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Multicultural groups – additional thoughts

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago I posted my reflections on using compulsory multicultural groups in an essay assignment.  In that post I discussed the issues that arose from the assignment.  Unfortunately I was wearing blinkers at the time: I had tunnel vision.  I missed what is probably the most important benefit from using multicultural groups.

Happy Business TeamThe assignment essay was due three weeks before the end of the semester.  In the last four weeks of the semester I noticed far greater engagement in tutorials from international students generally and from students who spoke English as a second language in particular.  The timing of this improved engagement and that I had not detected similar changes in engagement in other units convinces me that the improved engagement was a result of the international students improving their cross-cultural communication skills.  The two elements I noticed in particular were that international students were more comfortable in conversing in English and that they had, somewhat, overcome their fear of being wrong.

This outcome makes all the effort worthwhile.

Literature research by students … yet again

December 12, 2013 2 comments

Six months ago I wrote of my frustration at students inability to perform literature research.  My frustrations remain.  This post details my experiences this semester, looks at what worked and questions what still can be done to improve the quality of literature research undertaken by students.

I implemented a few changes this semester to the way I taught literature research skills.  These changes have been partially successful.  Further modifications are needed.  This semester I amended my lecture notes to stress:

  • The importance of background reading before starting the literature search
  • Using reference lists from the background reading to find the first articles
  • Using the reference lists from the first articles to find other articles
  • Using the “cited by” link in Google Scholar to find more recent articles which cite the articles you have already found
  • Finally, using specialist research search engines (Google Scholar, Ebsco, Proquest, Jstor, etc) to find articles not found using other methods

I had foreshadowed making these amendments in my post six months ago.  I added an additional change which I had not written about; requiring students to submit a 300 word reflection on what they had learned about research in undertaking the assignment.  These reflections helped me understand the issues from students’ perspectives better.

No googleThe first point that surprised me is that a number of students wrote a reflection on what they had learned from their research, not a reflection on what they had learned about research.  I don’t think the requirement was ambiguous but it indicates that students’ focus is on acquiring technical skills rather than generic skills.

A second point that disturbed me was that the library was subverting my actions.  They were teaching students that literature research was using a search engine to find articles.  The library training taught students how to use search engines more effectively and how to choose the appropriate search engine but it did not discuss the importance of background reading for both choosing search terms and for assessing relevance of search results.  Also, the library did not discuss how to follow the reference chain using the article’s reference list and the “cited by” link in Google Scholar.

The third issue that surprised me was that the material I presented on how to judge quality of publications (ie identifying scholarly articles and books) and the importance of primary sources over secondary sources was novel to most students.  My students were, generally, second year undergraduate students.  I would have expected this to be existing knowledge by second year but apparently it is not.

However, the most important thing I learned from the reflections is that most students did not know what literature research was, let alone how to conduct it.  Many of the reflections described the activities undertaken and many discussed how they had used Google (or similar search engines) and how they were unable to find many articles on the topic.  I still need to find a way to address this problem.  I don’t think this is problem of the students being too lazy to do research properly.  What the problem is, I think, is that students do not understand what is wrong with their method and they think their method is the correct way of doing literature research.  I don’t think they are hearing the message that their are better methods because they do not get that their method is wrong.  The first step in training them how to do literature research is to convince students that their existing research method is faulty.  Only when they have accepted that message will they become open to learning about better methods.

I am going to experiment on methods of how to communicate this message by developing some multimedia tools.  I will play with creating a video or use Powtoons to create an animation.  The multimedia tools may help deliver the message more effectively than I can achieve just by putting the message in my lectures.

To get that message through to students I need to undo years of unthinking inductivism; hopefully I can achieve this without students suffering the same tragic demise as Russell’s inductive turkey.

Literature research by students

I know others have this problem as I have read about it elsewhere but it does not stop if from being frustrating.  Why do students think that a literature search requires putting the first search terms they can think of into Google (not Google Scholar) and summarising the first ten hits?  I spend time in lectures explaining how to do a literature search and how to use search engines properly, and I send students to the library training courses on literature research yet it does not change their behaviour.

