Curriculum design

Today I attended the University of Hull’s summer University Learning and Teaching symposium on ‘The Lost Art of Curriculum Design’.  Symposia and conferences often leave me feeling tired and cynical, so I’m delighted to report that this one has left me brimming with enthusiasm and a desire to implement and share ideas.

My university is planning a far-reaching process of curriculum overhaul.  One of the pieces of educational theory that figures in the process is that of ‘threshold concepts’.  It was good, then, to have Professor Ray Land – who, along with his colleague Jan Meyer, came up with the notion – present at the first speaker.  Land, with the help of a series of lovely images and metaphors, gave a vivid exposition and defense of threshold concepts and their potential power.  Such concepts are fundamental and transformative ideas which alter the perspective of those who obtain them, allowing them to think like, say, an historian, an economist, a literary scholar, and so on.  It has been suggested, for example, that ‘opportunity cost’ is a threshold concept within economics, and ‘signification’ is one for literary studies.

To make threshold concepts a key part of curriculum reform is a canny move in the respect that it appeals (in both senses) to the discipline-specific expertise of the teaching staff whose job it will be to teach the revised curricula.  They are the people best-placed to thrash out, as a subject team, what the fundamental and transformative concepts of their discipline are – what it means to think (in my case) like a film and television studies academic. (And a media and cultural studies academic… – threshold concepts, although they emphasise ‘disciplinarity’, are not an enemy to interdisciplinarity; Land has suggested that interdisciplinarity may be a threshold concept, and perhaps interdisciplinarity is a threshold concept within film studies.)  The process of thinking and discussion that this will entail will be positive in itself, as most reflection is, and is likely to have two salutary effects on the curriculum: it will probably become more focused on concepts rather than coverage, thus promoting deep learning and thinking, and it will become more joined-up, with individual module tutors having a heightened awareness of the programme as a whole.

Threshold concepts are powerful, but they are not everything.  To know that you want your students to attain these concepts is one thing.  Coming up with the learning activities, the broader learning environment and the modes of assessment that best facilitate the acquisition and the demonstration of the possession of such concepts is the real challenge.  Here, the work of scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, with their focus on ‘what the student does’ (the subtitle of Biggs and Tang’s seminal work), is absolutely essential.

A little coda: It is said time and again, and it is true, that teaching is not sufficiently recognised or incentivised in higher education.  Research, so the logic goes, is the key to career advancement.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a real shame.  However, in my three years of being at Hull, I’ve found it to be a great place to teach, and to pursue professional development in teaching.  And although I recognise the following feeling as partly a function of my own particular personality, I nevertheless find it hard to understand how someone can start to reflect authentically on teaching and learning and not be seriously bitten by the bug.  Teaching is a large part of most of our professional lives.  Why would we not want to be as good at it as possible, and to approach it with the same thirst for knowledge, interest in what others are saying about it, and passionate enthusiasm as we do our research?  This (as Glenn Burgess, our PVC for learning and teaching, was kind of saying in his closing remarks) is surely the real meaning of that idea that is often paid lip service to: an integration of research and teaching (which can be ‘teaching what you research’, but should be so much more besides).  One of my colleagues (@DrAmyMDavis) is a Disney scholar, and she once told me that Walt Disney used to say that he was more interested in his theme parks than his films, because the former were always changing, whereas the latter, once completed, were relatively fixed.  If our books are our films (and our articles our shorts), then our modules and programmes are our theme parks: structured experiences which we offer to our students, and try to improve upon and update year after year.

I’ll end with a quote which Ray Land included in his presentation as a poetic way of thinking about threshold concepts (and really, the whole of learning, and of life):

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
(Tennyson, Ulysses. Full text available here.)

