‘Thanks for today’. Just three little words made all the difference to me earlier this week. I’d been teaching my first ever Legal Skills workshop block which runs over 4 hours from 9am to 1pm. I was pretty happy with it. Some of the timing was a little off and it could do with a little more activity based stuff in the first half but essentially it worked well. It was quite hard to gauge the student reception. They were pretty alert, mostly on time, they came back after breaks, they did the tasks, they asked some sensible questions… and many said ‘thanks’ in the sort of generic way you say thanks when you are leaving somewhere where you’ve had a not too horrid time. However, 3 students separately did more than that and made an effort to come by, make eye contact and actually say ‘thanks for today Jess’. None will have known how nervous I was before I started that session and none will have known how welcome their comment was after 4 hours of pretty full on teaching. Knowing that to some students I made a little bit of a difference is why I do what I do. So, the nerves have gone now (see earlier post) and have been replaced with a very familiar end of September feeling – a sense of happy exhaustion.
Why? I’ve been doing this for a while now. My first lecture is an Employment Law lecture providing a brief history of employment law and an overview of the key institutions. I first gave it in September 2007 and it hasn’t changed substantially. I know what I’m doing – and yet, the little butterflies are slowly turning into big winged dragons in my tummy. And it’s not like I am not prepared. All my materials are ready, copied and laid out in my office for the first week, the second week is ready – in fact apart from a total of 6 lectures across my 4 modules, everything is prepared. If I fall under a bus today, someone can come in and just run with it… so the nerves.
I don’t like being the centre of attention, not really. I’m too self-conscious. I’m not naturally extrovert. I’m not shy exactly and I do have confidence in my abilities but I’m actually more of a ‘behind the scenes’ kinda girl. But let’s face it, a lecture theatre full of about 100 strangers or pretty much strangers is a scary prospect and it’s even scarier if it falls to you to keep those 100 strangers entertained and informed. It’s a performance and performances are nerve-wracking. The adrenalin is part of what makes a good performance – so I keep telling myself. I will therefore be focusing my efforts not on trying not to be nervous, I know that won’t work; but on trying to channel those nerves away from dry mouth, can’t speak, sweaty palms kind of nerves to productive nerves.
For all those of you new to teaching who are nervous about it, I’d love to tell you it gets easier and the nerves go away but they haven’t for me, not at the start of term anyway. It’s just that I have experienced all of this before and therefore know that I will get to the end of the lecture and when I do I will have loved it. I will be exhausted but elated and because I know that, stepping into the lecture theatre on Monday at 11am will be tummy – churning hell – but in a good way, if that makes any sense at all.
This is not a blog about horses, or riding lessons or anything like that but I do have riding lessons, twice a week when I can fit it in and today’s lesson, though hot and sticky and airless, helped me understand something about some of my students which has until now baffled me a bit: Students who come for feedback on their exams or assignments and say ‘I don’t think I applied the law enough’ or ‘I was too descriptive wasn’t I’. Well if they know that, why didn’t they change it?
So, as I was trotting round the outdoor arena during my horse riding lesson this morning, I was getting increasingly irritated that I just wasn’t quite getting things right – this happens a lot but I’ve never made the connections before (I’ll spare you the technical details, this isn’t about my riding abilities). As I made pretty much the same mistake for the umpteenth time I suddenly recognised that sense of frustration I was feeling. I see it in students all the time when I give feedback. The thing with the riding lesson today was this: I wasn’t trying to do something difficult or complicated, I know what I was meant to be doing and why, I know how to do it and the instructions, guidance and advice given by the instructor made perfect sense. In other words, ‘I get it’ – doesn’t mean I can do it. Sometimes I can feel myself doing it wrong but am too late to correct it, sometimes I don’t realise what has gone wrong until my instructor tells me.
This pattern applies to a lot of the students who have come for feedback on exam performance in particular. They know the law, often they know intricate detail and information about cases that I would have to go look up; they know they need to apply the law to the question they are given, they know why they are doing this and usually also how to do it. Anything I tell them about structuring answers, referring back to the question, imagining what the client in a problem question would want to know, making a point and justifying it with evidence etc, make perfect sense to them – doesn’t mean they can do it.
Some of the students genuinely have no idea where it’s all gone wrong, they know it has but they don’t understand why, when they knew the law, knew they needed to apply it and knew how to do it, they still didn’t manage to do it. Others don’t know where it’s all gone wrong and it isn’t until I show them their work and explain that they have given a far too general answer, haven’t fully answered the question or have provided description without analysis that they see that that is what they have done. As soon as I point it out, they agree it’s obvious.
So what can we do about that? The feedback I am giving these students isn’t really anything they don’t already know. We can talk about what I think went wrong and how to improve and not make the same mistakes again – but they either already know that or it is obvious to them once I’ve pointed out the issues with their answers. So what is the solution in my riding lessons? Repetition, practice, different exercises which get at the same thing, every now and again going right back to basics, constant feedback and making sure that the basics are right, intuitive and so solid that they become second nature. If that works for my riding lessons I suspect it works for learning generally. Students need to write more and receive more feedback on their writing. They need to get into a habit of writing, they should write as much as possible and that writing should be critical, analytical, reflective…That may not be a popular thing to say, it means more work for students (writing) and more work for us as lecturers (marking/giving feedback) but I don’t really see any other way.
Now this may all have been completely obvious to all of you but of course the other thing about learning is that it is so much easier with context and experience, and my experience of frustration today nicely set the context for understanding something about my teaching, and feedback in particular, which I hadn’t ever consciously thought about before, which is this: Students often know what they should be doing and theoretically even how to do it but that doesn’t mean that they can do it. They need practice, lots of it!