Tag Archives: student engagement

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.

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Moodle and Collaborative Learning

Something I just posted on a forum about the Moodle course management system.

Using Moodle: Thinking Through Groups

Here are some comments and observations about the “Groupsinterface (where an instructor can put participants in distinct groups) and other group-related features in Moodle.
I’m currently teaching a smallish ethnomusicology seminar and a large (170 students) introductory course in cultural anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. I decided to get my intro students to work as teams on an ethnography project. It’s the first time in my (still relatively young) career that I’m getting students to do teamwork. Yes, it’s a challenge. Moodle has made it both easier and more difficult, IMHO.
Several of these are probably common feature requests from Moodle users and I’m not enough of a coder to implement any of those ideas. These comments also include “pie in the sky,” wacky, wishful thinking, “you gotta be kidding” thoughts about the potential of Moodle’s group-related features. Please excuse the craziness but don’t worry, it’s not contagious.
I’m using “instructor” for my role as the course creator and “participants” or “students” to refer to the people the instructor is putting in groups.

Observations, Comments

  • Listing participants by first name is inconvenient for large university classes. I would like to be able to sort students as I wish, as in the Participants list.
  • In large courses, it’s difficult to select participants who aren’t in any group yet. I understand that the interface is meant to make it possible for participants to be in multiple groups. But I believe it’s common for the instructor to be putting all students in separate groups. In such a case, it’d be so much easier to have the left-hand list of participants hide the ones which are already in a group and only show participants who still need to be put in groups. With 250 participants, scrolling that list back and forth has been very inconvenient.
  • The Participants and Groups sections overlap in function, IMHO. Maybe they could be merged. This would be especially useful in terms of messages. While searching for participants by group, selecting them, and adding them as recipients for a message works, it becomes quite cumbersome after a while.
  • When I click on a participant’s name in the left-hand list, I expect to be able to see to which team(s) this participant belongs.
  • I can select multiple participants in the left and right columns but I can’t select multiple groups to temporarily merge teams. This could be useful, especially while sending messages.
  • Several students seemed a bit puzzled about finding their groupmates. There could be a “group” section for students where they could not only see links to their groupmates’ profiles but also manage a kind of group profile.
  • It’s still somewhat unclear to me how Moodle handles groups. For instance, what does group visibility (separate or visible) mean for journal entries?
  • Maybe they can but I haven’t noticed how group participants may change the group’s name. That would be useful. Especially if they can add some information (available to the rest of the class or only to the instructor) about their group. Something like a group profile. In fact, it could summarize the profiles from all of the group’s members in one page (visibility to students as an option).

Feature Requests

  • In a way, it would be possible to work with groups as if they were individual participants. For instance, we could give grades to a group as a whole and have those grades show up in the group participants’ grade list. Or we could have one-click messaging for a group as a whole, directly from the Participants list.
  • It would be useful to be able to create a new group with selected students instead of having to prepare the groups in advance.
  • It could be neat to have both a group name and a unique group ID, especially with relatively large numbers of groups (I have about 40).
  • The number of participants in a team is very useful data and it helped me rebuild teams which had lost members during “drop and add.” Such data could be put in the interface so that the instructor can sort groups by numbers of participants.
  • Drag-and-drop (through AJAX) would be much more convenient than the current method for adding participants to groups. I guess this one is in the official plans but I want to voice my support for it! wink
  • It could be useful to be able to upload and download CSV or tab-delimited files with all the team information. The data might be available with grades or some such but it’d be very useful to download a grouped list of participants directly from the group interface. It would also be quite efficient to create groups in, say, Excel and be able to implement those groups in Moodle with a simple upload.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • I haven’t checked if it might be available already but it’d be useful to have grouped Reports. I don’t want to monitor the activities of most of my students but it’d be useful to know if at least one group member is accessing Moodle frequently.
  • According to many people, it’s usually best for the instructor to create the groups, and it’s what I did. Yet, I wonder if there’s a way for students to create their own groups. If there is, I haven’t noticed it and my students haven’t either. (Maybe it’s a setting…)

Would These Work?

  • There could be a feature which would divide the course up into randomized teams automatically. I eventually used Lab Partners to create random teams that I then grouped in Moodle. It didn’t take me that long but it’s a bit error-prone and cumbersome. Fortunately, my teams will remain stable during the semester.
  • This one may seem like a far-fetched idea but it would be great to have more information about participants while we’re forming the teams. For instance, there could be a database field for majors or even MBTI results. Then, one could combine teams based on theavailable data. Of course, it’s beyond the purpose of Moodle and can probably be done in Excel, but it’s much easier to have everything in the same place.
  • I will have students assess the participation of their teammates. For a while, I was looking at the Workshop module as a way to implement this in Moodle. I ended up deciding on the use of a custom-made peer-assessment system (built at my university) but it could be an interesting feature of Moodle groups.
  • This might sound crazy but I imagine a way for groups to have their own Moodle subsection. We keep talking about peer-teaching and such and I can’t imagine a better than to have students create and manage their own mini-course. One major benefit would be to improve the interface, IMHO. The main Moodle section for the course would contain all the public information and activities. All the “separate groups” activities and material would appear in “group mode.” Students could then understand very clearly what is visible to everyone in the course and what is meant for their subsection only. In separate sections of a course taught by the same instructor (or, in fact, by different instructors) it could also have amazing benefits. I seem to recall something like this instructor-section idea being discussed for a future version of Moodle. But the Moodle take could also have a student-focused structure. Of course, this should not have to go all the way to the Moodle administrator and instructors should be able to create these subsections themselves. But, if at all doable, it would help Moodle leapfrog Sakai (which does handle course sections).
  • I pretty much like the notion of a “session” or “workspace,” which might be the reason why I tend to separate a student’s participation in the course as a whole (through the main Moodle interface for a course) from a student’s participation in a specific team (through a subsection of the Moodle site for the course). So this might be idiosyncratic (and lunatic) but I’m getting a very clear idea of how this might all work. After all, the granularity of “a course” is both too large (“coarse?” wink ) and too fine for many of our needs. Any “course” could become something of a “metacourse” and the structure could be somewhat recursive.
  • Participants could have profiles to be shared only with their groupmates. As it stands, I think the scope of Moodle profiles is system-wide (students have the same profile for all of the courses they take at the same institution, but not for courses they might take on other Moodle installations). Having group-only profiles would be interesting as students manage their relationship with teammates.
  • Another crazy idea: groups working a bit like social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). You get “friends” with whom you can share “stuff” (images, comments, chats, etc.). Those groups can go beyond the limits of a single course so that you would use it as a way to communicate with people at school. The group could even have a public persona beyond the school and publish some information about itself and its projects. Moodle could then serve as a website-creator for students. To make it wackier, students could even maintain some of these contacts after they leave the school.
  • Or Moodle could somehow have links to Facebook profiles.

Ok, I’m really going overboard. It’s just that I really love Moodle and want it to do everything at the same time. Using groups has opened up a whole new side of Moodle for me and I find myself thinking out loud a lot.