Professor Sarah Baker and Bob Buttigieg, with colleagues Dr Zelmarie Cantillon, Ashleigh Watson and Dr Laura Rodriguez Castro from the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, received a 2018 Griffith Learning and Teaching Citation for the development and implementation of an iterative approach to assessment in a first-year introduction to sociology course.

We asked Sarah and Bob to tell us a bit more about their teaching practice and approach to assessment in the Understanding the Social World course.


Bob Buttigieg and Professor Sarah Baker

What motivates and inspires you in your teaching? 

BOB: What motivates our teaching is our excitement about sociology as a diverse and vibrant field that we want to share, and a desire to show that academia can be collaborative, collegial, and enjoyable.

SARAH: And this is particularly true when teaching students who are in their first year and first trimester. We are passionate about learning and about sociology and want our passion to rub off on our students so they stay engaged with the content and remain motivated to learn across the full twelve weeks, and beyond.

How have teaching practices in your discipline changed with the introduction of new technologies, and how has technology changed the way you interact and engage with your students? 

BOB: The introduction of new technologies has enabled us to use a flipped classroom approach, where we deliver content online for students to read and watch before they come to class. We are able to track engagement, and intervene with students when we notice their flagging participation.

SARAH: We’ve also been able to introduce elements of gamification. Technology can be great for developing a sense of cohort in the course. We have our students working in small learning teams and they can track their group progress on a leaderboard on the course site, as well as see how their performance compares to groups on the other campus. In the on-campus offering of 1007LHS the learning teams meet face-to-face in the weekly workshops, but new technologies, including Twitter, enables a sense of connectedness to be ongoing throughout the week.

BOB: With new technologies it has also become easier to craft courses that seamlessly embed assessment within course content. Assessment, then, doesn’t seem separate from the ‘real’ learning of in-class work and discussion, but a clearly connected undertaking with direct relevance to students’ academic endeavours.

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Can you tell us more about your approach to assessment, including microassessment, in the Understanding the Social World course? 

BOB: Our assessment is spread out across the weeks of the trimester, to assist first-year students with time management and to map student development over the life of the course. Our Discussion Activities task asks students to engage with material before class, discuss this material with their peers in class, and then to draw connections between the sociological theory we introduced and their own lives in a weekly reflective journal post. The assessment is tiered, asking more of students – in terms of critical engagement with theory – as time goes on. By the end of the trimester, students are able to deploy complex sociological analyses, and apply these to the social world in which they all live. Demonstrating the direct relevance of sociology to their lives is an ongoing aim of ours, and our assessment task is a key tool for achieving this aim.

We also use microassessment to track student engagement on an ongoing basis. A weekly quiz of five questions, with only a nominal mark associated with each, draws answers directly from students’ readings. This fosters engagement with the course material on a week-to-week basis (because they have to open and read their textbooks!) rather than all at the end, before an exam or major assessment item. We also find that small victories early on keep students motivated.

What have you learnt throughout your academic career about creating an engaging learning experience for students, and what have you learnt from experimenting with new approaches that didn’t quite work out?  

BOB: We learnt very quickly not to let the technology get in the way of good teaching practice. While there are many tools available to us, not all of them are easy to use or appropriate for our aims. Something as simple as using in-class discussions and a private journal tool instead of a discussion board meant that students felt much more comfortable sharing their ideas – both in class with a group of familiar students, and then online with their instructor in their journal. Previously, students felt anxious about sharing their thoughts about new concepts with which they were just getting acquainted on a discussion board, which could be seen by anyone.

Another thing we learnt is that students deeply value the face-to-face time they have with their instructors. By capping class sizes and making sure that we have time to interact with students in their learning, not just talk at them and hope they are learning, students are more engaged in class and have better outcomes.

Given it isn’t always easy to innovate within a learning and teaching context, what advice do you have for colleagues looking to try something new in their teaching? 

SARAH: Be prepared to fail on the first go! The first iteration of an innovative approach may not be received well by students for a whole range of reasons. But don’t give up. Use the student feedback to tweak the innovation and it will be more warmly received by students in the next iteration.

BOB: Go slowly and change things by increments. While major all-at-once changes can certainly feel innovative, they might not work the way you want them to, and students might hate them. Thus: make sure to ask students regularly how they feel about their learning experience. Ask early and make just-in-time changes where possible. When students feel like their worries are heard, and – better yet – responded to, they are more likely to remain engaged.

What is something new you are looking forward to trying in your learning and teaching practice over the next year or so? 

BOB: We are looking forward to rolling out our online content via PebblePad, which will even better integrate assessment with course content. Rather than cobbling together several different tools, we can have everything all in one place. This is exciting for us!

What advice do you have for educators looking to enhance their teaching practice? 

BOB: Speak with your colleagues and ask what they do, and what works for them. Even if their approach is entirely different to yours, often there will be aspects of their teaching practice that you can learn from.

SARAH: See what professional development opportunities are available, join a L&T community of practice. For me, doing the Graduate Certificate of Higher Education through Griffith was transformative.

BOB: Most importantly, develop an open and collegial relationship with your teaching team, and share what goes well – and what goes poorly. Support one another and enhance your teaching practice together.