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Module feedback

This is the first entry of my relaunched and relocated ‘Between Sympathy and Detachment’ blog (the old one is here).  I intend the content to be wide-ranging, but one central concern will be higher education, and within that, teaching and everything that goes with it.  In last week’s THE, it was reported that a survey of over 20,000 academics found that research activity was believed to be the most important factor in career advancement.  This is just one of the most recent examples of teaching suffering second-class status in the realms of higher education (interesting given the name of the ‘sector’).  However, that’s the subject for a different blog post.  My more modest ambition here is to write a little bit about some activities I did with one of my classes recently to receive fuller and ‘thicker’, and more immediate and dialogic, module feedback than is permitted by the compulsory generic ticksheets.  I am currently undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, a process that has helped me to become a more reflective – and, I hope, an at least somewhat better – teacher.  The process described below emerged, in a roundabout way, from my experiences on the PGCHE.

Attempting to do scholarly work is in my experience a deeper schooling in humility than can be found anywhere else except in trying to teach well and trying to be a good spouse and parent. Wayne C Booth. The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 73.

Most academics – and junior academics especially – possess a keen awareness of the number of ways in and fronts on which they are ‘accountable’.  To undergraduates, however, module tutors can often appear as one of the many powerful figures to be encountered during the course of university life.  At least once on each module, however (usually towards the end), the tables are turned.  Module evaluation questionnaires are circulated.  They are filled in anonymously and returned to the departmental secretary for processing.  The module tutor later receives a digest of the feedback, including any written comments.  This feedback must be responded to if problems are apparent, and the aggregated ‘scores’ are published in the next year’s module outline.

There are problems with MEQs.  Quality and effectiveness cannot be reduced to popularity, for example (although it would be surprising if there were no overlap).  However, I think that they are, on balance, a good thing, and they are in any case here to stay.  It is humbling to receive feedback (both good and bad) about how the module that one has designed and delivered has been experienced by those who have studied it.  The main problem with MEQs, though, to my mind, is their predominantly quantitative nature.  A low score will not necessarily reveal what went wrong, or a high score what was good.  Students can, of course, write free-form comments, and I encourage them to do so, but the invitation is not universally taken up.

In light of this, and because, out of my usual mixture of passion and anxiety, I always want my modules to be as good as they possibly can be, I decided to devote the seminars on one of my modules this week to the process of module evaluation.  The module in question is ‘Analysing Television Drama: Narrative and Style’, which takes as its case study the television work of Joss Whedon (appropriately, the preceding lecture was about the themes of power and authority in the Whedonverse).  I was delighted by how fully my students participated in the process – a process which, as I pointed out, will benefit future students more than themselves.  Here’s what I did.

1 I circulated pieces of paper (A4 chopped in half – to save paper and to give an indication of how much I wanted them to write!) and asked everyone to summarise the key things they had learned on the module.
I thought this would be a good way to begin the process of looking back on the module.  I also thought it would be interesting to see which things had come through loudest and clearest on the module.  The results were very heartening.  I think the most frequent comment had to do with close analysis of style, which is good because that’s what I understand to be at the heart of the module too.  Within a pleasing consensus about the heart of the module, it was also good to see that different students had, of course, picked up particularly on different things.  Quite a few students, for example, expressed a liking for a session where I outline how suspense works in narrative fiction.  I always worry that this material is a little dry, but the feedback has also helped me to see that often students like to be given a workable tool that allows them to do things.  I resist the idea that stylistic analysis can be reduced to a checklist, but some of its components are amenable to rigorous analytical subdivision, and this can provide its own pleasures.

2 I projected the page of the module outline detailing learning outcomes and assessment tasks on the screen and went through them.
This was not done in the spirit of ‘coaching’, but rather to try to explain what I thought the logic of the module was.  This is also something I did right at the beginning of the module, so it wasn’t a ‘hey presto’ gesture, but something more like bookending.  The thing I emphasised at the beginning of the module and in this seminar was the principal of constructive alignment – probably the idea I’ve encountered on the PGCHE that has been most transformative of my teaching.

