The following interview took place between Dr Jamie Wood, Principal Lecturer in History in the School of History and Heritage and School Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Lincoln, and Matt East, Learning Technologies Lead from Talis.
This month, Jamie’s module has surpassed 1000 comments by students on his course material for the current year, in his history course ‘Making Militants’. We spoke to him to find out what he thought was behind this high level of engagement, and how he has been using this information to inform his teaching.
Congratulations on having such high engagement from your students. What have you done differently to last year’s cohort?
I’ve tweaked what I was doing last year rather than doing anything radically different. I’ve reduced the amount of reading and really emphasised to the students the benefits of working collaboratively on the documents together, i.e. that they gain insights that they wouldn’t when working individually. I also talked a bit more about the personal notes, which I think has led a number of them to use Talis Elevate to produce their own notes for essay-writing. I should also note that I’ve got 40 students on the module this year, whereas I had 20 last year – I was worried that bigger numbers would reduce engagement (it’s maybe easier to hide), but in fact, it’s driven it upwards – it’s also meant that engagement across the week is more even as my two classes are on Tuesday and Friday.
A number of our users have had to pose questions throughout their resources to spark discussion amongst students. How have you approached the discussion activity on your module with your students?
I haven’t intervened on the reading list at all, beyond reading the comments. I do refer to what the students have posted online during classroom time and stress that what I’ve designed for the face-to-face sessions is based on student comments (which I think reflects their interests and/or things that are a bit tricky). The key driving force behind engagement is that I assess the students’ participation in the module (it’s worth 15% of the final grade), which means that they have a clear motivation for doing the task. This definitely helps to kick off the module and once the students are in the habit of posting, I think the momentum keeps them going.
Last year only 10% of the cohort used the personal notes feature. This year it’s more like 50%. Why do you think this is? Have you promoted this in a different way?
I did mention it at the start of the module so I guess that some of the students took me up on the idea. I’m very pleased that they are using this feature of the tool as it shows a much deeper level of engagement than my baseline expectation (2-3 comments/ questions). Some students have been posting to the group when they intended to write personal notes, while others were taking personal notes thinking that I could read then – so, it’s not perfect! But the key thing is to have some activity, which I think encourages other students to participate.
Having a high volume of comments is good, but the key factor here is the level of criticality the students are providing in their discussion. Have you noticed a change here?
I think that having a greater volume of comments has helped a bit here as the students have more peers to bounce ideas off. Greater overall engagement also encourages students to see the module as a whole rather than to look at weeks as discrete entities. I’ve therefore seen more efforts to make connections between different elements of the module, which is great.
How do you think this approach to collaborative reading is changing the classroom environment?
I think the students come better prepared and more aware of what they’ve read, both in terms of content and questions that it’s raised for them. This is because they have been able to spend some time processing the reading rather than slogging through long texts (= quality over quantity). They also have a better idea of how the module fits together and, I think, appreciate the fact that I try to make the classes relevant to what they are interested in (rather than what I think they should be interested in). It has really helped to drive up engagement and the quality of student work in seminars.
How are you planning on replicating this activity across the school?
Yes, I’m actively encouraging other colleagues to make use of Elevate and we’ll be running some training sessions in the new year for those that are interested. From 2020-21, I’m keen that we build on the experiments that we’ve done over the past two years and adopt a more holistic approach to the use of Elevate across levels.
Thanks to Dr Jamie Wood for his contribution to this article. You can check out other Talis Elevate user stories here, including more information from Jamie on his course.