4/6 Observing a peer

Observing a peer – with Rebecca Jackson from the School of Languages.

I observed Rebecca my collegue on the PGCAP for one of her linguistics sessions. Her session lasted one hour and was delivered to ten eager students. The session began an hour before I arrived led by a lecturer in Linguistics who supplied some quite complex looking language formulas, I didnt even know you could have formula for language! Then Becky took over for the remaining hour.

Discussion points

My post-meeting with Rebecca generated lots of interesting debate about learning and this is one of the major benefits of partaking in peer observations. The first thing that struck me in the session was the pleasant atmosphere of the classroom as Rebecca and the learners exchanged pleasantaries and banter. There was a clear high level of respect by the two parties. Rebecca began the session by introducing the Intended learning outcomes then continued the powerpoint presentation into the instructions for the task, she then  divided the 10 students up into two action groups to set about the Problem Based Learning (PBL) task. She elected one chair person to lead each group and in our meeting she explained that this was a way to help the less confident member of the group take a more pro-active role, the selected student’s comment was interesting as he was elected ‘I will try’. I think this is a good tactic to help the less confident group members but it needs to be managed by the tutor if one of the other group members is becoming to dominant. Also I think it would have help to explain what the role of a chair-person is and discussed this quickly with the group. A female member of the group did take control away from the male chair but he was still a very active member of the group. This group activity did show value when certain students asked other group members questions about their uncertainties about the topic, this is a very constructive dynamic when students help each other to learn. The role of the teacher or facilitator -which I think works better for PBL scenarios – is to ensure group dynamics function in fluid, constructive way which benefits all participants. What else can be done to enable more effective communication and collaboration? The more I question the effectivness of student groups the more I realise that before any group work is conducted (at the start of the course) there should be a session  how to work effectively in groups. Moon (2009) is a good start point for teacher’s and learner’s. She suggests a framework to sessions but also suggests how group members can be ‘academically assertive’ to produce a group that works and respects each other. She spends time framing and analysing what ‘assertiveness’ is, and how it can be balanced in ones own being to make a person more effective and productive in life. It is clear that this is a key life skill and something we would want our learners to appreciate and would fit very well into transferable skills that are growing within University education. Moon uses the stronger word ‘assertive’ in her quest to make groups work whilst Race (2009 -) acknowledges followers are as important as leaders, he suggest’s ‘no amount of leadership can work on its own, without a substancial investment in ‘followship’ by those who don’t happen to be leading at the time’.

So in short ‘the students would conduct a PBL task on what it means to be an effective group and an assertive group member’, then use these new found skills in more subject based PBL tasks.

It is clear from the text and my observations that group work tend’s to work better in short task’s up to a day long, anything more than this can cause team separation and breakdown. But there is nothing to say that group session’s can’t be built on top of each other, rather like building blocks. In my practice I sometimes have groups working together for many weeks which causes many other problems such as attendance, punctuality, and differing expectations. I think teacher management of the group has to be very responsive and regular. How could this be done? Connecting with the students more through digital networks and setting of regular group targets. I have ‘today’ made what I would consider to be a big step forward in my ‘connectiveness’ with students. After helping then generate an e-portfolio platform using wordpress I have made my first digitally networked conversations with them. I feel this is a big step forward but am now frustrated that it is becoming towards the end of the academic year. I would hope to continue to connect with them over the summer months to help me embed this workflow into my practice in anticipation of next year.

