing when they see it. I’m not convinced this is a safe assumption to make with first years.  They don’t listen to enough radio news yet to be familiar with the style of writing required.

Engaging with and assessing the value of existing subject-specific research is an important element of UKPSF A5 and will help with my continuing professional development.

I would still like to experiment with peer feedback in class, however.  I share Matthews’ problem that it is too time-consuming to read and provide feedback on a whole class’ writing exercises. I did get them to email me their work in the early stages of the module and I did spend a great deal of time providing feedback which was fine at that stage.  It’s not practical on a weekly basis so the next time I’ll provide full feedback will be on their actual assessments.

So in the meantime, getting their peers to look at their work might be a useful alternative.  It would certainly be another way to assess their levels of understanding because the feedback they give to peers would be as revealing as the written work they produce themselves.

In conclusion, the post-observation discussion with my peer, David Kreps, has set me on a new path which I hadn’t considered before.  I’m now going to take group work and student-student interaction much more seriously, monitor my own approach in facilitating these exercises and look for ways to extend it to peer assessment and feedback.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice.  Retrieved 07.11.12. http://www.cemp.ac.uk/themes/groupwork.php

Moon, J. ESCalate (Education Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy), corp creator. (2009) Making groups work : improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development.

Jackson, M. W., Prosser, M.T. (1989) Less lecturing, more learning.  Studies in higher Education,  Vol 14, Issue 1, pp. 55-68. doi:10.1080/03075078912331377612

Matthews, R (2009). The use of peer assessment to improve student journalists’ court reporting skills [electronic version] Higher Education Academy.  Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/adm/The-use-of-peer-assessment-to-improve-student-journalists-court-reporting-skills

Pre-Observation form for 09.11.12.

Pre-observation Form

Form for recording details for your teaching observation 

Observer’s Name Dave Randles

Date & Time 09.11.12.  10.00-11.00 

Location Room 3.19 MediaCity 

Module & Session title Radio News  – Building a Bulletin 

Number of learners – 20 ish 


These are first year BA Journalism students.  They hand in their first assessment on Friday 9th. 

Learning outcomes to be achieved during the session

  • Analyse different radio bulletin styles
  • Explain the purpose of radio bulletins
  • Create running orders in iNews
  • Design a radio bulletin
  • Prepare for the first Newsday!

Brief session outline

We’ll start by discussing their experiences recording interviews for use in their 1st assessment task.  Last week, most had said they were nervous about interviewing so I’m keen to share their thoughts about how the interviews went and what they learnt.

In groups – discuss a radio news bulletin I’ve recorded for them.  Each group has different one from a variety of stations (eg R4, Key 103, World Service).  They need to think about target audience, stories used, style, format.  Each group presents to the class.  Discussion.

Neil Salmon explains how to create running orders for bulletins in iNews.

Students play Fantasy News Bulletins – they design a bespoke news bulletin for a radio station they’ve invented (including designing a logo!)

We plan their 1st Newsday when they will be producing live bulletins.

Rationale for session

I’m trying to use constructive alignment here whereby “all components – intended learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities, assessment tasks and their grading – support each other, so the learner is enveloped within a supportive learning system.”

Are there any aspects of the session you would like the observer to focus on?

I would like you to focus on the constructive alignment – the learning outcomes, the activities I designed to achieve these and how I know that they have learned (assessment).

Remember to send this to your observer as far in advance of the session as possible.


Storytelling in higher education

Stories are a big part of my life.  In my professional career as a radio news journalist, I wrote stories constantly (and rewrote other people’s!)  And at home, my two young daughters love listening to stories, reading stories and writing stories.

Stories are how we make sense of the world.  They help us to formulate our thoughts and rationalise them to ourselves.  They’re how we relate experiences and events to other people.  We’re usually very good at storytelling in conversations, but we’re often less keen to write them down!

Stories have structure – a beginning, middle and an end – not necessarily in that order.  There’s some kind of a journey or process or transformation.  There are characters with different viewpoints.

My natural milieu for storytelling is the spoken word – very flat, black and white, non-visual, low-tech.  Julia’s form of storytelling is all about images and action.  Rob’s stories come to life through music and movement.  But what would happen if we all swapped?  How would that affect our stories?  Would they end up in the same place?

Now, thanks to the abundance of (mostly free) online tools for digital storytelling we can all try different, unfamiliar media for telling our stories.  I’m not arty or techy but digital technology helps me at least have a go at using images, video, animation and explore a whole new, richer side of storytelling.

