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The crit and how students receive feedback

January 9, 2016 in PGcert

I read Critiquing the Crit for this topic: Blythman, M. Orr, S. Blair, B. (2007) ‘Critiquing the Crit‘: ADM Subject Centre, Higher Education Academy.

Reading this makes me think about equal participation, something I wrote about in my Topic 2 blog Equalising student participation (including small groups, peer feedback, fostering familiarity and speaking in circles), and how students can feel about receiving feedback.

Out of all the descriptions in the Staff Guide, the one I identified most with was ‘Peer crits’ where:

  • The tutor acts as facilitator
  • Students are divided down into smaller groups
  • Students are given criteria to critique against
  • Students give peer feedback
  • The facilitator feeds into the discussion

It’s a similar model to the peer feedback presentation skills workshops I teach, and the issues raised feel very similar, probably because a core component is about speaking in front of people.

How students feel

I really like one particular quote from Danvers (2003), cited in the Critiquing the crit discussion paper, who says creativity thrives ‘in an environment where the individual feels psychologically and physically comfortable, in an atmosphere of trust, security and openness.’

How can we create an environment where students feel more comfortable about receiving feedback? Part of this seems to be by understanding how students feel and responding by creating a supportive environment.

I collaborated on publishing a book Art Crits: 20 Questions (2013) where we interviewed UK Fine Art staff about the art crit. Jim Hamlyn, Gray’s School of Art, sums up a key point: ‘A lot of the barriers revolve around people’s sense of inferiority, where they feel as though they are in a situation where other people are superior in some way or have superior access, knowledge, understanding or articulacy.’

In an article in Networks Magazine, Perception, Interpretation, Impact (2007), Bernadette Blair says:

‘If a student’s cognitive resources are interfered with in one or more of the crit activities, through either a negative experience or a misunderstanding of the formative feedback, or by being so apprehensive that they cannot listen to or absorb the feedback comments on either their own work or the work of others, then this can impair the student’s performance and learning experience.’

By understanding this, we can create a supportive environment that helps create equality, where each person’s opinion and contribution is heard and valued, where the students feel comfortable sharing their work and the feedback doesn’t feel like judgment but something that helps them learn.

Large groups and dominance

The Critiquing the Crit discussion paper says that students generally found the large crit to be ‘inhibiting when presenting to the whole group, especially for shy or international students’. Large groups require students to broadcast their ideas rather than converse.

‘Strong students can dominate. The overtalker is as much of a problem as the undertalker’, say Blythman, M. et al. Bernadette Blair says something similar in Art Crits: 20 Questions: ‘A bad crit is one where it becomes a performance for the staff or a particularly egotistical student to take centre stage and not actually let anyone else get a word in edgeways.’ (p67)

The peer crit model breaks students into small groups, and giving each student a certain timeframe to speak. This helps give each student an equal platform, where those feelings of inferiority aren’t heightened by students who speak more confidently for longer periods of time.

Peer feedback

When students are with their peers and friends, they feel more comfortable. One of the students I surveyed said: “When I know the people and it is a friendly non-judgmental environment I feel good and I am more able to speak out.”

An outcome from Susannah Rees’s PgCert action research project ‘Improving the Student Experience of Presenting work to Peers and Tutors’ (2008) was that students are more than twice as likely to be more nervous when presenting to tutors than peers. Peer feedback supports learning, if we follow the idea that students who are feeling emotionally comfortable will be in a better position to learn.

Peer feedback also seems to be a tool explicitly valued by students. In the discussion paper, Blythman, M. et al say, ‘Students especially stated that verbal feedback from their peers is critical in enhancing their own learning activity.’

‘Invisible’ teachers

As well as peer feedback reducing nerves, it also helps equalise between the students and staff, reducing the idea of the teacher as authority figure (discussed in Topic 1 and Topic 2).

I like this quote from Jim Hamlyn in Art Crits: 20 Questions: ‘The more I teach the more I realise that actually being invisible is probably the best thing that you can do.’ (p66)

This ‘invisibility’ of the teacher equalisation reduces formality, hierarchy and pressure, and students could feel more at ease talking about their and others work.

Invisible teachers

Bad experiences

I think that the first experience of speaking in a crit or class is extremely important. One student I spoke to from LCF said his first experience of public speaking was an assessment in front of 60 students and 2 tutors. “I just freaked out, shaking, sweating.” His friends afterwards said they were shocked as he seemed so confident in other areas of life. This very stressful first experience meant that subsequently he resolutely avoided speaking in front of a big group.

The potential for humiliation and embarrassment is high, and these experiences can stay with you and can continue to block the learning benefits. I doubt that this student would have processed any feedback following his presentation.

Embedding presentation skills in the crit

I spoke to Nancy Turner (previously at UAL, now University of Saskatchewan) a few years ago, who suggested that the crit could be used as a way of embedding speaking skills in the curriculum.

