In this Mini-Series on Embedding Belonging in the Classroom post, Professor Ewen Cameron, Head of School for History, Classics and Archaeology, and Rachel Irwin, fourth year History Student and President of History Society, are in conversation together about building classroom communities. In Part 1, led by questions from Eleri Connick (Student Communities Project Officer), they chat about their fondest classroom communities, and the role of feedback and assessment in community building….
Tell us about your fondest teaching memory?
Rachel: I did a course last year called ‘The History of the Modern World in Nine Things’, by Dr Emily Brownell, an environmental historian. She was unlike any other tutor I’ve ever had before. It was really refreshing to have a tutor who would admit to not knowing the answer, but had a genuine interest in helping you get there on a level you can access. So she’d say, ‘I didn’t find this reading too accessible, you might have found this awful’, and then the whole class felt comfortable enough to say, ‘yeah, it was horrible, I didn’t understand a thing’, rather than everyone pretending they’d understood it. That was quite memorable for me, and why I took her course this semester, to have that experience again.
Did this create a camaraderie amongst peers and the lecturer?
Rachel: Absolutely. It brought us to her level and made her feel more accessible as a person, and encouraged me to go and speak to her about essays and ask questions that I may have felt intimidated to ask another tutor, which made me learn more, and better.
What’s your fondest memory, Ewen?
Ewen: I don’t do much teaching now because of my role as Head of School, but one of my favourites to teach is about the History of the Land in the Highlands of Scotland in the late 19th/early 20th century, my special subject for fourth-year students. It’s always really exciting when students discover things that are really interesting. I remember one particular case when a student found some legal records of a particularly important court case relating to the Highlands’ Land question in 1908/1909. These papers were buried in a collection of papers in the National Records for Scotland, which are notoriously difficult to navigate, and this student found them. He presented it to the class, and it was an amazing moment because he’d made this really genuine discovery that gave him confidence.
Do you think enough students have those moments?
Ewen: It’s what we’re always trying to do as teachers. Our job is to give advice and to prompt, and push them into directions, to encourage and try and give confidence. When I think back to my great teachers at school and university, it wasn’t necessarily the ones I learnt the most from, but it was the ones that gave me confidence.
There’s lots of literature around belonging being linked to students’ ability to be ‘safe to fail’ and coming back even stronger in their next assessment or encounter in the classroom. Does our current assessment allow for this?
Ewen: A really good question, one that I reflect on a lot actually because when I went to university the assessment was very different. We did a lot of work, all courses lasted a year, we sat 3-hour exams at Christmas and Easter, wrote lots of essays, but our entire mark for the course was based on the ‘degree exam’ at the end of the year. It was hugely stressful. We’ve moved away from that towards continuous assessment, and summative assessment feeding into your final mark, and that’s good because it removes that awful pressure. But it adds a different pressure. It reduces the sense that you can try something and, because it didn’t count, you felt more ‘safe to fail’. There used to be more incentive to experiment: you could go down a particular road without worrying about ‘this counts for 12.5% of my mark this semester’. But the downside was this incredible pressure at the end. I think we need to find a compromise between those two extreme positions.
Rachel: I felt pressure in first and second year, but I do feel like those years are the trial period so that you can suss out how you work best. Those two years provided that for me so I worried less when I got to third year. Non-assessed work in third and fourth year would be beneficial, but, realistically, when would you find the time?
Ewen: I think there is a balance to be struck but I worry that we’re getting too regimented in our assessment. I was looking at Learn recently and what struck me was the incredible variation in assessment. Far more interesting than in my day, so that’s good, but we’re becoming far more regimented as everything has a weighting attached to it. I’m not advocating going back to the all-or-nothing finals but I do think there’s a balance to be struck. The point you make about first and second year is a good element of the Scottish system – two years may be too much, but for other students it’s really important
Are there any particular forms of assessment that you’ve found innovative and made you enjoy a course more?
Rachel: I’m going to talk about Emily’s course again, but I really liked the weekly blog post. It was nice because it was assessed, but only worth a small percentage. So there was an incentive to do it and put effort in, but you could read everyone else’s blogs and take inspiration but avoid overlap. It felt like a collaboration because you all took different topics and, at the end, you got this really holistic essay that you could then use in the rest of your coursework and exam.
Part 2 of Ewen and Rachel’s conversation about classroom community continues in the second blog post: Mini-series: Classroom communities – A conversation between Ewen and Rachel (Part 2).