I will go back and amend my lecture notes and other teaching materials to improve the scaffolding to address the problems that arose this semester.  In particular, I will stress:

  • The importance of background reading before starting the literature search
  • Using reference lists from the background reading to find the first articles
  • Using the reference lists from the first articles to find other articles
  • Using the “cited by” link in Google Scholar to find more recent articles which cite the articles you have already found
  • Finally, use specialist research search engines (Google Scholar, Ebsco, Proquest, Jstor, etc) to find articles not found using other methods

Maybe this time it will have an impact on students.  However in a recent article by a Wendy Fleet (2013), she stated that when students prepare assignments they do what they have done in the past.  So, in addition, I have added an explanation that the standard of work expected increases as students progress through their degrees.

Fleet, W. (2013). Why do students choose not to follow all instructions when completing assessment tasks? Accounting Education: An International Journal, 22(3), 299-301. doi: 10.1080/09639284.2013.793919

Preparing students for answering exam questions

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I used to allow students to bring in one A4 page of summarised notes because I thought that it would increase their confidence by allowing them to write down key memory joggers, thus freeing them to focus in the exam room on demonstrating their understanding.

I was wrong. The A4 pages were crammed with microscopic print as students tried to cram a semester’s notes onto them. Exam answers looked like a competition: the one who writes the most facts in the least amount of space wins.

The problem was that my exam questions are not written to elicit a shopping list of facts. In exams, I want my students to show me that they can think about what they have learnt, critique it, then select and apply relevant information to answering a question.

Every year I would tell students that the one exam question I can guarantee they will not get is “Regurgitate everything you know about ….” (fill in a topic). Yet every year I continued to see exam answers to this question, irrespective of the actual questions set. And every year, students would ask me why they had done poorly in their exam “because I studied all the facts”.

I find that students who appear in classes to understand course content but whose exam performance is below the quality expected fall down in three main areas:

  1. Too much time is spent giving background information. Students then think they have written a lot so must have answered the question. This is the student who feels every term must be described at length … with an example … but only gives a passing nod to answering the set exam question.
  2. A key word in a question triggers an outpouring of every fact connected with that word which the student can recall. The actual exam question is largely ignored.
  3. Students write without planning their answer. Freely flowing writing is wonderful and cathartic in personal journals but can be hit and miss when used as a style for answering exam questions.

So I started giving my students “mini exams” with no prior warning. I would ask them to spend 5 to 10 minutes outlining an answer to a question using dot points or a mind map. They compared answers in groups of 2-3 students then we discussed their responses as a group. Students were then asked to give their answer a mark out of 10 and reflect on why they selected that mark. Initially, that was the part they found hardest until they realised, to quote one student, “it’s not just what I write … it’s what I don’t write that really counts”.

I also provide examples of “good” and “poor” answers I have prepared and ask my students to explain why one answer is better than another.

I find it takes about 2 weeks for my undergraduate students to become adept at critiquing an answer I have given them and 4-6 weeks to become adept at critiquing their own answers. Since introducing this approach, student writing both in assignments and exams has become more structured and focused. An unanticipated bonus is that many students tell me that in learning to write more focused answers, they have become more discriminating readers.

Seeing is believing – the value of thinking before writing

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I can tell my students to plan an exam answer before commencing to write the answer and I can even provide them with statistics to demonstrate that students who plan an answer tend to perform better in exams but I find that many students need to see the difference planning makes before they internalise my message.

Dividing a class and asking half to immediately start writing an answer to a “mini exam question” while the other half spend half the allotted time planning the answer and the other half of their time writing up their answer, discussing the correct answer then asking them to self-assess their answer always shocks about one-third of my students.  I have done this many times with many different groups of students and those who prepare the answer before writing average a score of 2 to 4 marks more out of 10 than those who start writing without any forethought.

Exams can constitute a substantial percentage towards a student’s overall grade yet most students only face exams at the end of a semester when they are so concerned with revising everything covered during a semester that they are unlikely to spend time on developing the skills that allow them to perform at their best in their exams.

Both learning how to plan an answer that is succinct, well-structured and addresses the question asked, and being able to critically reflect on and evaluate the quality of one’s own writing are important generic skills transferable both to the workplace and other areas of study.

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