I would like to consider this idea more and develop a new workshop in collaboration with a course. I developed a peer feedback presentation skills workshop for the Introduction to Study in Higher Education unit. If  students participated afterwards in well-structured ‘peer crit’, I think this would provide them with a more comfortable first experience of giving and receiving feedback which can be built on positively as they progress through university.

Inclusivity and international students

December 4, 2015 in PGcert

For the inclusivity topic, I’m thinking about what makes students feel included and excluded in my teaching.

I feel that inclusivity and equal participation (discussed in Topic 2) is a major focus of the presentation skills work I do, particularly the fact that everybody takes speaks equally during my workshops, which are based around peer feedback.

I naturally have empathy for people who find it hard to speak, as I am terrified of public speaking myself, and have researched the reasons why students might feel nervous during my Teaching and Professional Fellowship.

However, I need to make sure I understand any barriers that may relate to disability, language, cultural differences, race, gender, financial restrictions. I want to adapt my workshops to meet the needs of as many students as possible within the same session.

I am going to focus on international students for now, following a conversation I had about the challenges around international students and giving feedback in class (see James’s comment and my response).

International students and speaking

First of all, I do struggle a bit with the term ‘international students’. This is because the category could include a student from America with English as a first language, and a student from China with English as a second language, and therefore the category represents very different needs. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on international students with English as a second language.

I’ve done some initial research around international students and participation, as part of previous projects.

One student talked about language barriers: “I am generally reserved and not self-confident, I am afraid of being judged. Here in London my fears have doubled because my language is not English.”

Another student talked about cultural differences: “There is this common code or belief and because everyone knows it, you don’t have to say it. If a student speaks out they are regarded as being too flashy, not humble.”

During 2014/15, I organised workshops with 244 students. 48% of the participants stated that English was not their first language. 71% of those students felt nervous about public speaking, compared to 50% of the students who had English as their first language.

One good thing is that the workshops already have a positive effect on international students. The number of students with English as a second language who were nervous dropped from 71% to 43%. It’s not as pronounced as the improvement of those who have English as a first language, where the number of students who felt nervous more than halved from 50% to 23%, but it’s still a significant improvement.

A Chinese student from BA Fashion Jewellery at LCF said her confidence had increased because the workshop “Gave the great feedback that I need to improve so it makes me better.”

Understanding the complex interactions

I’m now considering what my next step would be in order to understand any barriers more.

Using the idea of an audit from the NUS report Liberation, Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum, I did a small scale review of my course material and my research methods.

It made me re-evaluate some research I am planning. I wanted to do research with a group of international students to understand the factors that may influence speaking and participation in order to help make my teaching more inclusive. I now feel I should extend the research to a wider group of students, not just international students, as there are a more complex range of interactions at work.

International students may experience feelings of exclusion, for example. One of our class members in the PgCert workshop said that the level of English that students have to achieve “doesn’t prepare you for chatting to your peers”. This is a challenge that affects all students, whether home, EU or international.

There are other issues in addition to language. One student told me that she initially felt resentful towards some of the international students as they were well-off and arrived at university in taxis. In turn, this type of feeling could affect the experience of the international students. “The international students can feel like they’re not valued,” said a PgCert class member, ‘as their peers think they are there because they pay high fees.”

To extend this idea even further, there could also be tensions between students and staff. In Duna Sabri’s Becoming Students at UAL (2015), one Chinese student felt her tutor was prejudiced against the international students. But, she says, “It’s not that bad now, I’m quite getting used to him and the tutor is getting better… because we know about each other.”

I feel that if there is more communication, then empathy increases and prejudice reduces. The more we share openly and honestly, the more connections the students will see between each other.

Collaborate and hang out together

Siobhan asked in our PgCert discussion: “How are you getting the students to collaborate and hang out together? We have a responsibility to support this.”

The presentation skills workshop promote communication between students so I feel that they have a wider role to play in inclusivity. I’ve noticed if we do the workshops early on in the first year, it gives students the chance to talk to people they might not have spoken to and provide mutual support.

Equality and Diversity for Academics – Promoting good relations suggests we “encourage working across difference”:

“Students can be reluctant to work with people who are different from themselves, particularly across perceived language or cultural barriers. Use group work to encourage students out of their comfort zones.”

A very similar point is made in Equality and Diversity for Academics – Inclusive practice, where it suggests we ‘encourage interaction’, allocating teams for group work rather than allowing self-selection (something we discussed in Topic 2).

Using digital to facilitate greater understanding

There are some interesting videos of international students on Commonplace. We could show some of these videos as part of the workshops. For example, the experience and advice from student Angela is really lovely. Angela says: “It’s really important to share, to make speech… Communicate is the only way to improve yourself, to have a much better life instead of hiding.”

I could also collaborate with Commonplace to create some new videos. For example, I could ask the students in the video presentation skills workshops I run to film a short presentation on how they feel about speaking. We could then upload the videos on Commonplace and play them back in future workshops.

