Thursday, 4 December 2014

Research-based learning (2): student symposium

I took part in a symposium last week on the writer, performer and publisher Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) (see  About fourteen of us had written papers and these were collected and circulated two weeks before the session, and in the session itself each author had five minutes to say something about their paper which was followed by forty minutes' very useful discussion - especially good for an interdisciplinary forum. (I was talking about George Morland's fantastically compelling picture The Press Gang).

It was a great format and even before the event itself I decided to adapt it to use with my final-year students. I wanted to discuss trends in recent literature on art in Tudor England. My aims were:

  • introduce the concept of peer review in an authentic context
  • help students grasp the key themes in recent literature
  • design a writing-based activity
What I did is to ask the students to write short papers (max 1000 words) on a single text (book, chapter, article, catalogue, etc) published in the past ten years, and send it to me a week before the class. I collated them and sent them round, with the following instructions:

 1.  Read all the papers.
 2.  Make a note of any specific questions you have for the authors. You may want them to say more about their piece of literature, or clarify something that isn't very clear, for example.
 3.  Make a note of any themes which you see emerging as you read the papers. Themes can arise in just one or two papers, or across all the papers. The point is to see where different authors are working on similar topics, addressing similar issues, or using similar approaches.
 4.  Make a note about what you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of recent scholarship, the opportunities it offers to enhance our understanding of art in the sixteenth century, and the threats (if any) that it poses to the discipline.

I wanted to allow about 45 minutes to discuss the issues raised by the papers but in the event we went on for almost an hour. At the end of the discussion we had ten minutes to write summaries of what we each considered to be the most significant developments in recent scholarship; these were meant to be private and we didn't discuss them afterwards. 

Did it work well? I bumped into a student next day in the library and she said she enjoyed having time to talk about the things they had read. Some said they had learned things from each others' papers which they would use in their coursework essays. I also think they enjoyed analysing a single text; in other classes I've had students give a book review in each class and they have reported very favourably on this activity. Reading a single text and writing a short analysis is both an achievable outcome and produces something which can be used in more demanding forms of writing, namely their essays. 

Above all, the timing was good, as I hoped. The students were already working on their essays, which they have had to devise themselves, and although I had said they couldn't choose a text that was central to their essay topic, they were still reading and writing about relevant literature. 

Next time we do this I will introduce a rule, which is that any contributions to the discussion must have a question appended to it, directed to someone else in the room. The talking itself had proved a bit of a challenge, as people would make some good observations but then others wouldn't be very keen to take these up. There were only eight in the group so it shouldn't have been a challenge but discussion is a complex activity and I felt that some guidelines would help oil the wheels of discussion. 

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