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.)

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024

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

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