We are once again at the beginning of a new academic year, my fourth here in Swansea, and we are expecting all the students back very soon. Fresher’s week is planned and many of us are thinking about the teaching that will be starting in the next few weeks (if it has not already started!).
This is probably the time, therefore, to stop, briefly, and to reflect on what is going to happen in those first few days and weeks, during our first couple of lectures. Do we ever consider what this experience is like for our students, especially the first years who are here for the first time, utterly disorientated, discovering new things, new people, new ideas? Do we reflect on what we can do during those first few lectures or teaching slots to help those students to adjust, to make them feel welcome, and to establish some sense of continuity and certainty at a very uncertain time.
As we plan our next set of classes, I want to suggest that there are a series of principles or ideas that we should all consider and try to build in to our teaching, especially in the first couple of weeks of the new academic year.
The first is around tone. Whether we are teaching four to six hundred or a small postgraduate seminar group, the way in which we, as lecturers and the people responsible for the class, open the first session and address the students sets the tone for the whole class. Do we ever stop to think what that ‘tone’ should be? How we approach the first session will, inevitably, influence whether the students feel that they can participate, ask questions, engage in discussion, or perhaps more negatively, whether they can get away with spending the whole session on Facebook. This is in part where the performative aspect of the role plays a particularly large part. How do we establish authority, and yet give the impression that we are approachable? What role does humour play? How informal do we feel comfortable being with the students in the room? These are all vitally important part of the lecturing, or teaching experience, but they need to be considered and approached in a reflective manner.
Closely related to this is the setting of expectations. There are regular concerns raised, across the University, and across the HE sector, about the levels of attendance among students. In the first couple of weeks, almost all of our lecture theatres and classrooms are full. What can we do in those first couple of sessions to mean that they have a good chance of staying that way for the rest of the term? Tone helps – students have to want to come. They must also feel that there is something worth coming for. Other exercises and engagements can help to establish that either the students would miss out on something if they did not come (and there are things that can be done in class that add to the live experience even if the lecture itself is being recorded). Alternatively, are there things that can be done that demonstrate that they will be missed (asking students by name to answer questions within the class, for example)? These kinds of activity and approaches are best done during the first weeks of the first year, and ideally across a whole programme, to set expectation when the students are new and before they pick up bad habits. We need to think about their experiences at school, where attendance is compulsory and enforced, and look to maintain the pattern of behaviour, if not the exact methods to achieve it.
This leads on to a wider issue of culture. What is the culture of our classes? What do we expect of the students? What can they expect of us? Are there patterns of behaviour that both ourselves, as lecturers, and the students, would consider unacceptable? Are there limits to the kind of language, or questions that can be asked? Many lecturers consider establishing a contract, or agreement, with the class, setting out the expectations on both sides. Of course, this has to be handled carefully, and is often best done by taking time out of an early class for the whole cohort to discuss what the acceptable levels of behaviour might be. It will be accepted, and adhered to, much more fully if it is mutually constructed and mutually agreed. This might be difficult in very large classes, but is certainly something that could be considered in seminar groups and environments where the level of student engagement is expected to be high.
Finally, therefore, I come on to the question of student participation. Another way of looking at this is to ask how we can establish a learning community (to use NSS language). There are real advantages of finding opportunities and activities in the first week or so of a class that allows the students to engage with each other and to undertake some kind of extended exercise that necessitates that they talk to others and work together. This does not have to be a banal bonding or team building exercise that has nothing to do with the module. It is often relatively easy to find some activity that has the effect of mixing the class up, getting students to work together, and relates directly to the topic or approach that is inherent in the module. Doing this enables the group to cohere, and often has the advantage of enabling the less forthright to relax and feel comfortable in contributing within smaller, safer groups.
These, of course, are only a few ideas and suggestions of my own. I know that many of you do already do these kinds of exercises and think very creatively and constructively about how modules are constructed and how you set the tone, expectations and culture of the class from the very start. Please, do feel free to exchange good practice in this area with your colleagues as we approach the beginning of term.
Very best wishes to all of you for the new academic year, let’s start as we mean to go on and celebrate all that is good about Swansea.