Constructive alignment is a model expounded at length in Biggs and Tang’s book Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does.  It boils down to this very simple but very powerful idea.  A module’s learning outcomes should be ‘aligned with’ its assessment methods and its learning activities.  Just to disspell a potential objection, this does not equate to drilling students, or teaching them ‘to the test’.  It means that, having decided what it is that you want students to learn on a module (outcomes), you try to come up with the best possible ways of assessing that learning and the best possible learning activities for bringing that learning about.

On this particular module, the learning outcomes are as follows:

On successful completion of this module you will be able to:
1. produce concise written summaries (similar to a ‘treatment’) of the narratives of individual episodes;
2. describe and explain at the micro level how a television programme’s formal features (dialogue, performance, staging, framing, lighting and so on) control the flow of narrative information and generate other forms of meaning and significance;
3. describe and evaluate the formal patterning of an individual episode, paying particular attention to its handling of space, time and narrative;
4. evaluate the way in which a television programme, either within an individual episode or across a range of episodes, represents an instance of a particular genre and/or is designed to convey particular themes and concerns.

There is one assessment for each learning outcome.  To test the first outcome the students had to write a synopsis immediately after watching a Whedonverse episode (this assessment activity turned out to be more popular, or perhaps I should say less unpopular, than I had predicted).  The remaining three are assessed by essays of gradually increasing length.  This also has the virtue of allowing students to receive feedback across the course of the module, rather than ‘flying blind’ into one or two heavily-weighted components.

With respect to learning activities, in the lectures I would lay some basic groundwork, and then seminars would tend to be devoted to sequence analysis based around short clips from the episodes we’d watched.  This activity was most strongly aligned to learning outcome 2, although I hope it can be seen that it also lends itself to alignment with 3 and 4 (with respect to 1: I gave the students a dry run on the synopsis episode to try to iron out any misunderstandings, then that was done and dusted, to use an appropriate metaphor, quite early in the module).  One of my anxieties was that seminar after seminar based around sequence analysis would feel a bit samey and not align ideally with thematic analysis.  My students, thankfully, did not see this as a major concern, but more on this below.

(My commitment to sequence analysis stems largely from my undergraduate training in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick.  Since crossing over to the teaching ‘side’ of the seminar room, I’ve been very influenced by Klevan’s comments in his wonderful chapter ‘Notes on teaching film style’, contained in the equally wonderful Style and Meaning anthology, edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye.  I make this reading available to my students.  I particularly like Klevan’s words about why it’s valuable to have the sequence present, on the screen, in the classroom: ‘Looming and pressing in this way, the spirit of the film [or in my case the television programme] is more likely to pervade our dialogue about it, and we are more likely to find words appropriate to an assessment of it.  While in its presence we feel obliged to do it justice; if the film is absent, we will too easily betray it.’)

The reason that I like Biggs and Tang’s model is because, as the subtitle of their book suggests, they emphasise what the student does.  I used to worry about the quality of ‘performance’ I was giving in the lecture and seminar room, but now (although I still think I talk too much) I realise it’s not about what I know (although it’s important, of course, that I know stuff), but rather about cultivating the right habits and skills in as many students as possible.

Learning outcomes are king in the audit world of higher education.  I think they are less so for the student, and I am happy about that.  Nevertheless, I do think ‘showing one’s working’ to students generally yields positive results.  I remember being surprised when my wife, a primary school teacher, told me that she used the word ‘plenary’ with her pupils.  Even at that early stage, learners can be encouraged to reflect on the process of learning.  I myself remember being flush with enthusiasm for Bloom’s taxonomy after learning about it in a PGCHE class, and then using it myself in a workshop the very next day as a way of explaining grading and progression.

With the module’s learning outcomes and assessments re-emphasised as a framework for discussion, I proceeded to the next task.

