February 18, 2013

Engaging students: beyond assessment and towards discovery

I recently attended an excellent Window on Teaching session at the Library’s Teaching Grid presented by Nick Barker, Head of the Chemistry department’s Outreach programme and WATE winner, which addressed one of the trickiest questions in university teaching: student engagement and participation. The title of Nick’s presentation: ‘Do I need to know this?’ was central to the session. While Nick provided a brilliant synthesis of some of the reasons behind this all-too-common question, he also encouraged participants to think of ways to overcome this barrier to student learning. It occurred to me that while the current British (or at least English and Welsh) school system encourages continual assessment from the age of 11 (with other external tests from a far younger age), this is perhaps not the only reason for some students’ somewhat selective view of exactly what material is necessary.

Indeed, some of the problem arguably lies with the way in which subjects are taught at all levels, but especially once students arrive at university, where the ‘curriculum’ to use the term loosely, is more-or-less devised by the teacher. I wonder if, as a teacher, one continually reminds students of the assessment, one is perhaps more likely to find that students are less engaged with material which may not be assessed at the end of the module/course. Are there, though, some subjects or methods of teaching subjects, which can overcome the student emphasis on assessment ahead of learning for the sheer sake of learning?

I have found in my own teaching that a combination of controversy and multimedia can help to engage students with aspects of a topic that are unlikely to crop up in any exam or essay question. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be a specialist in a 'popular' area of the broad French Studies discipline; modern history and politics modules at Warwick and elsewhere tend to recruit very well, in part because of their relevance to the modern-day. This perhaps already gives me something of an advantage when trying to engage students; contemporary references to events of the last seventy or so years of French history are not hard to find. Like many teachers, I also strive to give students as much exposure as possible to my favoured subjects. Enthusiasm for the subject matter as a whole (or in my case the seventy year period I tend to cover in my teaching) is one immediate way of ensuring students do not focus exclusively on the issue of assessment.

It helps, however, to employ additional techniques alongside this enthusiastic approach. I regularly use film in my teaching to give students greater exposure to a topic. Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide a different perspective on a subject while also encouraging students to think beyond the material covered in a lecture. While secondary material can sometimes prove ‘dry’ and un-inspirational, film can, in the words of a former student, ‘bring the subject to life.’ Another method I have trialled recently is the use of primary sources such as campaign leaflets and webpages of candidates in last year’s French presidential elections. While it is unlikely that a particular candidate’s oratory style or views on popular culture will form part of any assessment, I have found that such materials encourage students to take a genuine interest in French politics as a whole.

I also wonder if there are some subjects whose sheer controversy or, in the sciences, explosiveness or capacity to change our lives, simply overcome any barriers to engagement, not least the ‘do I need to know this?’ dilemma. In my own field, topics like the Vichy regime’s complicity in the Holocaust and the subsequent collective amnesia which followed, tend to captivate students for their sheer controversy. On two occasions this academic year I have taught the Algerian War of Independence. For all students concerned the trauma of the ‘events’ in Algeria and the diversity of the participants, proved to be fascinating. For the Algerian War, as for other topics, I have always employed film as a means of engaging students, but it is consistently the controversial and bloody nature of the events (which I repeatedly highlight in lectures and in seminar discussions) that encourage students to really grapple with the subject for the sake of learning.

While I am not suggesting, of course, that teachers never refer to assessment, since it is undoubtedly important for students to know how they will be assessed, the adoption of teaching materials like film, along with an emphasis on the relevance or impact of a subject on society, can encourage students to look beyond their essay or exam and to examine the subject out of intellectual curiosity. Universities should, as Thomas Docherty has noted, be governed by ‘actions of discovery.’ Through offering students the chance to investigate subjects without the constant reminder of assessment, and through employing a range of teaching resources, perhaps we might overcome the ‘do I need to know this?’ issue highlighted by Nick Barker and help to facilitate some actions of discovery for our students.


Thomas Docherty, For the University (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

- 4 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sarah Richardson

    Thanks for this David. However, I also think that we could be more imaginative in our assessment tasks, so that they support student learning. Perhaps then students would not be obsessed with what may come up on an exam paper…

    18 Feb 2013, 19:07

  2. Thanks for your comment Sarah. I completely agree- maybe if we employed more creative assessment methods (like audiovisual portfolios or in-depth research projects) rather than the restrictive exam/essay format, which generally allows only for a broad coverage of the topic, then the “need to know” dilemma could potentially disappear. My suggestions are only very tentative and only account for my own practice, but it seems that the insistence on assessment poses a real barrier to student engagement.

    18 Feb 2013, 20:11

  3. Emma Cragg

    Great post David. The Window on Teaching was incredibly thought provoking but I’ve not quite managed to distill my feelings on the topic yet. I’m glad you were able to capture the questions posed by Nick and continue the discussion here.

    19 Feb 2013, 11:54

  4. Thanks a lot for your comment Emma. It really was a thought-provoking session and I hope that the debate around assessment and the ‘need to know’ dilemna will continue to run. I think it’s only really through constructive debate and through thinking about varying our teaching and assessment methods that students’ approach to university-level learning will begin to alter. I don’t know if you’ve been following the debate on Twitter as well, but Charlotte Mathieson (@cemathieson) has been sharing some interesting thoughts.

    19 Feb 2013, 12:10

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