To ensure that this was a democratic and authentic learning experience I had students devise their own guiding questions and documented these along with their hoped-for outcomes. Because I had curricular goals that I needed to satisfy I held a conference at the end of Day 1 to design a Task Sheet and Grading Rubric for the project. Together, after much to and fro, the students and I reached an agreement on what the essential elements of the project should be, what the outcomes should look like, who our authentic audience would be etc. I took this information home and drafted a task sheet and grading rubric which I distributed to students at the beginning of Day 2. We decided that for our seminar students would create a Google Tour (see below) which would be shared on social media with the aim of demonstrating student learning to student and practising teachers in Germany. To maximise productivity (we set ambitious goals for one weekend) and to ensure that students were given an opportunity to consider the complexity of group dynamics and develop social competencies, I broke the group into teams with predetermined roles and gave them a project management log where the roles and responsibilities of each team member were documented. Having discussed the task-sheet, grading rubrics for the project and having assigned team roles, students engaged in an initial research phase equipped with a primary resource recording-sheet, a personal reflection-sheet for midway through the project (and preceding the second research phase) and a peer evaluation-sheet. I was able to rotate through the groups to check that students were aware of their learning objectives and to make sure that their research and final artefacts answered our Essential Question and aligned with our task sheet and grading rubric.
While the course was, according to student feedback and course evaluation reports, a success a notable theme emerged: the weekend lacked “structure”. As I reflected upon my performance over the weekend I couldn’t fully reconcile this feedback with my planning and scaffolding of the project. I use these feedback forms to reflect upon my performance and make requisite changes for the next semester and I do not shy away from unpleasant truths about my performance as you can see in this reflective blog. I could not entirely accept that my structuring of the project was, as a whole, substandard and yet many students commented on the lack of structure during the weekend. Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that “structure” in the pedagogical sense is culturally defined and systematically engrained through repetition at all levels of education. In the context of University instruction, PBL is seen as unstructured.
It is perhaps best to start with what instructional “structure” looks like to the average university student. Throughout elementary and second level education, Direct Instruction is the dominant method of instruction. There is an emphasis on knowledge recall, standardised examinations and essay writing. If the student is fortunate, Direct Instruction means exactly that. For many, it means lecture, endless note-taking and consequent disengagement. In university, lecturing is the dominant means of instruction even in small seminar groups which are purposely designed for more experiential or authentic learning. In short, even in the year 2016, university students are on the whole passive recipients of knowledge, expected to spew it back in standardised exams or in extended essays.
Ask students if they are happy with this experience and they will tell you that they are not. Time and again I hear from university students how a typical seminar or lecture is an opportunity to catch up on FaceBook, organise their social lives or sit there bored but physically present. Of course, some students genuinely enjoy that system. I personally had no objection as a student because I had a good memory and so excelled in examinations. I looked at it as a game and I won more often than I lost. In this culture (the prevailing culture in German universities), structure means that the lecturer provides students with an overview of the course, provides notes on the topic either in written form or uploaded to the course website (hence the reason students can afford to spend class time checking their FaceBook status) and gives several essay titles that gives students the illusion of choice. Students are asked to show up to class, be passive and write a 10-15 page essay at the end of the course. Again, students will lament this structure. They will state that it bears no resemblance to what is expected of them in their future careers, it is not engaging and that it overly focuses on the acquisition of knowledge at the expense of academic skills and “soft skills” etc.
Students inevitably save their greatest criticism for the long abstract essays that they are perennially required to complete. They argue that these essays are abstract and once corrected and (if) returned by their lecturer, go directly into the bin. What one hears less but is an even greater crime is that these same essays, which are the bedrock of the Direct Instruction/Lecture assessment employed by universities across departments are rarely (particularly so in Germany) given out with a clear Task Sheet and Grading Rubric which act as clear pathways to academic achievement for students. In Germany it is most common for university students to be simply given an essay title at the end of a seminar and told to write a 10-15 page essay. I have yet to come across a university department that offers lectures or explicitly teaches students how to effectively write a university-level paper. The prevailing attitude seems to be that as a university student one should just know how to do this.
To summarise then the prevailing perception of what constitutes structure in a university seminar, especially in German universities, is: 1. an overview that includes detailed notes and which allows the student to be a passive recipient of knowledge, 2. lecture-style delivery of said knowledge again promoting passivity and 3. an assessment which is highly demanding (10-15 page essay) on a topic that is minimally defined and subjectively evaluated. While students can easily point out the problems with this structure, the problem is that after an entire academic career from elementary school to university, they are completely institutionalised. So while they will passionately argue that this structure needs to change and they are ideologically opposed to it, this system does have a powerful attraction – familiarity. Just as I figured out what lecturers “were looking for” and blessed with a good memory I was able to succeed in this structure, so too do many students, despite their protests, feel comfortable in this system even with its emphasis on high-stakes exams and essay-writing, both of which are subjectively determined. It is all they know and they feel safe.
Structure as understood in the German context and in many universities globally, then, is lecturer-generated notes + passive listening + essay with no determined criteria for success = how lessons should be done. Changing that culture is a major challenge.
With this in mind it is easy for me to determine why students in my PBL seminar felt that it was unstructured. I did not arrive in class on day one with a one-size-fits-all essay or project for students nor did I pass around a transcript of the seminar. Instead I arrived with a well-planned but only partially-visible (to them) framework, presented them with a problem and asked them to be proactive in solving it. And I asked them to do that in a democratic and authentic way by including them in determining the success criteria for the project. At the end of Day 1 as we conducted an oral reflection many students already expressed concern about the structure of the project. All this business of identifying learning goals and deciding upon grading criteria was nice but many wanted to get to the part where I would tell them how to get a good grade for the seminar – which is fair when a grade is the only point of education according to the system they know. For some it was disorientating and intimidating to be given free choice and to produce artefacts which would have a real-world impact. As the first and second research phases evolved and students asked me “Is it ok if we put X into our project” or “Can we include Y in our outcome” and I simply said “Do whatever you are interested in as long as it aligns with our guiding question and rubric”, some were visibly insecure. They simply did not trust a system that did not dictate a one-size-fits-all approach. Or to put it another way, they were so caught up in the pursuit of a grade that they were afraid to take any intellectual risk or even to trust their own instincts and creativity. And this is a shame because upon final reflection it was apparent that aside from meeting our core curricular goals students developed a variety of practical skills in the process of developing their final products that they would simply not be required to develop in a traditional seminar. As part of our final reflection I asked students “What is the most important thing you learned in this project?” Their responses are gathered in the Wordle below.
Of course it is impossible for me to expect that all students, regardless of their desire, are capable of wholly benefitting from my system over the course of one weekend. But I believe that it is essential that universities move away from the teaching and learning structure that currently dominates university studies by:
- Making it a requirement that all university lecturers receive regular and ongoing Professional Development in a variety of pedagogical methodologies.
- University departments regularly meet and define best practices in regard to when to use different pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning.
- University departments make a commitment to providing a minimum number of lectures and/or seminars to be taught in a PBL/Inquiry manner so that students grow familiar with the process and feel more inclined to take intellectual and pedagogical risks when asked to do so.
To see what the students achieved in one weekend and in their second-language, click on the map below.