3 I circulated a handout with a weekly breakdown of the module’s sessions and asked students to annotate with an upward arrow the sessions they had found particularly enjoyable or effective, and with a downward arrow the less enjoyable or effective session, giving reasons for their choices if possible.  I also asked them to indicate whether they would like to see more or less Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.
I cribbed this particular type of survey from one of my undergraduate module tutors.  In part, it told me which Whedonverse episodes were most well-received (‘Once More With Feeling’ was one of them – no surprise there!), but what I was really on the lookout for was whether there were any patterns relating to learning activities, because I taught the different sessions in somewhat different ways.  In short, I was on the lookout for whether students responded well, or badly, to those sessions where I’d tried to include a big chunk of information, or to those where I’d let things stay looser and more speculative (usually to foster authentic seminar discussion, rather than ‘nailing things to the ground’ as one of my friends once said in a phrase that has always stuck with me).  It would appear that variety is in fact the winning principal, as there was no correlation between popularity or unpopularity and any one type of delivery.  Connoisseurs of the Whedonverse may be interested to hear that Dollhouse was the programme that most people wanted to see more of, probably because I only showed one episode and did so late in the module.  (That said, I only showed one episode of Angel, and there was precious little appetite for more of that.)  Most people thought there were appropriate amounts of Buffy and Firefly, the programmes most thoroughly represented on the module as it stands.  So I’ll be working in more Dollhouse next year.  (To the few calls for less Buffy I reacted with mock-admonition.  Or at least, I pretended it was mock.)

4 A whole-group activity (without me).  I gave the group a sheet of A3 paper divided into three columns.  The left hand column said ‘I’d like to see less of this/I wouldn’t want this’.  The middle one: ‘I think there was the right amount of this.’  The right hand one: ‘I’d like to see (more of) this.’  I gave them cut out strips of paper describing various aspects of the learning environment (actual and potential) and asked them to stick them in the appropriate place on the sheet.  (They were also given blank strips of paper in case they wanted to add their own, which they did.)  Then I left the room for ten minutes.
When I told my wife about this she said ‘That’s such a primary school activity!’, and perhaps she’s right, but to my mind that’s a good thing, and one of the things that the students said they’d like to see more of makes me think they would think so too.

I did all of these activities twice, once through in each of my two seminars for this module, and for this task, the answers that each group came up with were close to identical.  Here are things both groups said they would like to see less of or wouldn’t want to see:

  • Individual supervisions in the place of seminars. (This arose from my thought that the timetable might benefit from being varied, but I didn’t get the enthusiasm for this suggestion that I expected.)
  • Pre-prepared presentations (individual or group, assessed or unassessed). (This didn’t surprise me.  In my experience students dislike presentations.  I am in fact introducing assessed presentations in my ‘Television, Radio and the Everyday’ module next year because I think they are valuable.  I’ve been reading some research on using wikis to encourage collaborative learning that I may try to put into practice.  This will probably be the subject of a future blog post.)
  • A larger single seminar group. (I’m glad that the small group sessions are appreciated.)

These are the things both groups said were present to an appropriate degree:

  • Sequence analysis in seminars.
  • Set reading.
  • The module tutor talking. (I always feel like I talk too much.)
  • Activities requiring us to write things. (A word of explanation: in seminars I’ve found a good way of getting students involved and getting them to commit to a position without having to go around the room and get everyone to speak is to kick off a seminar by handing out strips of paper and starting a sentence and getting everyone to finish it [eg. ‘Evaluating television is difficult because…].  I then sometimes project the writings on the screen and scrutinise them further.)
  • Assessment planning as a seminar activity. (That is, discussing potential approaches to essays.)

Both groups said they would like to see more:

  • Group discussion.
  • Students talking.
  • Students asking questions of the tutor and one another.
  • Activities designed to enact understanding (mime, gesture, etc).

On the first three: I try very hard to facilitate these things in my seminars.  When I asked the students how these things might be achieved, I think there was general acknowledgement that these things require the input of all group members.  Nevertheless, it is still my job to try to facilitate these things as much as possible.  One student came up with the excellent suggestion of setting time aside at the end of lectures for group discussion, which would start students’ thinking processes before the seminars, as well as saving a bit of time at the start of the seminar, as the discussion would have already begun.  I may well try to enact this suggestion next year.