Rebecca used a subtle strategy to extend the time limits of her session and this was to not give the answer at the end of the session but to promise it would be communicated to them in a few days time. This would have urged the ‘deeper’ learners of the group to continue to find the answer before it was given to them by Rebecca. Or would it? I would be interested to get Rebecca’s opinion on how this went? Should the answer have been given at the end of the session? Did the students think ‘well I won’t bother trying to find the answer because Rebecca is going to give it me anyway’? Was the session to ambitious in what could be done in the hour? Peterson (2012) mentions various ways to ‘inspire students to have emotional involvement with their subject’ that will extend beyond the boundaries of the classroom, one being ‘creating a mystery to arouse your student’s curiosity’ (online). I think Rebecca does have elements of this in her scenario and think we must all ‘create mystery’ in other ways and I think we would find that this is a nice addition to out teaching toolbox. I have recently created mystery before a session happened by telling the students that something big was happening on the following Monday which had them guessing what there next project could possibly be. I will not let you the reader wait so long as I made the students wait and I will reveal the mystery to you now, go on admit it you can’t wait can you! We borrowed a large truck/sleeper cab and placed it in our car park for them to climb, analyse then respond to this with new design proposals. (more about this project can be found by doing a tag search on ‘truck’). Mystery does create anticipation and I think this helps with the staff/student relationship.

UK PSF: A1, A5, V3 V4, K1, K2, K3, K4


Moon, J. (2009) Making Groups Work: improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development, Bristol: Higher Education Academy.

Race, P. (2009) The Lecturer’s Toolkit: A practical guide to assesment, learning and teaching. (3rd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.

Peterson, C. (2012) Teaching with Emotion: Approaches Across the Disciplines -SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 5, 5 March, available at http://uminntilt.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/teaching-with-emotion-approaches-across-the-disciplines-success-in-teaching-part-5/ [accessed 19 May 2012]

4 Responses to 4/6 Observing a peer

  1. pgcapsalford says:

    Hi Craig,

    This is a rich reflection that provides good evidence of how this observation has made you think about learning and teaching and your practice. It is interesting what you mention about PBL and the guidance that is required by the PBL facilitators to support students who are new to this style of learning. You are absolutely right that this is needed. Our recent PBL session on the PGCAP probably also made you think about this and I am pleased that you are now recognising that it is important that we all know what we are doing, how and why to enable more effective communication and collaboration. I would be interested in finding out how, if you would be the PBL facilitator, you would do this and why? Perhaps you could share a few options with us. I observed Carena recently and she used a good strategy. But I will wait for your ideas before saying more. Have a look at Jenny Moon’s work “Making groups work”, see page 9 http://escalate.ac.uk/5413 – You could also look at the literature around PBL and PBL facilitation to gain a deeper insight and understanding.

    Further down you say
    “In my session the intention is that deeper learning happens when the students apply their new found skills into other modules that they are conducting, this enables practice and embeds the intended learning outcomes.”

    This is an interesting and useful approach. As we have seen we learn best through direct application. But how do you enable this? What do you ask your students to do? How do you know that it works? That they are learning? Remember to avoid generalisations and add specific examples from your own practice to evidence deeper understanding. Share the how and the why you are doing certain things.

    I hope the above comments will help you finalise this reflection. Let me know if you wish to discuss any of the above. Thanks.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. pgcapsalford says:

    This reflection s much stronger already Craig. Great!

    It would also be useful to explain why you see value in connecting with your students online. What about student-student connections as well? Would this be of value, to whom and why (not)?

    Remember to be precise when referring to literature.


  3. Hi Craig – two things I want to come back to you on. Great post, though. Chrissi is right! Firstly, I totally agree with you that in many cases it’s great to set out our stall at the start and say that this is how we intend to work, and demystify group work or PBL work. If students understand that they will not be spoonfed, and that they can take ownership of their learning, they’ll be more likely to participate. I am going to experiment with this when I get new 1st years in September. Secondly, I’d like to report that NO ONE asked me for the answer to the question I left hanging. I have to report that, across a couple of modules, this is standard behaviour. People vocalise in class that they want the answer, and I tell them to wait for it or email me for it, and no one ever gets in touch to say ‘hey, I need the answer’. I don’t know if this means they’re solving it, or what? Perhaps I need to have that dialogue with my students. Why don’t they follow up, though, having claimed they want the answers. What do you think? Becci 🙂

    • despard says:

      Thanks Becci. Thats interesting that no students followed this up. I think you are correct that students forget things in the following days therefore dont get the answer. Maybe its because they have lots of other things going on. I think the answer to extending the classroom lies in online networking, e portfolios etc. so if you are trying this next year, i think this may help!

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