Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

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With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim

Present or else!

It’s spring break – that is, for everyone who attends or teaches in a grammar school in Ontario. This year I decided, along with several of my cycling friends who are grammar school teachers, that I needed a break break (I spent our Reading Week mostly working and fretting; it was not a break), so I decided to give my students a mid-March channel change. This week, they are working independently while I ride up a bunch of mountains in Table Rock, South Carolina. I’m on my bike 3-4 hours a day and otherwise sitting quietly, catching up on reading, eating (mostly) healthy and abundant food, drinking no alcohol whatsoever, and having a deep think.

One of the things I’m thinking about is the relationship between the assignments on my courses and student learning outcomes. How am I getting students where they need to be, on one hand, and where I want them to go, on the other? I’ve been considering lately how we might talk in new ways – to students, parents, administrators, and each other – about what social goods adhere to arts and humanities learning, and how those goods can be brought to bear on our “creative”, “information”, and “post-truth” economies (choose your adjective – I think they all mean similar things right now, alas). In particular, I’m wondering how we can start that process of revaluation inside the neoliberal university, encouraging administrators at the highest levels to recognise arts and humanities teaching as something to be better appreciated – both affectively, and fiscally – across faculty lines.

So, assignments. It matters what we ask students to do for marks, and not least because that impacts directly who can, or will, take our classes – students might want desperately to learn more about theatre, for example, but might not want to write a bunch of essays because a) they suck at them, b) essays aren’t valued in their home discipline, and/or c) they can’t afford to get a bunch of less than good grades on essays at which they believe they suck. (I recognise the inherent problem with fear of failure here, AND the problem with fear of learning new and hard things – but that’s another post.)

As I’ve been building my new Theatre Studies courses at Western (so far: intro to performance studies [“Performance Beyond Theatres”]; history of performance theory; a study abroad number called “Destination Theatre”), I’ve paid particular attention to alternative assignment submission structures. For example, this term students in both of my courses have the option of creating a traditional essay, a creative essay, OR an audio-video piece for their final projects. Research requirements are the same across all three, but the format options are designed to play to students’ individual strengths and interests.

One thing I’ve not managed to hack yet, though, is in-class presentations.

When I teach dramatic literature classes, I put students in groups and assign plays for scene study; sometimes we do these weekly, and sometimes we run scheduled scene study workshop days and show our labour all together. I’ve done both, each time incorporating Q&A sessions with each group, and they both work really well. The students learn deeply about the plays they are assigned, and they have the creative freedom (built into the assignment) to play around with the text, including the freedom to do a re-write or a physical theatre re-imagining of the work. Over the last decade, consistently students have returned again and again to their scene study texts over a semester or a year, doing superb things with them on essays, final exams, etc. The scene study assignments are both fun and win-win, where deep learning is concerned.

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OK, so this ain’t a scene study action shot. But it IS of my students – in last semester’s intro to performance studies – and they ARE making theatre (image theatre, to be precise). Plus, I just really love this photo. The students in the foreground are Olivia Helewa and Muhammed Sameer.

When I teach theory classes, however, I take a different approach. We’re learning a lot of challenging material, and all of it requires a knowledge of context. I scaffold assignments to help students figure out how to make sense of a piece of tough theory; I also invite research into social history and political context.

Right now, for example, my history of performance theory group are doing three short reflection papers. One asks them simply to “explain” the key ideas in a work – that’s it. The second asks them to “apply” the theory to something they’ve recently seen, live or on-screen. The third asks them to “expand” a theorist’s ideas by challenging, or pushing further, one of the more controversial aspects of the theory. They are also each required to do one in-class presentation on one theorist, offering social and political background to help us ground the theorist and their writing in space and time.

In the main, the presentations this year have been fine but not stand-out. The problem, of course, is that students find presentations stressful – and then they speak too quickly, or try to cram in too much information, and so on. They are worried they’ll miss some key point to do with the history; they are worried they won’t get through everything in 10 minutes; they are new to the material and thus unsure about everything they are saying. They are mighty nervous, full stop.

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Yup: sorta like that nervous.

