Corrupted by the dark side

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: As the semester is nearly over, I’ve found the content is often broken up in a way that the students find difficult to process (particularly intuitively). I’ve often found myself trying to teach a more intuitive method as the processes they’re taught isn’t a good way for them to understand the content. I need to get better at not teaching, this is my main goal for next session.
Nevertheless, the younglings shall soon learn the power of the dark side.
A: I believe the younglings show great potential. They will make worthy apprentices in the future. We must take action and mould them now before their minds are corrupted by others….like the mechanical engineers *shudder*

The benefits of staying awhile

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with someone whose resume was a potted history – a year at this place, 2 years at that place, over the course of 10 years or so before they came to work with me.  This person wasn’t a new graduate – it is entirely expected of course that a university student will have a number of different jobs over their studies (although there is always such merit in someone who has worked at McDonalds or Coles for 4 years) – so I remember reading the resume and thinking to myself that it was wise to be a bit cautious around this person.

That hunch was so correct!! Over time it proved that this person was difficult to work with and the reason they had a potted history is that they left a trail of broken interpersonal relationships in their wake. Linked In is an interesting medium in that you can keep up with where people go in their career. It’s a bit stalkerish of course, but I would argue everyone’s information is their own, so you choose what and how you display your information. At least that’s my justification! An online resume, if you will. And for me, having had over 600 people work for me since I started at UTS, and about another 5 -10 before that, seeing how peoples’ careers progress is interesting, because I am interested in them. And I want to learn from where they are now, to help my next generation of graduates.

Anyway, this person, since working alongside me, has gone on to have a year here, a year there, 2 years here again. You could of course argue that regular career changes are a good thing, and those of us who don’t change are stagnant and caught in a rut. For honesty’s sake, it is true that I have had mostly the same job for almost 10 years, but with a lot of interesting and different projects along the way and with it morphing into more learning support as I’ve gone along. But I think there is merit, indeed a great deal of merit, in staying in a job and it says a lot about your character that is good (and perhaps a lot that is not).

But what does it say? Firstly, it says you can get on with people, at least to an extent. I’ve now been with my current colleagues for almost 5 years, and while things are never perfect, we’ve muddled along pretty well, along life’s ups and downs, and always believing in each other and the work we do.  It’s a form of career marriage, I guess. You spend years alongside these people, you get to know that that colleague loves to cycle on the weekend, or that colleague has a great fashion sense. You mourn with your colleague when a loved one dies, and you rejoice when they get a grant or win a prize.  You don’t get that if you don’t stay around people.

Also, you get to know many people across the organisation, and many people get to know you. It’s a lesson I frequently share with my leaders: your reputation, your professional standing in an organisation, matters. Even before I came to UTS, people knew of me. They knew bits about me, and we are now so connected, that’s it’s easy to see who knows who and who belongs to who, and that informal network is a vital one.  I used to joke that by the time I left UNSW I couldn’t walk across campus without running into someone. Now, that’s 10 times worse, for I’ve worked longer at UTS, been involved in more projects, met many varied people, and employed over 600 student leaders.  I literally cannot walk across campus without running into someone I know, often 3 or 4 people, and I have to build in travel time that ensures I’m not late to things because invariably I’ll have a quick chat with someone.

Of course, that’s easier in the closeness of the buildings at UTS. It makes me laugh when students complain about travel times across campus. We actually have a relatively small campus, and it is quite possible to get from one end to the other in 10 minutes, as long as you don’t dawdle. My first year at UNSW I walked miles, going up the hill for maths, down the hill for physics, up the hill again for more maths, and down the hill again for chemistry. I don’t know what campus in Australia has a hill like UNSW.

Anyway, I digress. But the closeness of buildings at UTS does make it easier to run into people, and the longer I stay at UTS, the more I do. My colleague used to joke I was UTS Facebook, and to a small extent that’s true.

If you leave an organisation after a year or two, then you lose that familiarity, and have to start your network almost from scratch again.  Though I always bear in mind my wonderful ex-boss at UNSW, who said to me, after I confessed I wouldn’t know anyone at UTS “Did you know people when you first arrived at UNSW?  Well then, you just do the same thing you did here”.  I held onto those words for a long time adjusting to the different university community.

