Three-D Issue 17: Teaching challenges and solutions

Debbie Flint
ADM-HEA, University of Brighton

Around 25 postgraduate media, communications and cultural studies students from institutions across the UK explored teaching challenges and their potential solutions in a ‘Teaching Exchange Workshop’ at the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network annual conference at Bournemouth University in July this year (see also full report on pages 21-22).

The workshop activities were drawn from a model for ‘Teaching Exchange’ workshops developed by Mehita Iqani (formally at Kings College London, now at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg) and Anna Feigenbaum (Richmond University) as part of an ADM-HEA funded project ‘Quality enhancement and prospective quality assurance through teaching exchange workshops in media and communications.’ The project developed a workshop model to provide ‘space for collegiate interaction and sharing experiences of the challenges and opportunities involved in teaching’ media and communications in higher education (Feigenbaum and Iqani, 2011). The model was designed to counteract the ‘pedagogical solitude’ (Shulman cited in Feigenbaum and Iqani) experienced by many teaching in higher education.

Something like ‘pedagogical solitude’ is perhaps more keenly felt by postgraduate research students who teach. The Higher Education Academy’s Postgraduate Research Student Survey found that many postgraduates across the disciplines feel a disconnect from their department’s community and would value further opportunities for social contact with other research students and further involvement in the broader research culture (Hodsdon and Buckley, 2011). The survey also found that a high proportion of postgraduate research students value their teaching experiences as a worthwhile aspect of their research programmes. However, a lower proportion of students surveyed felt that they had been given adequate opportunities to gain experience of teaching, and support and guidance during the process (Hodsdon and Buckley, 2011, p.25).

While postgraduate students who teach have varying degrees of experience of teaching, there are sometimes particular challenges that relate to their multiples roles within their institutions. Anderson and Leder have highlighted ‘questions of qualification, authority and autonomy in the classroom’ and the importance of developing authentic teaching ‘voices’ supported by the exchange of effective practices within and between institutions (2008).

In this context, opportunities for postgraduate students to meet peers and develop support networks and share ideas about their teaching practice are valuable. In media, communications and cultural studies disciplines, the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network and annual conference provides such a possibility.

The workshop
At the beginning of the workshop participants were asked to individually write down a brief description of a difficult or challenging classroom situation; something encountered, heard of, or dreaded. The ‘challenges’ were placed in a hat. Participants took it in turns to take a ‘challenge’ from the hat and read it out. A peer on the other side of the circle was invited to propose solutions to the challenge.

While the workshop participants’ institutional contexts and degrees of teaching experience varied, the discussions told us about some of the teaching challenges faced by postgraduates who teach and about their capacity to develop solutions to these issues through supportive discussion with peers.  This was a rare opportunity to gather views on teaching challenges with media students from a broad range of institutions and three recurring issues are discussed briefly here.

Managing respectful debate
A key concern for participants in the workshop related to managing respectful and constructive debate between diverse student cohorts generally and in relation to curriculum content that often raises political issues. What happens when ‘an individual becomes angry about the concept the seminar is based on and starts to dominate the group and … feels the concept is attacking a personally held belief?’ Participants spoke of the challenges of navigating a fine line between productive debate and tense confrontation.

Enabling effective com-munication is seen as part of the practice of cultural and communication studies and participants spoke of finding ways to unpick and examine classroom dynamics and turn them into learning opportunities. Several participants spoke of activities designed to develop the ‘ground rules’ for debate supported by the module handbook and institutional policy.

Engaging students
Engaging students in their learning, in doing the reading and other preparation for classes and participating in the discussion was a challenge much discussed by this group of postgraduate students.  How to deal with ‘the silent treatment – no one will talk in a seminar?’

The postgraduate teachers’ advice on this issue related to the importance of getting to know students and of understanding the reasons behind a lack of engagement. Participants in the discussion showed empathy for students who may be shy, may come from particular pedagogic backgrounds or cultures, for whom English may not be the first language, whose workloads may be heavy, and whose interests may not exactly reflect those of the lecturer.

This group had a range of strategies at their disposal to engage students in reading and discussion including presenting information and ideas in alternative formats, relating the topic to students’ lives and interests, rearranging the furniture and incorporating small group or paired activities and building in additional assessment points.  Some participants advised against ‘over-preparation’ – of putting ‘too much into the seminars’ and not leaving space and time for students’ input. Relinquishing the ‘presenter role’ and sometimes handing the task over to students is deemed an important step.

Issues of knowledge and authority
Any reluctance to loosen control over the classroom may relate to postgraduates’ expressed concerns about revealing gaps in their knowledge or their knowledge being questioned during the teaching process. What happens when a student is ‘more familiar with the topic than I am. Saying I’m wrong and why?’ Many of the postgraduate teachers had developed effective strategies for dealing with this issue, reframing the problem as a valuable opportunity to capitalise on students’ existing knowledge and to learn from it.

Summary
Responses to all of the issues raised suggest valuable personal resources for problem-solving teaching challenges. Opportunities for sharing these resources through activities such as ‘Teaching Exchange’ workshops should be taken – they can only assist in making the processes of teaching and learning more exciting, fulfilling and effective all round.

References

Anderson, L., and Kirstin Leder (2008) ‘Finding your ‘voice’ as postgraduate tutor: some thoughts and provocations’, Networks 4, http://www.adm.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/publications/networks-magazine Date accessed 23/09/11.

Hodsdon, L., and Alex Buckley (2011) ‘Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2011 results’, The Higher Education Academy, http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/postgraduate/PRES_report_2011.pdf.  Date accessed 22/09/11

Feigenbaum, A., and Mehita Iqani (2011) ‘Quality Enhancement and Prospective Quality Assurance through teaching Exchange Workshops in Media and Communications.’ Networks 15, http://www.adm.heacademy.ac.uk/networks/networks-autumn-2011/projects/quality-enhancement-and-prospective-quality-assurance-through-teaching-exchange-workshops-in-media-and-communications

Posted by Einar Thorsen