I assign presentations of this sort in part to test this kind of stress; after all, many jobs require human beings to present material they have studied and/or know about in front of other human beings who do not know about it (yet). So learning to present comfortably and successfully in front of a group is a very, very transferable skill – and performance classes should teach it.

And yet. I’ve started really to question my use of the bog-standard context presentation this year. How much value is it adding to student experience in the class overall, and to the arsenal of students’ knowledge about themselves (or even about performance theory!) in particular? This isn’t a public speaking class; I don’t have the time in thirteen short weeks to cover the last 2000 years of thinking about drama and live performance, and to help students become stronger public speakers.

At least, not in this format I don’t.

Which is why, as I’ve been sitting here and gazing out at the Appalachians, I’ve been wondering about presentation alternatives.

The stress that builds up around scene study work is different from the typical public speaking stress I see in one-on-class presentations: it’s creative stress, it’s about anticipation rather than fear or dread, and it tends to be shared among group members in ways that usually work to alleviate rather than ramp up panic. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s ultimately more productive stress than the other kind: it encourages students to work in teams to support each others’ emotional and creative needs, and it requires both resourcefulness and flexibility, rather than just Wikipedia-trolling skills. These are, as my colleague and friend Barry Freeman argued in a recent reflection on the future of theatre studies teaching and learning (in the “Views and Reviews” section of CTR 161), exactly the kinds of skills we as theatre instructors need to provide for a range of learners – they are even more transferable, arguably, to both work and life, than the basic skill of “public speaking”.

I’m now trying to imagine how to incorporate more of my dram lit scene study model into my theory classes. I’m envisioning a “workshop” format for next year’s history of performance theory, in which every couple of weeks groups of students present a scene from a play or another piece of creative work designed to model two or three key ideas from the theorists we are studying. Or maybe I’ll trial a capstone format, where in the last week of class groups of students present creative material they’ve developed in response to one theorist’s work – a scene study, a manifesto, or a theorist “update” for the twenty-first century.

As usual, I’ll be polling this year’s class for their input at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, though, if you teach theory classes, and have creative ideas for in-class presentations, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Kim

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

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I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

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I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim

Hack the final!

My department requires me to give a final exam in every one of my undergraduate courses at the second and third year levels. Technically this is an English Lit department, but it also manages the administration of our Theatre Studies program, on which I principally teach, and that means I’m required to give finals in all of my my lower-level theatre courses, at least for right now. What’s worse, university regulations require me to make the final exam in each class worth at least 30% of a student’s final grade. ACK!

This regulation has long struck me (even when I was primarily teaching English classes) as troublesome, and pedagogically unsound. I should say right away that I’m in no way against final exams per se; I recognise that they can be a very efficient way, especially in larger classes, to ensure students have covered a course’s broad bases and read key texts. They are a due diligence exercise for teachers and students, requiring one to connect learning expectations to potential outcomes, and the other to demonstrate that they have taken at least some of those expectations seriously.

But in classes based on the shared critical exploration of cultural works, and in particular works of art, exams have limited use value at the best of times. And in a course like my “Performance Beyond Theatres”, which introduces students to the discipline of performance studies and the practice of live art making through a political lens, final exams feel positively draconian.

My students and I have spent the term watching films from Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingston to What Would Jesus Buy featuring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping; we’ve done a workshop on Augusto Boal’s image theatre technique; we’ve made video reports about cultural events around our city; we’ve taken a road trip to Toronto for Nuit Blanche; we’ve created group performance “actions” based on current issues on campus; and together we’ve worked through the (not inconsiderable) challenges of creating a marking rubric for such a personality-driven, aesthetically-focused creative task.

In short, we’ve been a team of forensic performance makers and hacktivists, a community more than a class. How could we possibly now sit down and write a final?

I first faced this challenge two years ago. My solution then was to request a take-home exam from my academic dean, which he kindly granted. I argued that a take-home would offer my students much more scope for creative reflection on the semester’s work and ease the burden of translating our unconventional labour into basic written form. To my surprise, though, some of the students felt pressurised by the take-home-ness of the exam. If it’s to be done at home by X date, what’s to stop you from taking 30 hours, rather than 3, to complete it? Should you let it eat your life? If you don’t, will you get a poorer grade?

