The Efficacy of Student-Led Seminars for Critical Thinking

Background

During the second semester of the academic year 2013/2014) at Coventry University I was given the opportunity to design half a second-year undergraduate module, called Democracy and the Media, which is currently a core module on the English and Journalism degree. The then course director, Claire Simmons, wanted me to create something that would complement the lectures she was giving in the other half of the course, perhaps in the form of seminars. The lectures covered “functional” aspects of the role of journalism in British democracy, for example as part of the lobbying system, what journalists can and cannot legally publish, and so on. Claire wanted me to counter-balance the functional content with something that would engage the students more critically in the wider questions of the politics, economics and sociology of the media in British democracy.

I immediately thought of reading groups I had been involved in over the years, first as a cultural studies postgraduate student, and then more recently in the short-lived DEL (Department of English and Languages) Reading Group that I had organised to get staff talking about relevant theory across disciplinary boundaries (i.e. Linguistics, Literary Studies, Creative Writing, Journalism). The reading group format always struck me as a great way to get into difficult texts as it brought the brains and creativity of all the people involved to crack a text open and reveal its relevance and significance. Andrew Preshous, a colleague also involved in the DEL Reading Group, suggested that one person (usually the person who picked the text for that week) should introduce the topic in the form of a short (10 minute) presentation and then suggest questions or points for discussion. This way the awkward problem of who should start is overcome and the subsequent discussion has more direction and purpose.

In the case of the Democracy and the Media seminars we decided to select relevant texts, ranging from the dense German critical theory of Jürgen Habermas to more accessible overviews of topics such as social media journalism, and print them in a booklet that was given to each student. The topics for each seminar were decided in advance based on the order of the texts in the “reader”. In the first week, I “modelled” the format, giving the introductory presentation and suggesting points for discussion, and the students arranged themselves into groups for the remaining seminars.

Rationale

In their classic and oft-quoted study on class in education, Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) maintained that students are not equally prepared for university study, as only some students have benefitted from having higher levels of “cultural capital”, which is to say a grasp of academic ways of thinking, acting and responding in both classroom situations and in the social life of university in general. Tariq Modood (2004) has argued that we should expand the concept of “cultural capital” to include inequalities based on ethnic background, suggesting “ethnic capital” in these cases instead. Critical thinking is arguably part of these academic ways of thinking, acting and responding that we might as teachers take for granted in our students.

Statistics from the Guardian (2010) have shown that just over 40% of Coventry University students come from manual occupational backgrounds (from socio-economic classes 4, 5, 6 and 7), placing Coventry University as the UK’s 40th most “working-class university”. In addition to the more diverse class composition of our university, we also have a significant number of international students; we were the 14th highest recruiter in 2013 with 23% according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs. Consideration for the kinds of student we have in our classrooms therefore led me to the student-led seminar format, as research has shown that student-centred learning, otherwise called collaborative learning, increases self-esteem and reduces anxiety in the classroom, and more importantly, promotes critical thinking (Kurczek and Johnson, 2014).

As a teacher I personally value student knowledge, and try to move away from the “expert” model of learning as much as possible, fostering diversity in understanding where there really is no right or wrong answer. The student-led seminar format appeals to me more than anything because it is a utopian idea of the classroom, where I am not really teaching at all, but can enjoy being a part of the mutual production of knowledge in a discussion, learning as much, if not more, from my students than I could possibly give as just one person with one point of view. Based on an overview of studies on collaborative learning, Hirschy and Wilson (2002) have argued that building a democratic classroom is an excellent way to build positive student self-perceptions. The student-led format therefore reinforces the positive effects on student self-esteem and the reduction of anxiety described above.

The ability to not only understand difficult texts but also know how to (and have the confidence to) criticise them is a very high-level skill. In the hugely influential SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy for designing learning in higher education, critical thinking only occurs only at the highest cognitive levels, which are measured in terms of the number and complexity of connections made by students (Biggs and Tang, 2011; Potter and Kustra, 2002). In the SOLO model, the extended abstract level is the “ideal”, the level at which students can ‘can organize, judge, and generalize the whole of their learning in order to use and adapt their knowledge in new situations’ (Potter and Kustra, 2002, p. 14).

The student-led seminar format encourages students to operate at this deeper level of learning as they are given responsibility for interpreting and explaining the theoretical texts to their peers, as well as creative freedom to do this in any way which is useful and/or relevant. Instead of being given a fixed interpretation by someone not only outside their situation as students (i.e. their painfully out-of-touch lecturer), but also perhaps outside their socio-economic and ethnic context, the students experience a range of approaches and perspectives in the introductory presentations alone, and then the floor is opened up to a heterogeneous mix of critical views in the subsequent discussions. The linear progression of the seminars and their position in the English degree as a whole (with Democracy and the Media being an option for non-Journalism students) also encourages students to make connections with other modules.

Results

Of course, the ‘best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ and much of the above is the kind of utopian wishful thinking that I imagine all teachers are vulnerable to when designing courses. There really is no predicting what will happen in the classroom, especially when we give over control to the students. My biggest worry was that no one would speak. No one would read the texts, and no one would want to offer any opinions on the texts, because they were too hard.

