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Advice Needed: Getting Through Seminars

(16 Posts)
Fenwinkle Tue 22-Nov-16 10:49:42

I'm currently studying for a professional qualification at uni. I have a few modules and thoroughly enjoy all but one and I think it is down to the teaching method used in this one module.

It is a well structured topic with plenty of books, guides and other courses following this structure. My lecturer, however, likes to do things her way. This way just doesn't work for me (and most others) and I have tried for weeks now to follow it. I always end up doing the things she asks of me but then doubling my study time by going through a different university's weekly reading/tasks to make sure I understand - without this extra work, I wouldn't have a clue!

The lecturer turns everything into group work which is really unusual and not at all helpful for our discipline. It also means we spend a few hours trying to gather the group, dividing the work, etc and the majority of us commute in and have jobs too. She gives 5 times as much reading as other modules but none of it is targeted reading, it's all very broad and at the end of it, we're often no better off than before we started the reading once we get through it. If I follow a different university's weekly reading, though, it's very direct and I'm confident I've understood the topic. The trouble is, I then still need to do the weekly reading given to me in order to participate in the group and seminars.

Basically the whole group is struggling. Half of us are learning from another university's guide and the other half don't have the time to do both so are only doing the work given by the lecturer and don't understand the topic at all. We have exams soon and again in January.

What can we do? Is there a good way to handle this?

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 22-Nov-16 19:47:03

If I were teaching that seminar, I'd want you to email me to explain you were having problems.

But I would possibly be a bit irritated by comparisons to seminars at another university. Maybe that's unfair for a professional qualification (I don't know), but it seems slightly rude to presume that if her teaching method is different and harder, it's therefore wrong.

Could you ask her why she does so much group work? Why there is a longer/less targeted reading list?

I'd phrase it in a very non confrontational way, eg. 'Could I check that I'm understanding the purpose of the group work correctly' or 'Could I check I'm using the reading lists in the right way - they seem different from [x module]'.

Fenwinkle Tue 22-Nov-16 23:47:26

Thank you Dragon. A couple of us have emailed her for clarification and others have asked to meet with her as they fear they're falling behind but she doesn't reply.

Would you prefer to be asked those questions one to one, after the seminar for example, once everyone has gone? Might feel like an ambush if I ask in the seminar and everyone joins in.

The reason we're looking to other university's module guides and reading is because ours is so odd and we need something to use otherwise we're all spending around 4 days preparing for the seminar and when we get there it's all repetitive group work as each group presents the same thing and it doesn't follow the normal structure (or even touch on the topics in it) so when we have our exams we'll be going in blind.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 23-Nov-16 07:58:18

It's odd she's not replying. I think you need to email the course convenor if you're not getting replies to emails.

I think the risk of asking these questions in seminars is that you might get quite a sharp reply - but if you're not getting any response otherwise, I guess you might feel it's necessary.

I admit - and as I say, I can believe it's different for professional qualifications - I would be quite annoyed if students told me that they thought they knew the 'normal structure' for my seminars based on what other people did. I teach differently from my colleagues, and we do agree on that beforehand, though students sometimes don't realise that. Equally, we do sometimes set quite a lot of preparation. I have had students tell me 'but my friend x at university y doesn't do that!' as if it is a great shock, and I don't have much patience for that. But she should be replying to you, and if she's not, there should be a convenor you can speak to about it.

SwissChristmasMuseum Wed 23-Nov-16 08:13:35

But LRD, if students are using material from another university so that they can understand what they're supposed to be learning, that's a pragmatic strategy and doesn't necessarily constitute a criticism of what's going on in their own, surely! Academics who like to do things in isolation aren't contributing to the furthering of communal knowledge, are they? A good teacher - which is what academics aim to be, I hope! - shouldn't answer sharply.

If I don't understand even after reading, Fenwinkle, and the lecturer has no weekly hour for students' questions, I wouldn't hesitate to ask him/her to help me find out why I'm not getting it immediately after the seminar. After all, if the method is unique it presumably has some advantage over others and it ought to be in his/her interests to propound it to eager students ;)

Fenwinkle Wed 23-Nov-16 08:18:37

I may see if it can be raised with the course representative who is the kind of go between for us and the convenor.

I agree that making the comparison to other universities is rude so will ask him not to include that part.

It seems like nothing much is going to change while we have her for this semester so it's frustrating having to find our own way through the module using the normal textbooks available for other students studying this module in order to give us a fighting chance at the exams but whilst also completing the tasks she sets us just to get through the seminars. Very annoying.

We have another tutor who works completely differently and it's everyone's favourite module. There's a huge amount of reading but it's all guided reading with expected outcomes and I always leave the seminars worth pages of notes. We've had mock exams in both modules, we all did well in the second module and more than half failed the problematic module. I get that people teach differently but if it's not effective it really shouldn't be allowed.

Bountybarsyuk Wed 23-Nov-16 08:25:41

I would raise your concerns directly with the course manager/Director of Education (or whoever is overall responsible for teaching/courses). Make an appointment and go and visit. I'd focus on that 50% failed the mock and the notes/information seems disorganized. Also ask for a meeting with the tutor, in our institution we have to reply within 48 hours, and have two different hours a week students can visit us and ask about work (open office hours). If this isn't happening, then the manager/Director needs to call her to account.

I wouldn't overly worry, if she sets the exam! If that's the case it will be on what you have covered. If it is an externally set exam I would be more worried, but still, I'm sure you'll do fine.

It's worth flagging up though, as we really swing into action if there's a problem course as it reflects badly on the department (I mean in measures of teaching quality).

