From Boring to Exploring
This is the story (so far) of my attempts to stimulate student interest and engagement in the development of personal and professional skills within the changing face of ‘skills’ in Higher Education.
The unit in question is a Level 5 unit (Year 2 in old money) within a Sport and Exercise Science degree programme. The story begins with some background to the development of the unit and my approach to the learning, teaching and assessment strategy. I include a flavour of the kinds of activities I have employed with my reasons for their choice and the success and failures encountered (all a learning experience ...) Student voices speak of their experiences (extracts included with their permission) and my reflections brings the story up to date as it is now …
If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin ….
Eight years ago I ‘inherited’ (or ‘you have been specially chosen’, I think were the exact words – I was naïve in those days ….) a Year 2 unit called Contextual Studies. The focus was on exploring sociological issues in sport, exercise and coaching. There were six tutor-led formal lectures followed by weekly seminars and three Assessment points: individual written assignment integrating two tutor driven topics, a group formal presentation exploring a student group chosen topic and an exam with questions on the tutor-led topics.
Attendance at lectures was poor and engagement in seminars, lacklustre. Assessed Group presentations conducted at the end of the unit showed a lack of understanding of the skills involved in constructing and presenting structured argument. Examination scripts revealed a lack of understanding of relevance of topics combined with poor skills in critical analysis, research and construction of argument. Following a programme review, the examination was removed and formative assessment on presentation skills was introduced along with a careers module culminating in production of CV and application letter as assessment. The unit was renamed 'Professional Skills in Sport and Exercise Science'. Following the first year of this new-style unit, student evaluations and comments from external examiners revealed the following:
Overall, perceived value in the unit was low. There were comments such as “I haven’t got time for this” and “This isn’t a real subject.” One particularly barbed comment hit the spot: “I haven’t come here for this. I’ve come here to learn real subjects – that’s physiology, psychology and biomechanics”. It was clear that there was little understanding of the relevance of the unit within the wider programme of learning or to future employment prospects. A case of ‘Well, it’s interesting, but what’s it got to do with me?’.
Meanwhile … responses to the Dearing report (1997) and the Leitch review (2006) resulted in increased focus in Higher Education on personal development planning and a move in HE Institutions towards the use of progress files (QAA) for students to keep records of their development. It was time to revamp this Professional Skills unit not simply as a matter of routine in response to the evaluations, but also to review the learning, teaching and assessment strategy to align it more closely with recommended guidelines.
I made some radical modifications to the learning, teaching and assessment approach to the unit to try to increase engagement, stimulate desire to learn and meet the aims of the Learning and Teaching strategies.
The theory behind my approach is reflected (no pun intended) in Kolb’s theory of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) that suggests that learning is constructed through interaction of the individual with task and environment, social interaction and reflective practice. My global aim was to try to “Provide a stimulating environment where students could gain or improve skills that linked to academic, personal and employability goals” (Jepson, CeLT Seminar, 2008).
Objectives were increased autonomy, engagement in proactive planning, increase in breadth of knowledge and understanding of relevant issues, recognition of own strengths and areas for improvement and gains in confidence. I wanted to provide opportunities for example, that engaged students in negotiation, decision making, analysis and reflection and that involved them in choice and ownership of their learning. Thus, activities were designed that involved interaction with others, had recognisable and achievable goals relevant to academic work and employment and that were meaningful. I hoped they would also be interesting and thought provoking, on the premise that engagement is more likely if the activity is perceived to have value (Allen, 2008).
Assessments were closely mapped to the learning outcomes and the learning and teaching strategy (of course ….). These now included:
Initial workshops focussed on group working: eg. roles, responsibilities, benefits and drawbacks, expectations, collaboration and selection of relevant issues. Small groups (n=3-5) were formed through tutor and student agreement and comprised a mix of students from different subject routes some of whom had worked together previously and some who had not. The small group mix was intended to emulate a setting similar to that which may be encountered in the work place to provide a realistic learning experience. Emphasis was on the understanding of group work processes, the development of personal skills and the furthering of knowledge within the subject field.
Groups were guided through issue choice and workshop activities provided practice at presentational skills. Students were encouraged to experiment with different delivery styles to enhance opportunities for skills development, eg. workshop, round table discussion, role play and video production as well as more formal styles. Group discussions were encouraged face to face and online via WebCT, with tutorial support.
The students had five weeks to research the issue and prepare for their presentation at a one-day Autumn Symposium event and were asked to submit a synopsis of the content with a list of sources consulted one week prior to the event. Representatives from each small group formed a committee to organise the Symposium, arranging the day’s programme, organising refreshments etc. and students from Year 1 Professional Skills unit were invited as audience. These students participated as required and provided written feedback. A similar event was held in the Spring with groups presenting on a different topic and using different delivery methods. Both events were assessed.