It enables me to reach out to a whole new audience.

In the last year or so, Iv’e become a big fan of curation.  I use Storify which allows you to pull together all the content (text, images, video, audio) about a certain subject which people have shared on social media.  I can then choose the bits that interest me most and incorporate them into my own story in a way which acknowledges the original photographer or commenter.  I add background, context, narrative.  When you publish, Storify gives you the option to share your Storify with the people whose contributions you used – which can start a whole new conversation!

Curating appeals to me because it enables me to see an event through the eyes of lots of different people with first hand experience of it.  So much better than just using my own memory and a couple of photos I took.

And that is probably the most important aspect of storytelling and why it could be so useful in teaching.  Storytelling enables us to see a situation from a different character’s viewpoint.  Perhaps they could help us see situations from our students’ perspective…..

In a couple of weeks’ time, my 1st year students have their first Newsdays – a simulation of an actual newsroom where they have to output live news bulletins.  They are usually nervous, unsure, reluctant to volunteer and the first one usually goes a bit wrong because they haven’t prepared enough.  But they end up loving it and usually tell us the news days are the highpoint of the whole module!  “I finally get radio now,” one student told me.

How can I convey this to my students?  Well, I’m a teacher and the way university teachers communicate with their students is through bullet points, right?  I should write a list of bullet points:-

  1. Thou shalt do this…..
  2. Thou shalt not do this….

But maybe there’s another way.  Bullet points are all about how I see the Newsdays rather than how the students see them.  Perhaps I should turn things around and try to get inside the head of a student facing their first Newsday?  So this is how I ended up doing it…

What do you think?  Too cheesy?
I don’t know but I’m glad I gave it a go.  It’s up on Blackboard for the students to see.
And once they’ve done their Newsdays, I’m going to suggest they produce their own Strips of how they saw the experience.

How do you fill a 4 hour lecture? – or is there another way of thinking about it…

So, here’s the problem.  Next week, I have to deliver a 4 hr lecture to MA students (International and Online Journalism).  I’m used to 3hr sessions which were daunting enough at the beginning.  But 4hrs?  That’s impossible, right?

Julia will sympathise since she is teaching on the same course…

How do we fill that time?  But now I’m trying to think of it another way – from the students’ perspective.  They don’t want their time “filled.”  They want to learn something during the session.  They want to feel motivated to learn more when they finish the session.  I’ve got a few ideas I’m going to try out on them (poor guinea pigs!) but in terms of helping the time to pass less tortuously, here’s something I posted earlier on the discussion board

I too have to teach this 4 hr class for the first time on Monday 12th!  I’m thinking of picking up on a neat suggestion made by David and Chrissi after they observed me teaching.  They asked if I’d considered getting my students to use the sofa areas dotted around the MediaCity building during class rather than confining them to the classroom which is not an ideal teaching space anyway.

I had not considered that!  I’m sure they use them when I give them a break during the 3 hour session I teach but I’d not thought about using it as a teaching space.
Now I’m thinking that idea could work brilliantly for the MA class since there are only about 6 of them.  We could go anywhere!  In Biggs and Tang p165, the authors talk about group work and the need to get away from awkward lecture theatres with fixed seating.  “Outside under the trees is preferable, weather permitting.”  (Biggs and Tang 2011, p165).
Well, we haven’t got many trees at MediaCity and weather rarely permits, but the comfy sofas are a good second best, I reckon.  I’m going to get them to BYOD, although there are freely available computers dotted around anyway.  Quite a bit of my first session on the future of journalism involves them reading and analysing different forms of “citizen journalism” (Storify, Reddit) so that could easily be done curled up on a sofa rather than sitting bolt upright in a chair in front of a giant screen.  I can wander round and chat with them.  Then after a while we all get together and talk about what we’ve found.
I think a change of scene and time spent away from each other could help break up the 4 hours.
Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University.

So what do you think ? Will a change of scene help keep their energy levels (and mine) up? Chrissi even suggests going beyond MediaCity and using the Lowry. Hmmm, interesting suggestion. Do they have wifi? If not, it could be a problem but I like the idea of us carrying on our reflections and discussions in the fresh air as we walk between venues.  It could be seen as “wasting time” but it could also be seen as a way of preventing me trying to cram too much stuff into my sessions leaving the students with no hope of making sense of what they’ve been told and using it.
Have any of you tried this kind of thing?