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AL Development Conference: University of Sussex

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 4 Dec 2014, 17:02

On 8 November 2014 I attended the South East region (region 13) associate lecturer development conference held at the University of Sussex.  I felt that this was a really important event to attend, since it was to be the ‘final’ conference that was organised from the regional centre in East Grinstead.  All future conference would be run from the London region that has been re-christened as ‘London and the South East’.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go was to meet some of my colleagues who were leaving the university.  In some ways, it was a really sad day, but in another way, it presented an opportunity for the AL community to offer loud and vociferous thanks for all the great work colleagues from the region had carried out over very many years.

MCT session

The first session of the day was spent in our faculty groups.  The MCT session addressed three topics.  Other than details about the impending closure, the first topic was about changes to AL line management.  The second was about the development of a Group Tuition Policy.  The third and final section was a talk from an AL colleague about a research project about the use of language.

Changes in line management

A really important item was that the line management for some associate lecturers is changing.  What this means is that a line manager for a tutor might be located in a different part of the country.  The reason for this change (which is taking place in the Engineering and Innovation and the Computing and Communications department) is that a line manager will become increasingly specialised in terms of the subjects and topics that they look after.  I view this as a really positive thing: it has the potential to allow line managers (staff tutors) to respond to both student and tutor queries more quickly and efficiently, and enable them to develop more expertise in a smaller number of courses.

Group tuition policy

The university has been working on something called a ‘group tuition policy’.  From my reading of the policy, it seems to have two main objectives.  The first is to offer students flexibility and choice, i.e. they can choose to attend either on-line or face to face tutorials.  The second is that by grouping different sets of students together, it is hoped that tutors end up with more busy tutorials, and this can have a positive effect for everyone: more students means more opinions, which then can mean more learning.  One of the ideas is that students are given information about learning events before a module begins.  To make the policy a reality the university has to make some changes to its tutorial finder system.

During the session we looked at the policy and had a discussion about what we thought about it and how it might potentially impact on our tutoring.

Language use and retention in TU100

The final part of the morning session was presented by Associate Lecturer Heath Morris who tutors on TU100 My Digital Life (OU website).  Heather has been working on a university funded project that has been looking at the use of language in correspondence tuition, in particular, the summary comments that are provided by tutors.  TU100 is a particularly important module since it places quite a bit of emphasis on the development of skills, such as numeracy and academic writing.  OU students can come from very different background, which makes this aspect of teaching and learning all the more important.  The main question is: how do tutors use language and in what way might this language affect students?

Heather mentioned something called an ‘appraisal framework’, which I think is a framework used to assess the types of language used in assignment feedback.  I’ve made a note that it comprises of three different aspects: affect (which conveys emotion), judgement (which is an evaluation of behaviour or work performed) and appreciation (evaluation).  Other key words that I’ve noted from Heather’s presentation include student tenacity (which relate to the evaluation of effort?), and student capacity (which relates to the evaluation of capability). 

A set of questions for the research project are: does the use of language affect performance and retention?  Do those who score low leave?  To what extent would more positive feedback be useful?  Would it helped if we had just decided to give students a ring on the phone to have a chat with them?  What tools or checklists might be useful?

My own view on the language question is that surely good language and detailed explanations can have a positive effect on student retention, but there’s a big difference between having a gut feeling about something and actually showing something empirically.

I thought Heather’s presentation was great.  I would really like her to run a similar session in the London region.  Another thought was: perhaps we could run an AL development event that is specific to TU100 that covers the use of language and also lets us discuss the group tuition policy.  The underlined a simple outcome from attending these AL development conferences: they expose us to new things and help us to come up with new ideas that will help both tutors and students like.

Workshop: Scientix: the community for science education in Europe

The first workshop I went to was ran by Richard Walden.  Richard’s session was split into two parts.  The first was about an EU funded project called Scientix (project website) that he was involved with.  The project is described as an initiative to create a ‘community for science education in Europe, promotes and supports Europe-wide collaboration among STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers, education researchers, policymakers and other STEM education professionals.’  Scientix offers training resources, access to research, information about applications and opportunities for networking.  There’s also a link to something called the European School Net (EUN website) which I had vaguely heard of before.  If you’re interested in STEM teaching, both sites might be worth having a quick look at.

