In this extra post, Dan explains how checking-in can purposefully provide some space for student reflection, and engender wellbeing, playfulness and trust in the classroom. Dan Castro is a Lecturer in Animation in the School of Design, Edinburgh College of Art.
When students enter my classroom, be it in person or on the screen, the first engagement I have with them is to ask everyone how they are doing. This seemingly benign, polite gesture, I have come to understand, has significant impact on the learning environment. Unwittingly, I am engaging in an informal version of a process that is becoming increasingly formalised as a pedagogical practice: “checking-in”. In this post, I explain why this concept of checking-in can purposefully provide some space for student reflection, and engender wellbeing, playfulness and trust in the classroom.
Check-in, defined by Newfelt & Guralnik (2008)↗️ is “to report, as by presenting oneself”. The act of asking a team how everyone is doing at the start of a meeting in a way that “provides clarity, increases transparency, builds trust, and increases empathy” (Åström and von Alvenslebe, 2021↗️) is becoming increasingly common in business and industry. In Higher Education, check-ins are “more important than ever” (insidehighered.com↗️) not only to keep students engaged with the curriculum, but to “gauge people’s well-being and see how they’re doing” (ibid).
I was first introduced to a more formal check-in process working with Hyper Island↗️, an educational institution in Sweden, where check-in exercises are the norm. These sessions tend to steer away from the more emotional check-in style (e.g., how are you feeling?) to a focus on recognising and hearing each other as fellow students. Instead of aiming to create an open space for emotional checking in, they attempt to ground the students in the room, in the present, ready to engage with their learning as a group. Check-in exercises vary from session to session, but one common style is to have the students stand in a circle and each answer a question presented to the group. This question is often suggested by the students themselves, and can range from being thematically connected to the subject matter of the session (“what was the last film you saw?”), to introspective (“what do you hope to get out of this session?”), to a simpler proposition (“what was the last chocolate bar you ate?”). These exercises are designed to “set the context or ‘the mood’ for the work ahead” (Hyper Island Toolbox↗️, date unknown); an opportunity to ground students in the room, and get them thinking. Even the seemingly inane chocolate-bar style questions can be used to engage critical thinking: “what were you doing when you ate that chocolate? What did you like about it? How did it make you feel?”
I was initially sceptical of this process. However, time and time again during my lectures and workshops with Hyper Island, the check-in has proven to be a successful tool. It engages students in the present; it gets them concentrating on a single question, often related to the subject matter; and it builds trust, not only between the students, but with the tutor. By answering the question myself, this isn’t something they’re being told to do but it’s a game we’re playing together.
I wanted to test how this practice would go down with University of Edinburgh students. I was recently taking a seminar with Year 3 animators on our Animation Stories course↗️, during which students are tasked with adapting a story or piece of music into an animated short film. For context, the seminar follows a lecture held in another building. Students must trudge from one building to the other, where I only have an hour to get them thinking critically and creatively about animated adaptations. Understandably, the energy is often quite low at the start of these sessions. This time, starting the seminar, I asked students the following question: “what is the most recent adaptation you have seen/heard/read/consumed?” I then explained my own (The Last of Us, in case you are interested), before going around the room asking each student. The responses from students were, by and large, thoughtful and interesting. Unprovoked, many of the students offered justifications, reflections and critical opinions for their choices. Subsequently, the energy in the room increased, and students appeared engaged and ready to work, play and learn together. I then briefed them on their creative task, and off they went.
I’m only too aware that one successful exercise does not make for successful research. In fact, it barely makes for successful use of the check-in process; in order for check-ins to become an effective part of the classroom, they should be “introduced on the first day of class and instituted as a class norm” (Clemans 2010↗️). Checking-in sporadically may help in the moment, but it won’t demonstrate the value of the process to the students themselves. So, in the future, I need to not only keep up this practice, but explain to the students why I think it’s so valuable.
Check-ins – the idea of providing space for students to “report by presenting them[selves]” – seems like a no-brainer to me. But I have sat in far, far too many HE classrooms that have been devoid of openness, of democracy, of the energy that is created from working together. As my own research develops, I see check-in as a potential tool for engaging in play. A key element of playfulness in HE is about demonstrating, supporting and instilling “democratic values and openness” (Norgard 2017↗️); check-ins allows “everyone to have a voice…in the classroom” (Clemans 2010↗️). In fact, explaining her vision of “engaged pedagogy”, Hooks (1994)↗️ indirectly suggests that a process such as checking-in can have a huge impact on both the group dynamics and engagement in learning:
“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing another’s presence. The professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence” (p.8)
So, if check-ins can encourage and support a more democratic classroom by providing an opportunity to listen and acknowledge each other; then perhaps they can create a more playful one too.
Fancy running your own check-in? It’s easy! Hyper Island have kindly put together a useful guide: Check-in/Check-out↗️.
Hyper Island Toolbox [Online]. Available: https://toolbox.hyperisland.com/↗️ [Accessed 23-09-2023 2023].
ÅSTRÖM, E. & VON ALVENSLEBEN, L. 2021. Why check-ins should be a part of your team meeting culture. mural.co [Online]. Available from: https://www.mural.co/blog/visual-team-check-ins↗️ [Accessed 03-11-2021 2023].
GREIF, G. L. 2021. More Than Just Housekeeping. Inside Higher Ed [Online]. Available from: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/04/27/phd-students-find-well-being-check-ins-classes-more-important-ever-opinion↗️ [Accessed 26-08-2021 2023].
NØRGÅRD, R. T., TOFT-NIELSEN, C. & WHITTON, N. 2017. Playful learning in higher education: developing a signature pedagogy↗️. International Journal of Play, 6, 272-282.
NEUFELT, V. & GURALNIK, D. B. 2008. Webster’s new world dictionary of American English↗️, New York, NY, Simon & Schuster.
CLEMANS, S. E. 2010. The Purpose, Benefits, and Challenges of “Check-in” in a Group-work Class↗️. Social Work with Groups, 34, 121-140.
Dan Castro is a Lecturer in Animation in the School of Design, Edinburgh College of Art. He is also a practicing animator and designer with his studio Castro & Friends, and a PhD candidate focussing on playfulness and plork as methodologies to develop exciting new animations – and animators. He once ranked 51st at the World Stone Skimming Championships and is taller than you, probably.
Instagram: @worldofcastro↗️ / @plork.fun↗️
Research blog: www.plork.fun↗️
Animation work: www.castroandfriends.co.uk↗️