Reflections on 2019 Teaching: Module Leadership
I am the module leader for first year module called ‘Chemistry’s Global Challenge’. I’ve had it for a few years now, and wanted to talk about some of the ways I’ve altered it over time.
My experience of module leadership is a bit weird – there isn’t training for it like there is point-of-delivery teaching, and there isn’t really a network for it like there is programme leadership. The literature has quite a lot of help around things like assessment strategies, but very little on things like creating a coherent and intellectually satisfying module. I’ve routinely struggled to find solutions to module problems; perhaps writing about my approach will help someone else.
The module is 20 credits in semester 2 of first year. The point of Chemistry’s Global challenge is to encourage independent learning in a group context. Students are set a topic by their academic support tutor, and have to work together to create three things: a group plan, a group poster, and a group recording of an interview.
In this, my first year as a lecturer, I didn’t lead the module. I was a tutor, and set my group a project on fireworks. I thought that the discussion of colour and light would mesh nicely with some elements of the taught curriculum. The group ended up focusing on coloured smoke, which I found really interesting. The colours seem to come from organic dyes, which have to be long enough to absorb light but light enough to be dispersed as a gas (or some particulate smog). They also have to be safe for human inhalation.
Like any group of people, the teamwork was imperfect. I started to see the sorts of things which could go wrong in this kind of task, and started to discuss teamworking solutions with students. Overall, I was really impressed with the project outcomes but slightly horrified at the large time on task students sunk into the work.
I second-marked a portion of assessments, too. It was interesting to see what other academics had set as topics, and the creativity students had demonstrated in their presentations. The interview format was obviously interpreted very differently by different groups. Some tried to give quite a dense, academic discussion of their topics, while others tried to convey excitement about a couple of fun aspects.
I had just become programme director at this stage, and that summer came to recognise that this semester was a really fragile moment in the student journey. Most of students who leave us go early in semester 1; this is often before any assessments have taken place. Of those who stay, the second semester is the moment most likely to halt their studies; this is usually due to failing too many modules. The degree’s most-failed module is in this semester. I thought carefully about ways to encourage students to spend their time on task on that module instead of mine.
In my second year, I inherited leadership of this module. This was a new experience for me; I wasn’t really sure what a module leader does (having never learned in a module context as a student).
Late in semester 1, I sent an email thanking staff for their upcoming teaching on the module (how often do we thank each other?). I asked them to consider whether they could explicitly set topics for investigation with social relevance. I pointed – as a concrete example – to a project the previous year on the history of indigo dye. This was a really interesting piece of colonial chemistry, which is still used in (e.g.) dyeing jeans.
I also advised that I was compressing the project deadlines into the first 8 weeks of the semester, hoping that this would allow students to start revising for the ‘danger modules’ earlier.
To students, I clarified the criteria associated with the audio interview. I standardised this to a short radio interview to a non-specialist audience. In the opening session, I showed a short interview on YouTube and discussed how I would mark it as a submission. It was an ok interview, but designed for a specialist audience. Showing students how this played out in the mark scheme generated a really nice discussion. This was the first time I realised that marking criteria can be very unclear to students (even those performing very strongly).
I set my students a title on how the specific molecular behaviour of carbon dioxide was responsible for global warming. I was really impressed with the discussion of the stretching/bending modes and linking that into a narrative about the greenhouse effect.
The deadline compression worked well, and the radio interviews were excellent (they were rather pleasingly praised by an external examiner). The smoother experience of the identified problems, though, allowed a deeper issue to surface more clearly: students found the experience of groupwork stressful and unrewarding. One student, in conversation, told me “I’m glad I got a bad mark because it meant the others did, too”. This is the most memorable piece of feedback I have ever got from any student. Ever.
So, the focus this year was the student experience of group work.
Over the summer (with help from the faculty Technology Enhanced Learning Officer Tom Tomlinson) I investigated ways of executing peer assessment for the group artefacts. I thought this would help to establish clearer shared expectations within the cohort, and that this would in turn help groups to communicate more clearly. I also hoped that it would address the issue I had seen around students’ understanding of marking criteria. We ended up finding a way to do peer assessment of group work on the VLE (Canvas), but I decided not to put the interview into a peer assessment as I felt that recording a voice is significantly more personal than creating a poster.
In the opening session this year, I did a few new things:
1. Established the importance of group work in terms of employment (academic, scientific, and generic) with appeal to authoritative survey data (e.g. WTO);
2. Talked openly about some of the difficulties of group work:
a. Accountability (agreeing and sticking to a reasonable schedule);
b. The Slacker;
c. The Perfectionist.
3. Outlined the peer assessment strategy
I set my group a project on the skin pigment melanin. They taught me how melanin is the basis of eye colour, which was exciting for me. They also had a sophisticated biochemical discussion of tyrosine-related pathways interrupted in albinism, which I really enjoyed.
The peer assessment itself was a mix of selecting rubric descriptors for each criterion and a short free text comment. Students were directed to be professional in their comments. I was worried that this would make them a bit bland, but actually the level of thoughtful criticism and constructive suggestion was excellent.
It was clear in the feedback session that students were engaging deeply with the assessment criteria; I hope that this stays with them in their approaches to future coursework. Informal polling through Mentimeter suggested that it was better to give than to receive feedback: students found the marking of others’ work valuable, and were also irked when their work was misunderstood.
A common technique in group work is to reserve some of the mark for award/distribution among the group members. I asked students if they thought this would be a good idea. Their feedback was negative. I would actually say violently negative. They emphasised how the programme differences between Chemists and Biochemists would make this procedure really tense, suggesting that (even in first year) the two groups had different approaches to the same assessment tasks.
The standard of work improved this year, and I wonder if I could make the tasks a little more challenging in future to challenge students a bit more. I also feel that poster guidelines could be made a little clearer, particularly around wordcount.
Disappointingly, module evaluation questionnaire scores did not improve markedly this year, though the response rate went up dramatically. The student satisfaction is now on a par with the more traditional theory modules. I think it’s a much better module now, but it has taken a lot of effort and it’s a bit sad that the stats don’t really back up my opinion. I’m really grateful to Tom Tomlinson and our external examiner, who encouraged me to do something about the module’s weaknesses.
Tom made a lovely poster which got shown at the University’s conference. The figure wearing both shorts and a bobbly hat drew many comments. It was a really nice way to round off a year of working together.