Getting to know you…

What happens when you bring a diverse group of people into a space and ask them to learn together?

 What happens when you bring a diverse group of people into a space and ask them to learn together?  As the academic year starts (well, a week late for my department!), this is going on all over the University.  Strangers with different experiences and backgrounds are being asked to work towards a common learning goal.  Is the diversity of the group an opportunity to be exploited or a problem to be overcome?
It might be useful to consider this question with reference to the “Robert and Susan problem” (Biggs & Tang 2011).  The authors use Susan to represent  students who are easy to teach because they are academic and motivated to learn.  Robert, on the other hand, represents students who see university as a way of getting a good job and may be less academically inclined.  In the context of the Bologna process which requires universities in forty-seven European countries to improve teaching and move towards Europe-wide standards, HE teachers cannot neglect the needs of Robert simply because it is easier, perhaps more rewarding to teach Susan.
The problem for teachers is how can these two distinct groups be kept motivated, engaged and satisfied with the outcome of their studies?  Biggs and Tang argue that  “teaching that requires active engagement by students decreases the gap between Susan and Robert.” (Biggs & Tang 2011, p.3)
I’m wondering if my idea of tasks which require “active engagement” are the sort which would bridge this divide between the Roberts and Susans.  Is it necessary for teachers to be able to identify the Roberts and Susans in their class in order to teach effectively?  Or is it enough to be aware that such differences are likely to exist and ensure our teaching is appropriate to that reality?  Is it possible and mutually beneficial for Robert and Susan to work together?
In learner-centric teaching (as distinct from teacher-centric), the first task for the teacher must surely be creating the right environment for learning to take place.  It’s no longer sufficient to stand at the front of class and broadcast information to a sea of anonymous faces (even if they’re all Susans!).  We need to connect on a more social level with students so that dialogue and questioning can take place and activities can be engaged in more fully.
So, the first basic problem – how do you learn everybody’s names quickly.  I was hopelessly bad at this in my first year and I think it hindered me throughout my teaching and feedback.  It’s very difficult to bring a range of students, especially quieter ones, into the activity or discussion when you can’t remember their name.  I hadn’t envisaged it being a problem.  How hard can it be to remember 40 people’s names?  But when I was only seeing them for 3 hours every other week, it quickly became clear that it was much harder than I’d imagined and after a few weeks into the course, it became a much harder problem to address
This is such a simple idea I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it!


This was unexpected.  At the start of the PGCAP introductory session, I was asked to start knitting and then show the person sitting next to me how to do it.  The boys really took to the task!

LTHESep12 week 1

It’s the kind of activity I can imagine some students rejecting as too outlandish and irrelevant.  But I found it a really useful ice breaker.  Firstly, it surprised everyone and made us smile and then we started conversations about our knitting experience and as we shared the skill, we connected with each other.  It’s a way of starting to build a picture of the people you’re going to be working with on the course and it’s equally applicable in the teacher-student relationship.  By building small connections with students and co-learners, we are building empathy, trust and a desire to succeed together.

LTHESep12 week 1

I do worry it’s harder to engage students in this kind of activity than adults.  But I agree that we should try!  I tend to get disheartened when I see one or two looking bored.  Instead, I should be concentrating on the positive effect it’s having on the group as a whole – or accepting it didn’t work, reflecting on the reasons why and adapting the task for next time.

LTHESep12 week 1

These days, my only involvement with Lego is picking it up at the end of the day after my daughters have strewn it across their bedroom.  So this was fun!  But looking back on what the task achieved, I can see that I very quickly felt a connection with my group as we worked on the common goal – however silly the goal ultimately was.  Silliness can require as much thought as the serious stuff!  For students just starting out on university life, simple group activities without the pressure of being overtly “academic,” could remove barriers by enabling them to build trust with their peers and see the value of collaboration.

LTHESep12 week 1

The little things count in the learning environment – even something as simple as learning names.  That task has to be at least begun before meaningful engagement and collaboration can take place. As a result, I’ve already posted a photo of myself holding up my name on the Flickr site I created last year for the students (but never really used).

Liz Hannaford - Tutor


I shall be asking my students to do the same next Friday.  I may ask them to do it during a break so they’ve got time to do something a bit creative with the task – decorate their name label or photograph themselves in a significant location.I might not bring knitting….


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

Thinking about Learning….

This first reflection task seemed innocuous enough.

But I found myself avoiding the questions and the self-analysis they required.

What should, I think, have been a fairly quick task has taken me ages!  I clearly need to work on my self-analysis abilities.

1.  Think about something you are good at

I’m good at learning languages – although I’ve forgotten so much through lack of practice in recent years that I feel a bit of a fraud saying that.  I studied Russian at university because everybody said it was difficult!  I like a challenge that other people shy away from.  I was also fascinated by the Soviet Union!  I like the abstract concepts of language (probably more than I like speaking them, to be honest) and so I was motivated to learn.  I worked hard at the difficult stuff, practiced it – but I probably just had the kind of brain that liked learning irregular Slavonic verbs .

2.  Think of something about yourself you feel good about

I’ve set up an after-school computer programming club at my daughters’ primary school.  It’s part of a nationwide project called CodeClub which aims to get programming clubs into 25% of UK schools by the end of 2014.  I’m not a programmer myself, although I have been teaching myself Javascript this year using Codecademy (although I’m hopelessly behind due to lack of time.  Don’t even mention OOP)  But I have become passionate about the need to teach young people – including journalism students – to code.  It’s too late for me, save yourselves!!

We’ve been going a few weeks now.  I’ve managed to find a group of brilliant volunteers who have vast knowledge and experience.  I’ve persuaded the headmaster to embrace the idea.  I’m getting positive feedback from the children and their parents.  And BBC Radio Manchester came to the school on Monday morning to report on what we were doing.  The children were so excited about being on the radio and they were brilliant.

I feel good about it because it involved lots of people feeling positive and happy about a shared experience that I initiated.

3.  Think of something you are not good at, perhaps as a result of a bad learning experience.

I’m not good at driving.  I think it’s because people told me I wouldn’t be good at it and made me feel as if I was putting their lives in danger!  I also dislike cars because they make me feel sick.  So I have very few positive associations with driving.  I also actually quite like public transport so I see little incentive in becoming a more confident driver.

4.  Think of something that you did learn successfully but at the time you didn’t really want to do it.

Social media!  The BBC encouraged us journalists to go on a new course called “Making the Web Work for You.”  It was in the early days of social media when only the real geeks were on Twitter.  The one day course was very intense and I felt like the class dunce.  It seemed irrelevant and time-wasting when there was important journalism to be done.

I stuck at it because somehow the instructor convinced me that this was the future.  I went away with my handouts and worked hard exploring all the platforms and tools we’d talked about.  I lurked on Twitter and Facebook and read about how journalists were using them. I needed to find practical applications to make all this effort worth my while.  It was a slog at times but I’m so glad I did it.  It’s opened all sorts of doors for me.