On the last: in some seminars I introduced activities beyond talking/reading/watching as ways of getting students to think about themes and/or style.  Quite a lot of the time I encourage students to think about the meanings of actors gestures or vocal inflections by trying to replicate them, thus ‘internalising’ or ‘performing’ meaning (both the metaphors, though opposite, are correct).  When we studied the marvellous Buffy episode ‘Hush’, in which all the residents of Sunnydale lose their voices, I wrote a series of statements, instructions, and so on, on pieces of paper, and asked students to mime them to the rest of the class to see if the meanings could be conveyed.  This was partly inspired by Patrick Shade’s wonderful article on the episode, and was designed to encourage reflection on the extraordinary possibilities, as well as the limits, of language as a medium of communication.  (This idea clearly feeds into my project of encouraging students to be as sensitive as possible with their use of language on the page in their acts of critical writing.)  Once the initial feelings of shyness or silliness die down, these activities can foster deep and engaged learning, and are, I think, an entirely appropriate part of the university learning experience.

— — —

Following this group activity, I teased out some further feedback in a whole group chat, mainly focusing on the assessments (were they appropriate in number, nature and spacing?) and the timetable (would a different set-up work?).  General contentment was expressed in both these areas.  I’m glad with respect to assessment, as I too think it works well as it stands.  I think I still might try to tinker with the structure of sessions a bit though.  Creativity and the demands of central timetabling, though, are hard to marry (and this is not in any way a swipe: central timetabling is surely simultaneously one of the most thankless and heroic tasks of university administration; the complexity and number of variables are mind-boggling).

After that, all that remained was for the students to fill out the actual questionnaires!  I’ll expect the results in a few weeks.  In the meantime though, I have plenty of fascinating information to process and feed into my planning for next year.

Indeed, the process has already started.  Next year will be my fourth time teaching this module.  At last count twelve students had signed up for it (the fewest so far: last year I taught forty-six students on the module).  I hope their experience is a good one.  To conclude, here are the sessions I’m planning to offer:

Subject/Screenings

1 Exposition and pilots / ‘Echo’ (unaired Dollhouse pilot), ‘Ghost’ (Dollhouse 1:1)
2 Genre / ‘Bushwhacked’ (Firefly 1:3), ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ (Buffy 1:1)
3 Staging and Style / ‘Once More With Feeling’ (Buffy 6:7)
4 Point of view / ‘Enemies’ (Buffy 3:17), ‘Pangs’ (Buffy 4:8)
5 Closure / [Episode redacted as the screening will form part of the synopsis assessment]
6 Suspense and temporal ordering / ‘Ariel’ (Firefly 9), ‘Out of Gas’ (Firefly 8)
7 Authorship, influence, intertextuality / ‘Band Candy’ (Buffy 3:6), ‘Briar Rose’ (Dollhouse 1:11)
8 Multimedia storytelling / Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, excerpts from Buffy season 8 and its ‘motion comic’, a comparison of the beginnings of ‘Lies My Parents Told Me’ (Buffy 7:17) and its novelisation by Nancy Holder, and perhaps of ‘Serenity’ (unaired Firefly pilot), Serenity (the movie resurrection) and their novelisation by Keith R. A. DeCandido.
9 Community and Communication / ‘Earshot’ (Buffy 3:18), ‘Hush’ (Buffy 4:10)
10 On being human / ‘A New Man’ (Buffy 4:12), ‘The Body’ (Buffy 5:16)
11 Power and authority / ‘The I in Team’ (Buffy 4:13), Firefly episode to be decided (suggestions welcome)
12 Performance and identity / ‘Who Are You’ (Buffy 4:16), Dollhouse episode to be decided (suggestions welcome)