Students interviewing their teachers
6 August 2013
Charmian Dawson, Teaching Fellow in Biosciences, explains how she boosted student engagement by getting them talking to the academics in their department.
Students interview a member of staff and then share what they’ve learned through a presentation and a poster.
How it worked
After their summer exams, all of the first-year students in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology return to university for a week to learn skills that they need to have but don’t necessarily pick up on formally assessed modules. Because the work they do during this week isn’t assessed, there had been a sense in the past that they were just ‘going through the motions’, and I wanted to change that.
My colleague Amanda Cain mentioned that she’d gone to a conference at which someone spoke about getting students to interview members of staff, and I thought it sounded like a good idea. So, in summer 2012, we divided the cohort of 80 students into groups of around five and assigned each group a different staff member to interview. We briefed the students on the sorts of things they should ask, suggesting that they find out about the staff member’s research and how it can be applied in real life but also about their career path and how they’d got into the area. We still allowed the students a fair amount of flexibility, we just wanted to give them a few ideas. They had a small amount of time to research their member of staff – diary constraints meant that some groups only had half an hour to prepare – and then they went to talk to the staff member.
When I arranged it, I promised the participating staff that the interviews wouldn’t take longer than half an hour, but one group were enjoying themselves so much that they took three times that! I asked the staff member in question how he’d found the experience and he said it had been great, the students had had really good questions and were polite and interested.
After the interviews had all been completed, we gathered everyone together and each group made a 10-minute presentation about the person they had interviewed, answering questions at the end. They also had to pick a paper that had been authored by the staff member and present it in poster format as if it were their own piece of research.
A benefit of using interviews as a basis for presentation practice was that the students formed a bit of an emotional attachment: they wanted to well in their presentations because they wanted to show the people they’d interviewed in the best light. Also, the staff attended the presentations because they wanted to support their groups, whereas it can sometimes be difficult getting people to come along.
The students seemed quite affected by the experience. One of them was almost tearful at the end of her presentation, talking about how inspiring Professor Ward had been. You could tell how much the students appreciated having been given the chance to get to know somebody who they’d previously seen as very intimidating. The members of staff who were interviewed also enjoyed the experience, which is important because otherwise they wouldn’t do it again.
Some of them put so much effort in it was almost like a performance! One group who interviewed Professor Kaila Srai actually made a fake Facebook page for him, and they didn’t just talk about the science of what he does, they also had this definition of success which they felt that he had achieved which included not only being academically and scientifically excellent but also having a well-rounded personal life, a good relationship with your family etc. It was really interesting to watch how they related to their member of staff.
The presentations were an important aspect of the task because at the end of the third year our students have to give an assessed presentation on their own research projects so it’s important that they have a chance to practise earlier on. Even if it went badly, I thought it would be a good way of letting the students know what it feels like to be questioned by a member of staff and not know the answer – something that they would hopefully want to avoid in the third year, when it actually counts. Besides, even though this module isn’t assessed, no one wants to humiliate themselves in public!
I just felt an atmosphere of real positivity; I didn’t hear a single negative comment which is pretty rare!Some of the students evensaid, “I really didn’t want to come back for this but it’s actually been great – please can we do it again next year?”
Interview by Ele Cooper
- Learn more about assessment and feedback at UCL
- For discipline-specific advice on how you could design a similar project, contact one of the CALT School-Facing Teaching Fellows