Review: Brookes Teaching and Learning Conference, 2013

Fittingly perhaps, the programme for this year’s conference, with the theme of student engagement (at the heart of student learning) took place in the university’s new Atrium room. It offered a diverse mix of staff and student seminars, with presentations covering a broad range of topics from the digital to the personal, ensuring that delegates had a good choice of what to visit throughout the day.

I was pleased to discover a number of presentations addressing my areas of concern around student engagement. These included a well-delivered keynote address by Dr. Camille Kandiko (KCL) who contrasted the outcomes of measuring engagement versus satisfaction among students, which is so often the focus in the UK. Is satisfaction really appropriate – and do students going through being students really know what’s best for them, to evaluate teaching in this way? And amidst attempts to measure student engagement, when is staff engagement measured? Given that engagement is about two or three or four-way interaction – where does the staff voice come in?

Elsewhere Mary Davis (Brookes International) discussed cultural differences in peer marking, and gave useful tips on how to execute this in a non-threatening way. In addition, Rachel Long (Mathematics) showcased some lesser known features of Moodle (Brookes’ VLE platform) and Neil Currant (OCSLD) and his colleagues discussed how iPads may be used to enhance student peer to peer engagement. Indeed, throughout the day, the overall focus on student peer-led engagement was promising :-).

All in all, the event was well thought-out and a welcome, timely discussion. For those who attended, that is. For a student and staff conference there weren’t many non-presenting students – or staff. Perhaps, for all the strategies and good practice, what actually matters is the fundamental process of getting students and staff engaged in the first place.


Shred of Anonymity

Image coutesy of Andy Field's 'Catistics' Facebook page.

Image courtesy of Andy Field’s ‘Catistics’ Facebook page.

I have been really enjoying my teaching this term. That might be just as well, since I’ve averaged 15 hours of contact time with students each week, plus preparation. I’ve worked hard at it. And I’ve liked it. I’ve had the opportunity to teach very much within my field, very much outside of my field, (but on an interesting philosophical debate), and in the basics of my field – along with the help of ninja cats, zombies, the odd pub quiz, and a lovely complement of teaching staff.

But none of that is any use if the students haven’t gotten anything out of it.  So, through this term, I’ve been collecting feedback from the students “online” through paper and pen short form questionnaires to try to improve my teaching for them. And the results have been useful. When third year students said they couldn’t hear me at the back of the room, (much as I wish they had mentioned this in the lecture) I hired a portable PA system to help make sure they could hear me in the following lectures. Where timetabling was an issue with an extra session for postgraduates, I re-arranged things to suit the students.

And then the university-level module feedback comes in. And what I notice then is a sliding scale. It goes between what students say face-to-face, “it’s okay”, “it’s interesting”, “we can do that”, to what they’ll say on paper, “we need longer in discussion-time”, “make slides available before the seminar”, to what they say on these forms, “Sian is annoying, short-tempered, patronizing, and far too quiet”. I quote.

photo (1)The sliding scale goes between the positive “100% worth getting out of bed for”, to the downright negative, “I didn’t understand any of her examples”, from the impersonal, to the personal. Of course, psychology can offer many explanations as to why this is the case. The social identity de-individuation [SIDE] effect (e.g., Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 2011) posits that it is not that anonymity leads to a loss of control and negative comments (the assumption being that more negative opinions wouldn’t be expressed with control) but that anonymity gives flight to people being more able to express their collective identities.

In this case then, does anonymity give students more freedom to express a “student voice”? Fortunately, among the negative, personal comments were some startlingly positive ones about staff enthusiasm and support.  I now question whether the earlier, more positive, and more constructive, comments that I have from students on pen and paper forms, which were largely hand-written, are equally valid.

And, from an (admittedly brief) search of the literature, there seems to be very little research on this. I found a paper by Aldridge and Rowley (1998) entitled “customer satisfaction in higher education”* suggesting that both paper and pen and electronic forms are needed to optimise response rate, and another by Hatfield and Coyle (2013) suggesting that older students were more likely to complete evaluations. The advice given by my university on using its module evaluation form concerns how to  up response rates – but not how to increase the validity of those responses. Similarly, a chapter on student evaluation practices in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall (2009)  (our teaching course book) does not cover this. So, what about the content of student feedback? I found one paper by Kidd and Latif (2004) suggesting that course grade expectations were positively correlated with course ratings, thus rendering the validity of course feedback dubious….but –


One of the courses I teach on, and got feedback from.

There are more questions to be asked, that I couldn’t find answers for. What are the effects on content positivity, for example, (as some departments do), of offering £10 in Amazon vouchers for completion of the National Student Survey? Of lecturers being present versus absent when feedback is completed? Of asking for feedback after teaching has finished, or during the last lecture? Of the “feedback and mince pies” revision session at Christmas? Of hearing students speak in focus groups or via questionnaires?