Don’t get me wrong – I think when you’re young, in your 20’s, you’re probably wise to move around a bit, but I guess I’m thinking that after a few years it is a good idea to stay a little longer. Another reason is that moving around a lot implies a restlessness of spirit. I’m always frustrated when I hire a new student leader, and they leave after a semester. Not the ones who only have a semester to go in their degree, of course that’s fine! But the ones I was hoping to hang onto for a few years. In the main, they are law students, or perhaps business, and are often so hyper-ambitiously focussed on racking up work experiences. But I still get frustrated by it. Why?  Well, you hire someone and you train them and you know the learning curve gradient is the steepest in the first semester. Then you know that that curve starts to level out. You hope that the leader will continue to learn, and indeed the Senior Leader program I have implemented encourages further learning, but you know that the most learning they get is in the first semester, and subsequently, that’s easily their worst semester in terms of being a leader.

The longer someone stays, hopefully the better facilitator and teacher they become. They become extremely familiar with the learning materials, and start to see beyond the daily class to the structure of the course and focus of the learning over time. Nothing gives me more delight than seeing a leader move from U:PASS, to tutoring in the subject, to lecturing in the subject, to being the subject coordinator. I know that their grounding in facilitating learning, rather than passive lecturing, will stand them well.  And that’s what you lose when someone moves on. You lose the gaining of expertise, and you have to start again with another new leader.

Of course, I do love watching that learning curve and recruiting newbies.  It’s not like I dislike it. But there’s something to be said for someone who stays, who commits, who walks along with you. And over the years, they are the leaders that I’ve known the best and become friends with after they graduate.

But a restless spirit? They are never going to reach that level of expertise, and hiring a restless spirit will inevitably mean having to train someone else in a year or two, after they move on.

Of course, there’s something about being stuck in a rut that is not good either. I’ve been talking to another friend, who is in the same position they’ve been in for years, and unhappily so. It’s hard to stay in a job where you want to leave. In fact, when I’ve been in that situation, which has happened, I did leave. I am extremely fortunate in that while I still find aspects of my job exhausting and hard, I love the opportunity to grow and develop new leaders. I love meeting new personalities who I get to know. I love to see people change and grow up.

I’m also fortunate that the side projects I’ve been involved in over the years, things like developing a mentoring course manual and training, developing the senior leader program, developing a website for students, looking at a learning tool to help people recognise and identify their learning strengths and areas for development, and doing additional analysis on the program outside the regular analysis, as well as the biggest shift of becoming a learning advisor for students in addition to my management role, have given enough variety to keep life and work interesting.

Basically, this post is saying that I think you have to be careful hiring people with a potted history of employment. I’m not sure it says good things, particularly once they reach their 30’s, and I think there is merit staying in jobs for longer than a year or so. At least jobs like mine.


From a leader’s session report:

Q: What went well in your sessions this fortnight and why?
A: -During Inti’s gameficiation workshop, I worked alongside other U:Pass leaders on a fun concept to help spruce up the topic of Electricity. The product of which was a sci-fi themed session that I ran for one of my classes, which got students to work in teams in a race to save humanity against a robot invasion. I began the session with an immersive powerpoint presentation, that had a soundtrack of suspenseful music playing. This immediately got students engaged, some of which amusingly whipped out their phones and shared the moment on Snapchat. One of the requirements for team progression was that each student needed to be able to explain their answer if asked, which prompted a great deal of camaraderie and involvement in class. I’m happy to report students finished the sheet 15 mins early, despite having to work through more problems than usual, and more importantly, they shared how fun and engaging the class was. I had students offering me to pay for the session, which I found humorous but moreso inspiring. The success of the session just goes to show embracing the spirit of U:Pass can also be applied to collaborating with the other leaders.

Presenting well :)

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 🙂

My students don’t talk

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[1]. 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.

[1] Thanks to Dr Anne Gardner from Faculty of Engineering and IT for this thought

Getting your group to interact

Something I wrote 5 years ago before this blog:


Unpacking getting your group to interact:

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.

Being reminded of their wonderful skills

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?

A: Yes

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.”