So I switched up the hack. Instead, the following year, I invited my undergraduate students to crowd-source the final exam with me. It worked. Contrary to what the cynics in us might expect, students didn’t generally beg for easy; instead, they thought every bit as creatively about potential exam tasks as they had about our work throughout the year. The first creative commons exam I produced, in my performance theory class in 2015, included questions like: “create your own ‘Gerouldian’* introduction for one of the theorists on the second half of the course”, and “watch the following performance clip. Select a theorist from the course. Impersonate that theorist’s voice and attitude, as well as his or her ideological position. Critique the performance clip from his/her perspective.” The resulting exam papers were an absolute blast to read.

How go about crowd-sourcing a final? This past term, in Performance Beyond Theatres, we spent a chunk of the last day of the term dreaming up ideal kinds of questions we might like to face, and then we worked together on the questions themselves. I asked the students first to weigh in on our course blog with their preferred category of exam question (short answer? essay? creative option? what kind?), and then with their ideal question based on our term’s work. About 30% of the class chose to contribute this way; in class, we looked at the responses and then did the same exercise again, this time in teams.

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As we debriefed the exercise, I discovered that this group of students were keen on options: maybe an essay, OR a creative option, or both? Maybe some short answer mixed in, but again, optional – not everyone wanted that one, though some very vocally did. I suggested perhaps I could create an exam with a host of options, and students would be invited to mix and match questions, based on points value, to make up 100; this would leave the responsibility for a good range of responses up to the student, but would not pressure anyone to do any kind of task that didn’t suit their learning style. The room loved this idea.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: THIS KIND OF FREEDOM DEFIES THE PURPOSE OF AN EXAM! Honestly, I disagree. What’s an exam for? To test reading, synthesis, uptake? To find out what students learned and didn’t learn? Sure – all those things. But ask yourselves this: what do you remember of the courses you took as undergrads? I have a PhD and am a professor at a respected research university in central Canada; I remember literally FOUR pieces of content from my undergraduate career, only one of which has had any genuine relevance for me as a scholar (thank you, Dianne Chisholm!).

The stuff I really, really remember all has to do with the way I learned, the way I was taught, the collaborations I was invited to participate in, and the things I learned about myself through those collaborations. That stuff stuck with me – and it informed the teacher and researcher I became in a number of key ways.

My final exam hack, then, isn’t about creating an “easy” exam; it’s entirely about giving students ownership over the process, as well as a say in the nature of the course content and practice we are testing.

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As an exam-building team in PbT, we came up with a number of great essay and creative-option questions driven by exactly this logic. One question asked students to reflect on the “learning outcomes” listed in our syllabus, and to use a technique called thick description to examine moments from the term when those outcomes were met, or not. (The results of the seven answers to that question I received were fascinating; I’ll share them in a separate post soon.) Another option asked students to reflect on a recent moment from their personal lives that could be better understood and processed using a handful of the theories we’d read or art works we’d looked at together. Still another asked students to consider a recent global event (ex: Trump’s election; the Brexit vote; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock) through the lens of our course work. My favourite creative option asked students to imagine two of the artists or theorists on our course as moderators for a Trump-Clinton presidential debate, and to create candidate dialogue based on their work. (Only one student took that option up, but hers was an utterly brilliant, smart and superbly crafted job. I laughed out loud while reading! She earned the highest grade in the class.)

There’s one more key to my final exam hack: students get to see the exam in advance. For the PbT gang, I posted the exam questions to our online learning portal the afternoon of our last class. I invited them to prepare as they wished; I emphasised that there was no “right” prep method, only the one that each student felt would best contribute to their own success. They might write answers up in advance and bring them on pieces of paper; they might plan outlines and bring those along on the day; they might re-read and re-watch course material, make fresh notes with the exam questions in mind, and bring those notes with. All books were permitted in the exam; so was food, music (in headphones), and anything else to make us more comfortable. I emphasised that this need not be a formal, hushed environment in which we fetishise sitting still and concentrating really hard; that was not the nature of our work together, so it ought not to feature in our test environment. The only rule: no disturbing those who wanted to work quietly. Some students chose to write the exam like any other, sure, but many appreciated the more relaxed environment. I know I did.