These seem to be open questions. The hypotheses could be garnered from the SIDE model, and from elsewhere in social psychology. I would argue that until that research is done, factors affecting the content  of the student voice (and knock-on effects on the validity of that voice vis-a-vis students’ true opinions) – and which comments I should act upon – will remain elusive.

*The notion of consumer satisfaction in Higher Education is another issue again – I don’t have the scope for it in this post. But watch this space. ….

Imagined (or Extended) Contact: A Research Note

This  is a revised version of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, but never got around to revising. I’ve fished it out, before it gets lost forever. It’s in the general area of Social Developmental Psychology, but is slightly off my specific field – so not something I’d be looking to publish formally, but worth making accessible, I feel.

As I understand it, one of the seminal papers on intergroup contact was Allport (1954). Allport showed that contact with a group twowards whose members you are prejudiced, can reduce that prejudice.  Similar effects have been found for imagined contact (achieved via imagining pleasant contact with an outgroup member), (Crisp,  Stathi,  Turner and  Husnu, 2008), and for extended contact (learning about an ingroup member’s pleasant contact with the outgroup can improve attitudes) (Wright, Aron, and McLaughlin-Volpe, 1997).  For present purposes, an ingroup member is someone who belongs to ‘your group’ (race, religion, gender, youth group, school et al.), while an outgroup member is someone who belongs to a different group at that level. The basic finding behind research in this area is that contact (be it actual, imagined, or extended) can improve relations with outgroup members, and reduce anxiety typically induced at the thought of meeting them.

The recent work, that I want to make the topic of this note, is that which looks at imagined and extended contact between “ingroup members”, and those with disabilities (outgroup members…). This research has been done with adults, and with children (see for example, Cameron, Rutland, & Brown, 2007). I would like to offer a personal perspective on this research (I have had a stroke, resulting in hemiplegia).

The first question I wish to ask is whether ‘people with disabilities’ constitutes a group in any meaningful psychological sense. We need to ask this from both ends. Do ‘able-bodied’ people categorize everyone they come across with a disability as  belonging to (the same, stigmatized) outgroup? Can they do this readily and easily, to activate unhelpful attitudes (whatever the content of these may be….)?  And do those with disabilities readily and easily categorize themselves as ‘disabled’ in situations where they come into contact with ‘able-bodied’ individuals?* Do they identify as group members with others with disabilities – and do so regardless of the nature of the disability of that other?


Person with a teaching job, or person with a disability?

As you may imagine, my response to these questions is no, no, and no. It is impossible to see certain disabilities, however able-bodied you may be. So I cannot categorize others in this way. I do not readily categorize myself as disabled upon coming across an able-bodied person. I am much more likely to be focused on commonalities – my ‘researcher identity’ for example.  I don’t tend to see myself as a stigmatized outgroup member, nor did I feel, I had reason to – though certain researchers suggest (indirectly) otherwise. As for identification, yes, I identify with other members of various hemiplegia-related Facebook groups, but I do not identify with all others with disabilities, as opposed to non-disabled individuals.

Nevertheless, let us assume that the answer is yes. That ‘people with disabilities’ (note: NOT and NEVER ‘the disabled’: this is no longer PC) is a meaningful outgroup to non-disabled individuals, and that attitudes towards them need ameliorating, even among six year-olds. How helpful is this categorization? How helpful is it to make this categorization salient, as opposed to encouraging individual identities? To get to know people as people. This becomes even more important, surely, when it comes to disabilities, as no two people, even with the same disability, are going to have the same needs, wants and likes. And it is different needs in particular that worry people when it comes to disabilities….In sum, this categorization is just another projection of ‘normal’. We are normal, these people are not. Therefore they are different, they have different needs, wants and likes, and we need to be wary of contact with them. The very suggestion that those with disabilities are somehow outgroup members, is what  ironically, can induce anxiety and perpetuate contact avoidance and prejudice.

I would say then, the categorization as a stigmatized outgroup member is unhelpful. That the questions that researchers need to address instead, may be; what is it about this individual characteristic (or the stereotype associated with this individual) that is frightening, or leads to avoidance of contact? How can that be changed? What associations are made with the term ‘disability’ that push people away? What is the nature of the ‘prejudice’? And what is it about ‘contact’ that reduces unhelpful attitudes? The ‘multiple categorization’ method (Cameron, Rutland & Brown, 2007) goes someway to addressing my concern. Children here placed photo’s of “disabled” and “non-disabled” children on different dimensions “likes books”, “likes playing with the computer”, which must encourage identification with similar traits in the child – “they’re like us, really”. Yet, one still might also ask about the other half of the research design in all the studies I’ve seen: how do those with disabilities respond to able-bodied individuals? Surely to improve relations, pleasant contact has to be expected in both directions….what about the views of the stigmatized group?

