Q: Students lead in U:PASS for a wide variety of reasons – to mentor, to gain leadership skills, to improve communication skills, to get educational experience, to see what it’s like working for UTS. What’s something you feel you have gained in one (or more) of these areas over the last fortnight? Why? (You may also choose another area if you wish!) 🙂
A: Presentation skills – last week, I had a presentation in (subject) class, apart from giving a normal presentation (one-way), it also required us to engage the students to the discussion and made the presentation more lively. I and my friend (another U:PASS leader) did well and received very good feedback from the lecturer! I think it’s all thanks to the experience and skills I gained from U:PASS 🙂
One of the trickiest things to do is get students to engage and talk in the classroom.
But why do we want to? Why does class engagement matter?
Why do we care that students are talking in U:PASS?
Firstly, when students talk to each other, they realise they’re not alone. They lose the feeling of being alone and start to understand other students are struggling to learn too.
Also, U:PASS leaders are mentors to the students. If there is no discussion in the classroom, students won’t talk to the leaders, and the leaders won’t be able to mentor them appropriately. You can’t mentor if you don’t know what they need!
One of the main goals of U:PASS is to help the students form friendships and learning communities that will last throughout their degree. To form these communities, they need to engage and get to know each other.
Another reason is it’s genuinely more fun to collaborate rather than always sitting in silence. Using the language of the discipline helps them to form their discipline identity too. And finally, collaborating builds graduate attributes, including working with other people and practising your communication skills.
There are 3 principles you need to consider in getting students to collaborate in the class room.
They are the environment you set up, the learning design you create, and understanding the people you are working with.
Firstly the environment.
Students will feel less intimidated if they see you as one of them. So sitting alongside your learners in the classroom is important.
Similarly, avoid standing at the front. Standing at the front implies a hierarchical relationship where you will talk and they will listen. If you stay away from the front, you can avoid that expectation of that type of learning. This is useful for any type of teaching, not just U:PASS facilitation.
Thirdly, put the furniture in a group arrangement and ask the students to sit or move into groups. Students are much more likely to engage with each other when they are sitting next to each other versus across the room. Sometimes you will need to be quite firm to get the students to move as people naturally sit far away from each other when given the choice.
One thing I’ve done even in lecture theatres is asked students to turn around and work with the person behind them – it’s quite possible. Lucky for us, there are lots of collaborative spaces at UTS though!
The second thing to consider is how you design the learning activities the students will do. The first thing you can try is butchers paper. Using butchers paper encourages students to form a group around the paper, to contribute to what’s being put on the paper, and takes the focus away from individual worksheets to a group worksheet, of sorts.
Another strategy that has been found to be helpful by leaders is limiting the resources. If students have to share the worksheets, then they need to talk to each other.
It’s really important to design activities that are group based. Ask the students to work together in groups, and say that any of them could be asked to speak on behalf of the group, so they all have to understand the answer they prepare.
Breaking them up into groups is easy. You can simply number the students, allocate via month of birth, or height, or anything. It’s fun to mix it up and if you don’t break groups up you will get students who are used to slacking off together slacking off again. Pushing students to talk to students who they wouldn’t normally talk to will also increase the engagement and comfort in the room in the long run.
Another element that really encourages students to work together is competitions. If they are part of a team, competing against their classmates, that can encourage collaboration.
Games can also be a wonderful and creative way of getting students to learn and work together. Often times, games are really remembered too – which is an extra bonus! Some of my favourite games are Charades (for example, miming a movement when learning about the different ways a joint moves), Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (team based groups working on increasingly harder questions), or even just using an interactive quiz like Kahoot or Socrative.
The third element to getting students to talk in the class room is understanding them.
Some students are scared to speak for fear of being judged or thought stupid.
Other students need time to form their answer, either because they reflect before speaking, or because they need to translate their thoughts into English.
And a final reason students don’t speak up is that they just don’t know what the answer is.
To help with the fear, set the expectations of the class. Encourage students to make mistakes, be genuine and open, and build friendships and rapport with the students.
Try hard to learn names – students will forgive you if you get it wrong – but name tags and rolls are your friend. There’s something powerful about learning names and someone knowing who you are which speaks to our identity.
Be encouraging and gentle. But most of all, be kind.
When students don’t know the answer, redirect them. To lecture notes, textbooks, worksheets, online resources, or to other students who have already got the answer.
To sum up:
- Manage the learning environment to create collaborative spaces.
- Design the learning to be collaborative
- And don’t forget the reasons people don’t speak and collaborate. Be kind, compassionate and genuine.
 Thanks to Dr Anne Gardner from Faculty of Engineering and IT for this thought
Something I wrote 5 years ago before this blog:
Issue: So you’ve got your class sitting in groups around tables, and you’ve said “talk to each other”? But they are still working solo. What to do next?