To encourage students to try what, for some, were new methods of presenting, the fear of losing marks due to inexperience was removed by allowing the best mark out of the 2 presentations to stand as the summative mark. In essence, one presentation was formative, although not directly labelled as such. The removal of the ‘stress’ factor of achieving a pass each time was further intended to enable the groups to relax more and enjoy the social context of participation and engagement in creative group work (Dart, 2003).
Each presentation was videoed and groups were given a copy of their tape immediately following the Symposium for review and reflection. Their review provided the basis for discussion at a small group tutorial discussing skills developed and learning accrued during the collaborative work process and culminating in plans for personal and group development. Observed reflections and plans were recorded and included as part of the student’s individual portfolio of learning experiences - the third and final assessment for the unit.
This part of the unit ran concurrently with the groups’ preparations for the Spring Symposium. It began with workshops focused around employability skills, employers’ expectations and recognition of own achievements and skills, linked with learning and development from the group collaborative work. A dedicated online learning programme, Futures, was introduced for self-directed learning. To keep students on track, I set up submission points for various activities through WebCT. This proved to be both a success and a nightmare …. Over a period of 8 weeks, my in box held 474 assessments! I was a victim of my own success!
I had expected that I would easily be able to view all submissions relating to one student by selecting that student’s name and to then provide one comment on all. However, I could not find a way of viewing submissions in this way in WebCT and viewing them all one by one was not practical. I therefore selected a piece of work from each student and commented on that so that all work was acknowledged and commented upon.
Only a few students had created a portfolio of achievements before and none had written an assessed reflective commentary. Again, workshops provided opportunities for discussion and practice. The reflective practice undertaken as part of the collaborative group activities and the individual careers work fed into this part of the unit. I gave the option of submission either in hard copy format or electronically through WebCT which, although its capability did not lend itself to creation of e-portfolio, did permit uploading of word files, etc. Out of 51 students, nine submitted by hard copy = 18%. Marks ranged from 74% to 26%, mean=49%. SD±11.1. Such assignments can be difficult to mark, however, I asked students to focus on recognition of factors influencing their development.
Extracts from Reflective Commentaries included with permission; names have been changed
"I think that I have enhanced a lot of my skills due to the group assignment work in Pro Skills 2. I think the main reason for this progress is due to the continuing development of my listening skills. This has meant I am now more polite and find it easier to listen to others without interrupting, this has helped advance my negotiation skills thus improving my teamwork. I gained a sense of responsibility when working in a team, resulting in an improvement in my organisation and planning for meetings, helping them run smoother and increasing my ability to work as part of a team."
"I found using Gibbs cycle useful as it helped me recognise my achievements step by step rather than altogether….. the futures folder was very useful in discovering and evaluating my skills that I did not realise I had. … it provided me with information that was very important for after my degree. It helped me realise that it would be preferential to get some work experience before applying for my Masters. I was not aware of a lot of the job/career websites before. … very useful as at the time I was not sure on my career pathway and helped me discover what career pathway I wanted to go down. I found the reflection - my achievement sheets interesting to do as this encouraged me to be more confident in putting my skills forward."
[Comments from electronic online survey conducted Apl. 2008]
What they liked …
What they felt could be improved ..
With this year’s group, I am trialling an e-learning programme, PebblePad, as part of the learning and teaching experience. This is a personal learning system that enables users to record their learning, achievements, reflections and action plans as an e-portfolio. It is intended to support personal development planning. Students were introduced to the programme during the second week of the unit and have been encouraged to engage with the system throughout, for example, working collaboratively online on their presentations, using proformas to guide the reflective process and creating individual reflective portfolios. The programme has a wide range of capabilities which have taken the place of some of the activities conducted last year through WebCT. WebCT usage has been restricted this year to an information point for lecture materials, unit information and delivery of the Futures module. I did not set submission points for the Futures activities (bearing in mind my inbox from last year) but included instructions at appropriate points for students to include these as part of their webfolios. An evaluation and report will be compiled on the use of this programme at the end of the academic year.
Story to be concluded ….
Allen, D. (last updated 05 Dec 08). Personal Development Planning – A Handbook
Dearing Report (1997) produced by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.
Jepson, S. (2008). Personal Development Planning with Professional Skills Year 2. CeLT Seminar Series.
Kolb DA (1984) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning & development. Upper Saddle River , NJ ; Prentice-Hall
Leitch (2006). Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills.
Prowse, A. (2008). PDP implementation at MMU: A review undertaken by CELT.
QAA Guidelines for HE Progress Files Accessed 160808