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The qualities of a top student - a lecture exercise

This article was originally posted on Paul Latreille's blog. It is reproduced here by kind permission.

I tried out my first 'new' material on my first year EBG102: ICT & Study Skills for Business and Economics module last Friday, using an idea that I'd originally come across in a paper by Anne Lee and Penny Burden from Surrey University entitled “Personal Development Planning and the Economics Tribe” (a revised version of which is now published as Lee (2007) in the latest issue of the International Review of Economics Education.

The exercise essentially involves getting students to think about what staff in their subject would identify as the characteristics of a 'top student', and uses a snowballing method subsequently to refine these characteristics by negotiation of the items on compared lists. While Lee and Burden originally did the exercise in the context of a student conference arranged as part of the induction activities at Surrey, I was struck by the fact that the idea would translate easily to lectures, and was keen to try it out this year.

In my context, the activity was undertaken in the second lecture on the module, prefaced by an introduction to the degree classification system. About 4-5 minutes was allowed for each 'round' of identifying and negotiating items for the list. Once the snowball groups had reached size 4, we then conducted a brief plenary for feedback, with me going round the room eliciting responses from a random selection of groups and with a scribe recording these on the board at the front. I followed up by comparing their responses with those of both students and staff in Economics at Surrey. For the Business students, I showed the characteristics identified in the relevant QAA subject 'benchmarking statement', which very helpfully explicitly defines the attributes of a 'top' student over and above those of a 'modal' student. The documents used in this exercise are attached below in case anyone wants to try it with their students too. To finish the session, I was very lucky to have one of our graduating students from 2007 - Dave Evans - volunteer to come back and talk about how he got his First (thanks again Dave).

The potential merits of a session like this are numerous. First up, students are encouraged to start thinking aspirationally from the very start of their degree courses, but also to reflect on what is required to perform at the highest level. Last year a survey of students on the same module revealed that around 15% felt they were going to get a First, with another 60% thinking they would achieve a 2.1; the figures for the most recent graduating class in the School were 6% and 36%. And these last figures of course involve selectivity in that they do not account for student dropout (where it has to be said that Swansea actually performs very creditably). These data thus indicate there's a clear 'aspirations gap' - something that this exercise may begin to help address. A second advantage is that the exercise makes the lecture an active learning experience, rather than a passive one, and one where students naturally start to engage (although they may not recognise it as such as yet) in reflection on learning. Thirdly, at such an early stage in the module it helps students to get to know each other, especially when, for the last round of snowballing, I asked pairs of students to talk to people sat in front of or behind them, and who they were rather less likely to know than their neighbours. And finally - and as important for me as any of the others - it starts to encourage the perception among students that learning can be a social and shared experience with benefits for all. This anticipates their introduction to various Web2.0 tools in supporting learning later on the module, several via the medium of Oremi - see previous posts and my presentation at DEE.

So how did the session go? Obviously it's too early to say if it impacts on behaviour and performance, but it seemed to go down very well, and my impression was that it prompted a lot of discussion. Having a whistle helped to stop the discussions easily when desired and is recommended! One 'problem' for me was that the size of the group means some students only see the lecture by means of a video feed to a spillover room, which obviously precluded them from the plenary (it strikes me a teaching assistant there would overcome this by enabling parallel feedback to take place, but such a luxury isn't yet available). Nonetheless, when I popped in to the spillover room during one of the negotiation sessions, the students there were actively discussing the question too, which is great! Anecdotal feedback from the students I spoke to afterwards was that they enjoyed it, and said it made them realise that they have lots of progress to make.

My only reservation is that I think the feedback session could have done with being slightly longer, so that we could have arrived at a definitive list for the group as a whole rather than just a selection. That said, it struck me that this actually provides a really nice opportunity to introduce students to the wiki feature in Oremi. I plan to set up a community on the system and then have a wiki page listing the items from the lecture. I'll invite the students to add to and refine the items included based on the discussions from their snowball groups, so eventually arriving at the Swansea counterpart of the Surrey list.

A further follow-up activity is that I also plan to get students to use blogs this year explicitly in supporting their personal development. One of the difficulties with this is that students often need help in developing their reflective skills - this is something that is, initially at least, unfamiliar to them. It's no good just saying “Reflect (on your learning)!”, since the obvious response is likely to be “How? What do I need to do?” or perhaps just “I don't understand.” Now I can say to the students that for one of their first reflective blogs, I'd like them to think about the items on one of the lists (their's, the group's, or the Surrey/benchmark versions), and consider where they are in relation to that. What do they need to do to move towards possessing the qualities of a top student? What steps do they need to take? How and when will they address these areas? What opportunities are available in their classes etc. to help them do this?

Qualities of a top student: exercise sheet

Qualities of a top student: post-exercise sheet

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