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 23-Nov-16 08:28:05

swiss - no, I didn't mean it was a bad strategy. It's just that it might not be 'better' because another university will do things differently.

It's not about doing things in isolation. For example, I almost always plan my MPhil teaching alongside four colleagues in my place, and talk many more elsewhere, in the UK and the US and Australia - but that doesn't mean we all teach the same stuff. And a course description could look superficially very similar, but you'd find we were actually teaching differently, so it'd be risky to assume my colleague's reading list, from the university down the road, would be a good guide.

I don't know if professional qualifications are all more samey, though, which is why I've been saying that in each post!

I would be really worried about the lack of communication, though.

fen - ye-esss ... except, sometimes, people fail because something is hard. Or because the students decided early on that they didn't like the way things were being done and wouldn't co-operate.

I'm only trying to give the other side of it here, so I may well be wrong and she may just be teaching badly (the lack of communication makes me think so!). It's just it is quite common for students to assume that university teaching (especially postgrad) ought to be quite standardised, and often they assume they can tell good course design from bad. The thing is, sometimes you will have a year group who are all convinced the course is badly run, the seminar leader is a mean person setting masses of undirected reading, and that's why everyone is struggling. Only, you know it's the same course that's been running perfectly fine up to now. As a seminar leader, it is can be very difficult to convince an entire class that it's their reluctance to do the work set, that is making the problem worse. If she's good, she should be talking to you and explaining, though, so it seems odd she's not.

Fenwinkle Wed 23-Nov-16 20:31:38

Thank you for the advice, I appreciate it. I checked with our course rep who has apparently already contacted the course leader on behalf of other students and the response was 'the course will be difficult no matter how it's taught'. It is difficult but at least other course/textbook/guide structures make it understandable.

Just as an example, this week we had to read 25 articles (all around 12 pages long). We then had to present the articles in our groups. All groups ended up choosing the same ones to present so we sat through 60 minutes of repetitive presentations. She also doesn't follow her own seminar guide so we often turn up having prepared for the seminar to find her oblivious to what we're doing that day.

Several students mentioned emailing her and not getting a response but she shrugs it off. Maybe this is another thing for the course rep to bring up?

I suppose it could be that we're all fed up and not willing to give her way a chance but it's unlikely we'd all throw our chance of getting the qualification and paying for the course for nothing just because we don't like her methods. We are all trying hard.

Is there a way of finding out if she will write the exam questions or if it will be done externally? That's a very good point that could either make this a whole lot more (or hopefully less) stressful.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 23-Nov-16 20:35:43

Yes, definitely bring up the not replying. That is the thing that stands out to be as really worrying and very unprofessional.

It also sounds odd (and worrying) she's not following her own guide.

The rest that you describe doesn't sound bad to me, but it might not work for your subject and I wouldn't know about that.

In the universities I know about, you would not be able to discover who writes the exam - usually, the exam board will be jointly responsible, and won't divulge to anyone else which members have been responsible for which parts of the exam(s) they're dealing with.

Fenwinkle Wed 23-Nov-16 20:59:58

The subject is insurance related and the articles were varied but all from history journals so a few on the tudors, some on the French Revolution. We thought all would become clear once in the seminar but after we did our presentations she said 'right what's next? Let's look at the House of Lords'. Most of us gave up writing half way through. We all have first degrees and professional qualifications so it shouldn't be as difficult as it is.

She also refuses to be recorded - not sure if that's normal? And she marks students as present when they're absent based on random things like 'well John tried hard last week so I'll mark him in today' when John isn't there. Maybe I'm just picking now, it's the frustration!

sad I dread the seminars which is such a shame as I really love the rest of the modules.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 23-Nov-16 21:10:16

Honestly, I'm sorry, I still wouldn't know enough to judge the articles.

Refusing to be recorded is normal. I do let students record me, but not always - eg., if I'm talking about something where other students might bring up something very private, or if I'm discussing research I've not published yet. It's not usually obvious to students that the second situation is the case, but it's quite common.

Marking students in when they're not is just bizarre.

user7214743615 Thu 24-Nov-16 10:03:45

I refuse to be recorded and videoed, as do most of my colleagues. If the university owns recordings and videos of my lectures, and takes the written resources for my lectures, then they could use them without my knowledge and permission. In particular, they could fire me and keep using all the work that I have done for them.

It does sound as though this particular lecturer is being unprofessional.

In the universities I know about, you would not be able to discover who writes the exam - usually, the exam board will be jointly responsible.

Oxbridge, right? At most other universities, the exams are written directly by the lecturers, and checked by a second examiner/external examiner. Exam boards do not typically write the exams outside Oxbridge.

iveburntthetoast Thu 24-Nov-16 19:25:20

So is this a humanities/history module, whereas the other modules aren't? We expect our Master's students to read in the region of 500 pages a week and then more on top of that for assessments.

Fenwinkle Fri 25-Nov-16 07:01:48

I understand about the recording thing now, makes sense I suppose.

No the module isn't history/humanities. It should be insurance law but we have to read things that are very off topic and then when we get to class there seems to be no apparent reason for it. She has also on several occasions emailed the evening before a seminar to say there's a change of topic and gives a new reading list.

It is very hard to understand the structure of the module but if she writes the exam questions I suppose we all just have to go with it don't we sad

iveburntthetoast Fri 25-Nov-16 10:41:52

The more you say, the more it seems that this person isn't a great teacher (understatement).

Signing someone present who isn't could get me in big trouble at work. They monitor attendance closely--apparently to meet the visa requirements for overseas students, but they are strict about attendance for all students.

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