As it happened, the seminars, from my perspective at least, were a success. Of course, there were times when discussion was a struggle, when the text was just too hard, or no one wanted to say something stupid – and these were the times when I was there to step in and “kick-start” the discussion again. Overall I felt that the student-led seminar format allowed the students to take control of the texts and the theory and make it relevant not only to the module as a whole, but to their own experience. In particular, in one-to-one discussions after the seminars, students who struggled to articulate themselves in academic or theoretical language were able to explain what the texts meant to them and how the ideas they contained helped them to make sense of their experience of the relationship between media and politics.

The module evaluation questionnaires (MEQs) supported my perceptions of the success of the seminars. Overall students reported 92% satisfaction with the module, and in the “3 Good Things” comments section reported that ‘the workshops [were] really engaging’, containing ‘stimulating debates’. Students felt that they were ‘learning “real” knowledge’ and that this knowledge was ‘useful and applicable to life’. One student wrote in the “Changes to Improve” section that they ‘couldn’t think of anything, [this was their] favourite module’.

There is, however, some evidence to show that these kinds of student questionnaires lack validity, as students are often influenced (for good or for worse) by the “charisma” of the teacher (Shevlin et al, 2000). This seems to be potentially more of an issue where a collaborative learning model is employed, as the teacher has a less hierarchical relationship with students and is able to be more “easy-going”. Therefore, I decided to conduct a focus group to triangulate the MEQs. – I employed a colleague to facilitate and record a discussion about how successful the students felt the seminars to be, especially in terms of helping them to access the theoretical texts and to engage them critically. According to the ethics process at Coventry, I gave the students participant information and consent documents, and they were explicitly reassured that they could say what they liked, that this would have no bearing on their coursework.

The results from the focus group agreed with both my own perceptions and the reports from the MEQs. According to focus group facilitator notes, students ‘“enjoyed the presentations”’, they thought they were “‘not like other seminars” ’ and that they “‘learnt more this way”’. They also ‘liked the books [the reader] and the fact that they were discussed and studied instead of just being on the reading list’. In terms of the student-led seminar format, the students felt that ‘it was an easier way to get through a lot of text’, ‘you didn’t just have to sit and have someone talk to you for the whole time’. Students said that you ‘learn more when you read it yourself’ and with the introductory presentations ‘you’re hearing a different person every week, so that keeps you interested’. In particular they felt the presentations were useful as ‘you get to see other people’s approaches’. On the module as whole, one participant commented that ‘this is definitely the best module’, and another specified that ‘the good thing about this module is that it is more student-led’.

Conclusions

It seems that the data from the MEQs and the focus group confirm and support the findings from the research on collaborative learning and higher education. The format allows students more accessibility to what might otherwise be too intimidating material. In particular, giving students more responsibility in the classroom increases confidence, and this in turn fosters an increased willingness and ability to engage critically with theory. I think that this is an important finding for colleagues both at Coventry University and in higher education as a whole. There is often an unwillingness and pessimism regarding student commitment (i.e. ‘they never read anything we give them!’) and engagement that prevents us from giving students responsibility for their learning, despite what the research on best-practice has shown (Biggs and Tang, 2011). I think this shows that we can and perhaps should trust our students, and that if we set learning up in a positive way then we might get positive results.

We also cannot take for granted that students come equipped with these skills or have the cultural capital to automatically understand and engage critically with theory and difficult academic texts in general. Although this research doesn’t really show a positive empirical link between the student-led seminar format and differences of class and ethnicity, I did get the impression that the democratic approach and general openness of the seminars allowed students to bring more of their own (class or ethnic) identity to their interpretations and discussions. If I am given responsibility for the seminars again next academic year, I plan to repeat this research and measure these differences more explicitly and empirically.

References

Biggs, J. and Tang C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill and Open University Press

Bourdieu, P and Passeron, J. C. (1990) Reproduction in Society, Education and Culture (2nd Edition). London: Sage

The Guardian (2010) ‘Does your social class decide if you go to university? Get the full list of colleges’. Last accessed 29/06/2014: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/sep/28/social-class-university-data

Hirschy, A. and Wilson, M. (2002) ‘The Sociology of the Classroom and Its Influence on Student Learning’. Peabody Journal of Education 77 (3): pp. 85-100.

Kurczek, J. and Johnson, J. (2014) ‘The Student as Teacher: Reflections on Collaborative Learning in a Senior Seminar’. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 12 (2) pp. 93–99.

Modood, T. (2004) ‘Capitals, Ethnic Identity and Educational Qualifications’. Cultural Trends 13 (2): pp. 87–105

Potter, M. K. and Kustra, E. (2012) Course Design for Constructive Alignment. Last accessed 07/09/2014: http://www1.uwindsor.ca/ctl/system/files/PRIMER-on-Learning-Outcomes.pdf

Shevlin, M., Banyard, P., Davies, M., and Griffiths, M. (2000) ‘The Validity of Student Evaluation of Teaching in Higher Education: Love me, love my lectures?’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 25 (4), pp. 397-405

David Ridley

David is a lecturer in the English and Languages department at Coventry University, where he teaches English and Journalism, Pre-sessional English, and Add+Vantage German. David is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Sociology at the University of Birmingham, where he is currently studying for a Ph.D in Sociology. His thesis explores the concept of “public sociology”, the limitations of emancipatory knowledge production within the academy and the idea of sociology as an everyday practice. David’s general research interests include critical pedagogy and the politics and sociology of (higher) education. David is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.   David Ridley School of Humanities Faculty of Arts and Humanities Coventry University, Priory St Coventry CV1 5FB 024 7688 7688 ab1955@coventry.ac.uk

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