Collaboration between year groups

Writing about this topic has now made me think further about how students can provide support to each other and foster stronger connections.

In our discussions on sustainability, I talked about a workshop I devised for the collaboration unit for MA Documentary Film, where the graduating students mentored the new students by giving them support and feedback on their presentations.

I could apply the same idea to other workshops. Students from the year above, including international students, could give feedback and support to the new students. I can imagine advice and insights from more experienced international students, similar to those on Angela’s video, could be very helpful.

I want to end on an important question asked in Tell Us About It: Student Stories: “How can we manage/facilitate the student group to be a resource for each other?”

The teaching I do includes peer feedback, mutual support, communication, sharing of stories, increased familiarity and working together. If I can do more work to fully understand the needs of the different students, then I think the workshops can play a role in increasing inclusivity and understanding between different people.

Sustainable systems and positive human agency

November 6, 2015 in PGcert

I spent the majority of time on this topic wondering what ‘sustainability’ actually means.

I did three pieces of reading, which first made me feel perplexed, then a bit annoyed, and finally slightly more comfortable.

1) Perplexed

An enhancement guide for Sustainability in the Curriculum

This guide doesn’t explain definitions of ‘sustainability’. It says that sustainability is not just ‘related to our physical environment’, but what is it related to? The closest thing to a definition is the quote from UAL’s strategic aims, ‘To create a culture of social and environmental awareness in order to develop and integrate sustainable and ethical practice throughout all aspects of our life and work.’ (University Strategy 2010-15)’.

2) Bit annoyed

Dawe, G., Jucker, R. & Martin, S. (2005) Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments. York: Higher Education Academy 

This goes through different definitions of Education for Sustainable Development (EDS). There are variations on three factors: environmental, social and economic.

Dawe et al present different criteria for EDS. One is ‘Acceptance of limits’, related to the idea that ‘we are living within a materially non-growing, closed system’. This is based on a model called ‘The Natural Step’, accompanied by a picture of a person draining too much water from planet Earth via a tap. The tap represents technology (not cutting edge technology, given taps were invented in the 1800s!).

The Natural Step

I react against this definition. I think education is about not accepting limits. Are we really living in a finite, closed system? For example, fossil fuels might be limited but what about the other ways we might be able to create energy?

There’s a great book called ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’ which is all about dispelling the assumed limits that we place around ourselves and going beyond them. I think we should want students to be proactive, innovative and taking action, and not see themselves as consumers who are fearful that our resources will run out.

In the workshops I deliver, there is a focus on empowering the individual. (Dawe et al do talk about the ‘empowerment of the learner’.) Developing speaking skills is not just about better communication, it’s about your agency as a human being and doing something that matters to you. It’s about breaking limits, taking risks and helping create a future that is better than some of the dystopian futures I hear about in the context of sustainability.

3) Comfortable (ish) 

Sterling, S. (2013) Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE

Sterling gives much clearer context for ‘sustainability’. More importantly he relates it to ‘graduate attributes’ and how graduates should prepare themselves for the world. He sums it up here:

‘In a nutshell: sustainability education prepares people to cope with, manage and shape social, economic and ecological conditions characterised by change, uncertainty, risk and complexity.’

A German view of sustainability literacy seems the most practical to me. This checklist (Michelsen and Adomssent 2007, p22) includes: the ability to deal with uncertainty, working in an interdisciplinary way, being participatory, the ability to plan, feeling empathy, motivating yourself and reflecting on wider concepts.

All of these things I understand in relation to developing enterprise and employability skills, and particularly to speaking skills. For example, being participatory (something I explored in Topic 2, Equalising student participation) and feeling empathy (when giving feedback, there is a need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes).

Sterling sums up: ‘..the sustainability learner will be characterised by such qualities as resilience, resourcefulness, creativity, systemic and critical thinking, enterprise, and a co-operative and caring outlook.’ (p 23)

This is exactly the kind of skills that I want to help students and graduates develop. Though I do still wonder if sustainability is something that can mean what you want it to mean.

I thought about sustainability when I designed and delivered a day of workshops this week on collaboration and presentation skills. I worked with two year groups on the Documentary Film MA at LCC. In the morning, the graduating students acted as mentors to the new students, and gave feedback on their presentations. In an afternoon workshop, the new students gave feedback on the graduating students’ presentations in return.

This ecosystem and reciprocity will carry through to next year, when the new students will be graduating and will act as mentors to the next intake of students.

In these sessions, the students are:

  • Resourceful (reflecting on ideas and articulating them)
  • Participative (each person speaks)
  • Supportive (give constructive feedback to peers)
  • Collaborative (two year groups working together)

There is a circular sense of sustainability about it. But I also feel that these skills encourage positive human agency, with the voice helping turn thought into action).

Sustainability and innovation

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