But, if pleasant contact and positive attitudes are the end goal of such imagined contact research, I think it should go a step further. Instead of categorizing children (and encouraging children to categorize others) based on such essentialist criteria, as “disabled” or “non-disabled”, why not do away with the categorization altogether, and focus instead at the individual level? Nario-Redmond’s (2010) research shows that people readily focus on disability over other stereotypes – specifically, those with disabilities are stereotyped as “weak and incompetent, asexual and dependent”. This just is not helpful. Negative category stereotypes need to change – or individual identities made salient. At least in this particular instance, discourage group stereotyping and categorization (the lazy route) and encourage identification and be-friending based upon similarities. We know superordinate categorization can work to reduce prejudice, after all. Whether individual categorization is preferable is an empirical question, in the end; and the benefits may turn out to be outweighed by other effects. But the research needs to be done.

Thoughts welcome.

*Of course, some people with disabilities do strongly identify as disabled; particularly those involved in activism in relation to the rights of people with disabilities. Such activism is, however, brought about as a result of prejudice and stigma, not as an antecedent to it.

Minding the Gender Gap?

In a recent seminar, it was revealed to us that, at this university, as at many others, you’re more likely to get a first class or upper second class degree if you’re female, with the university target being 50:50. The tutor asked us how lecturers et al. might go about addressing this gap, to make things more equal.

But -as someone pointed out – given inequality in the workplace, why would we want to do this? A recent report in Times Higher Education highlighted that graduates who get the same degree classification, from the same university, having studied the same subject, are likely to earn more if they’re male.

If these graduates were doing the same job, that would be unlawful. So something else must be going on to explain this difference. And research has pointed us to quite a few reasons why this might be. Michelle Ryan‘s research on “the glass cliff” shows that women are typically more likely to be appointed to more risky leadership jobs than men. And findings from the Institute of Leadership and Management show that women are less ambitious than men in their career aspirations, and less confident in what they could achieve.

And some research has looked at factors that reduce the discrepancy between men’s and women’s performance at university level. Interestingly, such as teacher prejudice, university resources, and prior academic aptitude do not account for these differences (McNabb, Sarmistha, & Sloane, 2002).  One study by Gibb, Fergusson and Horwood (2008) found that males’ classroom behaviour can explain the gender difference in later attainment, echoing research by Hartley and Sutton (in press) showing that boys in primary school stereotype themselves as less academically capable than girls.

So – while research in the workplace has shown up definite reasons for the gender gap between men and women’s earnings, the reasons for why university performance differs, although researched, seem much more elusive.

The effect of improving men’s university performance vis-a-vis women’s might be counter-intuitive, and lead to greater gender equality in the workplace. However, until we know the reasons behind the performance difference, we can’t be sure that reducing it will have positive long-term benefits.

Don’t Knock It

IMG_0200[1]One thing I’ve noticed in the School here at Brookes, is the differing extent to which staff doors are open or shut during working hours.

And, over the past few weeks, I’ve met several approaches to having an open office door. One lecturer, at a recent event said that she and her colleagues persistently work at home wherever possible, to prevent students from being able to knock at their doors and interrupt them. Another lecturer says that he has his office door more often open than his colleagues – and seems to be viewed as more approachable than they are, as a result.

That, in itself, isn’t surprising. Research shows that students are less likely to approach a lecturer who has a closed, versus an open, office door (Nichols, Wobbrock, Gergle & Forlizzi, 2002).

Bearing this in mind, and notwithstanding certain periods of the day when the noise outside makes it unfeasible to have the door open, I have tried my best to make myself available to my students.  Nevertheless, my appointments diary for this week looks like this:

apptsweek5And, having been encouraged in reflective practice, I’m wondering, in a week with two first year undergraduate deadlines, why this was the case. They’ve all met me.  Do I come across as unapproachable? Studies (e.g., Grayson, Clarke, & Miller, 2006) suggest that students want help from lecturers while they’re at university – do I need to work on my openness to them?  If rapport is also important (see Heffernan, Morrison, Sweeney, &  Jarratt, 2010) am I just expecting too much, too soon?

Or am I out of step with the times? Did the students have no problems with their assignments that couldn’t be solved online? Or is this a problem that is more endemic among lecturers – do most students feel unable to approach a lecturer face-to-face for academic help, unless the contact is a course requirement? What motivates lecturers to leaving the door open or shut? Experiences and comments welcome.