What was the result? The majority of students did very well indeed – their preparedness shone through and I saw real, marked evidence of their understanding the material. Many chose to quote readings directly, multiple times; a number made truly original connections amongst our course materials and came up with exciting new ideas. Most of all, I noticed that virtually everyone had fully prepped for the exam: books had sticky notes marking key readings; typed or hand-written notes featured bullet points and connecting arrows. A few wrote portions of their answers in advance, but this was not the norm. Mostly, the norm was fulsome readiness to explore the questions in the room on the day. I suspect that, having removed the fear factor (what will the questions be??!!), the exam hack gave students the confidence to know that preparedness would pay off, so they really, really prepared.

Will I keep doing this? As long as I’m required to give final exams in Theatre Studies classes, for sure. But to be honest I might enjoy doing it even if not required. I really like the opportunity hacking the final affords us to think critically, as a class community, about the intended purpose and outcomes of a final, especially in Arts and Fine Arts courses. Capstone tasks – from finals to presentations to portfolios – are inevitably based on a series of critical assumptions about how learning should culminate and be demonstrated; so much of our learning, though, is processual and driven not by content retention but by learning about the process of learning itself. How to “test” that? Maybe by testing the task, to see if it measures up.

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Kim

PS: for those of you keeping track, I am indeed preparing the third of my reflections on mobility, space, and access, featuring a review of the astonishing Shakespeare Trilogy at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Look for that in your virtual stocking next week.

*Daniel C. Gerould was my remarkable and respected colleague at the CUNY graduate centre until his death in 2012. He edited the popular textbook Theatre/Theory/Theatre, which features gossipy, delightful introductions for each of the authors he spotlights. In my performance theory course, we use that book for one half of the term before moving on to more contemporary writings.

You are, in yourself, wonderful. Even in the darkest months, it’s true!

END OF TERM. Oh god. I could not be more tired and I think I’ve cried enough in the past week that I may be accidentally mistaken for a hormonal 12-year-old. But nope, still an adult: just an adult under maximum end of semester stress. AAGGHH!!!

If I think I’m in trouble, though, just imagine my poor students! I have 42 years of figuring out how to be resilient, eat well, manage stress, get enough sleep. And still I’m a weepy mess! Which makes me think, as I walk into my classrooms in these last few days of the term and look into their eyes, how hard it must be for all of them to be keeping their shit together right now.

(Indeed, on Tuesday, our “performance action” showcase day in my undergraduate class, I learned that one of the students had just lost a loved one on the weekend. Still this student showed up and pulled out a great performance. THAT is resilience; it’s also really hard, when you’re, like, 19. HUGE kudos.)

All this to say I was both delighted and relieved to see, this morning in my daily blog digest, an uplifting and inspiring post by the amazing Carly, who also writes with me at Fit is a Feminist Issue, about student mental and sexual health.

I’m linking the post HERE; it’s called “all bodies are good bodies, my body is a good body: affirmation as a path to better health”. Please have a read, especially if there are young people in your life who may be struggling with identity issues and/or issues of shame and fear around their gender and sexuality right now. (I’m 42 and totally [ok, mostly] clear on who I am as a sexual human, but STILL I felt much, much better about myself and my own choices after reading this moving, tender post.)

What’s it about? Carly writes of an amazing project she was involved with at Planned Parenthood Toronto, creating affirmation postcards with young people for wide distribution among centres and constituencies where those in need could find them and take strength and solace from them. The best part? If you feel inspired – for your students, your kids, the kids around your neighbourhood, the kids who hang out at the community centre on the corner of your street, the kids in trouble who live in the ravine near your house (that’s me)… – you can download the PDF of the postcards the team made, print them out, and share them on your own, near and far and wide.

What a wonderful gift, this first day of Advent 2016.

(PLUS: this is a terrific opportunity to support Planned Parenthood in kind, if you cannot afford to make a donation, at this precarious time for this incredibly important organisation.)

Enjoy, be strong, feel complete in yourself!

Kim