The second part of Richard’s session was all about how to improve student’s scores in tests without doing a lot of extra work.  To prepare us for this section, he split us into two groups: one group was asked to write about what we did on holiday, and the second group was asked to write about the anxieties that we might feel if we had to go ahead and complete a time limited quiz.  We were then all given a quiz to complete.

The idea was simple, and draws on research by a researcher called Gerardo Ramirez (UCLA website) : by writing about our exam anxieties, we explicitly articulate them, and this can help them to be reduced.  High levels of exam anxiety, can, of course, drastically affect exam performance.  There is an equally simple theory:  if we’re anxious, we occupy our short term memory with our anxieties. Since our short term memory is strictly limited, this will impact on our ability to understand and work through exam questions.  Short term memory, we were also told, is really important when it comes to retrieving essential information from long term memory.  (Having studied aspects of cognitive psychology many moons ago, I found all this especially interesting).

If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve also dug out the following YouTube lecture (YouTube) by Sian Beilock (who Ramirez’s co-author) who talks about some of the science behind this research.  (It’s quite a long video; there may well be some shorter videos out there).

Richard’s reason for sharing this research was simple: perhaps it’s worthwhile telling our students about this research, and the potential benefits that writing about fears and anxieties may provide.  I think it’s a great idea.

Modelling reflexivity in the teaching-learning relationship through distance learning tools

This final workshop of the day, facilitated by fellow tutor, Emily Skye, was rather different to all of the others.  I was attracted to it due to the word ‘reflexivity’ in the title; it was a term that I first came across when I was studying some social science modules, but my memory of it and how it could be used was a bit rusty: I was looking for a refresher.  Straight away, I discovered that the workshop had a very different structure: it was more of an open facilitated discussion rather than a formal ‘talk’.  All participants sat in a rough circle and shared something about ourselves, why we found this particular session of interest, and also something about our understanding of the term reflexivity.

I soon learnt that it might well be one of those terms that has different definitions based on the context it is used.  In essence, I understand that it is about understanding and thinking about yourself and how it relates to a particular context; it is about being self-aware.  It also relates to your own identity.  You can, for example, very easily hide behind a label that is attributed to a role or profession.

Being self-aware, and thinking about our effect on others (and how we are thinking about others) has the potential to help to inform our teaching and learning.  Through selectively sharing, we have the potential to build up trust, which can help us to encourage learners to look at new subjects, issues and areas.  Also, being reflexive also allows us to acknowledge the difficulties of learning, to be empathetic towards the challenges students face and connect with the emotional perspective of learning.

One of the big challenges in the distance education context is the extent to which we are able to relate and understand our students, especially when our interactions may be limited to only key points during a module presentation.  I introduced a term from computer (or, perhaps human-computer interaction) which was: emotional bandwidth.  When we interact with each other through on-line tools such as discussion forums we can easily misunderstand situations and expressions of emotion.

I found this session especially interesting because it was so different to the other sessions I had been to before.  Although I was initially rather worried by the layout of all the chairs, I quickly became relaxed.  It was also great to learn a little bit more about some of my associate lecturer colleagues.

Final thoughts

Like many AL development conferences that have been run by region 13, this one went very smoothly.  Delegate packs were organised, there were clear signs on rooms, and it was exceptionally well attended.  One part of the day stood out for me, and this was when the Associate Lecturers gave the staff at East Grinstead a standing ovation to both thank them for all their hard work, and to recognise the work that they have given to the university.  There were tears.  I’m glad I was able to be there.

Not only did I learn new things, I took with me some idea that I then transferred to the London AL development conference that was running the following week.  This just went to emphasise my view that regional difference and diversity was (and is) a good thing.

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