- Use butcher’s paper in the middle of a group of students – get students to present to other groups. That way they have to work together.
- Minimum number of worksheets – sharing a worksheet helps people talk to each other.
- Allocate groups to present – e.g. tell them that you’ll pick someone to contribute from their group, and you’re not going to tell them who. That means everyone needs to understand and help each other.
- Have a competition where they have one table against another. People will work together to make sure they get the right answer as a group.
I just wanted to share with you one of my leader’s session reports from their first few weeks of being a leader:
Understanding how to help a learner who is struggling to keep up:
“Q: Were there any problems with some members of the group?
Q: If yes, how did you deal with that?
A: 1. There was 1 student who found it hard to follow up with the rest. He was often 1 step behind in understanding the questions and answering them. He also often directly asked me to explain things to him. The things he was asking, in most cases, are what the other students already understood, therefore it kind of slowed down the session, and bored the other students.
–> I often guide him to the lecture slides or the textbook page that he needed to read, or pair him up with the best student in the class. And I made sure that he knew this way would be better for him, so he wouldn’t get offended seeing me not answering his questions.”
Seeing how the students really REALLY learn:
“Q: What went well in your sessions this fortnight and why?
A: I think, the first thing that surprised me was the students’ willingness to try and learn. I prepared myself for moments when they would not listen to me, however, on the contrary, as long as I clearly explain what we were doing and why we were doing that, they were happy to follow. For example, some students showed up expecting to do just a quiz, get some topic summary, then leave, because somehow this was their initial expectation of U:PASS. Realizing this, I explained how the group game will benefit them in quickly gain understanding of the topic, rather than merely memorizing the summary. They nodded and willingly participate in the game. After the game ended, they shared with me that they didn’t think it would help so much, and that they felt like their brain had worked so much after 10 minutes of the game so now “all the concepts are just spinning in my head, and they won’t leave” 🙂
This really enlightened me about how important it is to explain to students the importance of U:PASS activities. Whether it is a Taboo game, a brief group presentation, as long as they understood it’s better for them, they would love to join.”
One of the most common frustrations of U:PASS leaders is “I can’t get my students to talk to each other!”
Here’s some tips that I share:
1. Room arrangement is crucial. If the students are sitting in rows, facing the front, then it’s very hard for them to talk to each other and collaborate. At the minimum, get them to move and sit next to each other – ideally in grouped tables facing each other
2. Structure your class so that talking is not just optional but necessary. This can be via group work or pair work, such as: brainstorming, multiple choice competitions, breaking into teams, or allocating specific exercises to different groups. If you just give students a worksheet, they will work on it individually. You need to actively design your class so that they HAVE to talk.
3. Know that talking in front of people is scary. There’s a reason a lot of students stay quiet. And sometimes that reason is that they have no idea! But sometimes it’s because they’re scared to speak – scared to look foolish or stupid in front of others, scared to show they don’t understand something. Two things help: your own humanity and how you manage it. Be yourself – be kind, compassionate, genuine. Explain that you get stuff wrong sometimes. Be human in the classroom. Be relatable. The second thing: get them to share their ideas with each other before they speak up – or ask them to tell you privately. That way the risk of looking stupid is reduced and shared – after all, if you both think that’s the answer, and you’re both wrong, well, that’s less intimidating!
In late March I interview L, who is an international student from China. She completed the U:PASS training and then has been leading all semester. This is her final evaluation – look at this understanding of what students need and how to help them!!
“Q: What went well in your sessions this fortnight and why?
A: As final period is coming, we mainly focused on practise question in these weeks. Told the students that they should finish the question in limited time (e.g.5 mins, 6 mins) and do questions individually (try to practise them in an exam mode). Then asked them to write answer to the whiteboard and explain, then see whether other students agree or disagree, and discuss (volunteers and other participants can get lollies). Giving chance to student to explain the solution is a good way to make them remember how to work with it. Besides, for the students who make comments on it, it also helps them understand and remember how they . This could be a good practise before the exams.
In the final week, as the time was limited, it was a bit difficult to cover two topics. So, for the final topic – international finance, we went through the steps for solutions that could benefit them to answer question on exams.
Finally, i found that some students felt panic about the exam and didn’t know how to do the revision, and they have kept asking me about the exam since week 9. In the final session, i shared some of my experience for exams and revisions. and told some students who didn’t finish the practise question in time during the session, should go for more practises and speed up answering the questions.”
Q: What went well in your sessions this fortnight and why?
A: MY STUDENTS STARTED TALKING WITHOUT ENCOURAGEMENT (insert fireworks and other celebratory things). The students seemed comfortable this week. There was chatty banter going on, and they worked together quite cohesively. Breakthrough for all, and the best thing that has happen thus far.