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2009 Award - Student-centred Student Teachers: on maintaining teaching opportunities while expanding learning support offerings: lessons from London School of Economics

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Authors’ names: Niall Brennan, Mehita Iqani, and Frédérik Lesage

Institution: London School of Economics and Political Science

Title of article: Student-centred Student Teachers: On Maintaining Teaching Opportunities while Expanding Learning Support Offerings: Lessons from London School of Economics (LSE)

Keywords: media; communications; cultural studies; postgraduate; student-centred

Introduction: The Landscape of Teaching and LearningThe Department of Media and Communications has been an independent department at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE) since 2003. Currently, the department offers four taught MSc programmes – Media and Communications; Global Media and Communications; Media, Communication and Development; and Politics and Communication – as well as a shared MSc programme with LSE’s Gender Institute and an MPhil/PhD programme. The diversity of nationalities among the Department’s approximate 200 masters and 40 doctoral students is consistent with LSE’s entire cosmopolitan student body: 140 countries are represented across 8500 students in the whole School (1).

Until the end of the 2007 – 08 academic year, the Department recruited PhD students to work as graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) on some of its compulsory courses. This provided PhD students with much-needed professional development. Complementing this opportunity, recent School examinations of the Department found that:

[…] the presence of GTAs and Teaching Fellows on these courses had had a positive impact providing coherence and consistency that might otherwise be lacking.” (TLAC 2006, pp.3-4)

However, more recent external and internal evaluations of the School determined that students’ reception of GTA teaching at the master’s level were mixed:

[…] there is a perception that the extensive use of graduate teaching assistants is not providing students with value for money, given the level of fees being paid.” (Hartley 2007, p.3)

Findings also revealed (see HEA and TLAC reports cited) a need for greater student learning support for master’s students (see also Patel, 2008) as well as greater professional development for GTAs. These reports led to a School wide re-evaluation of GTA programmes for 2008 – 09, which included suspending all GTA teaching at the masters level. This represented a particular challenge for the Media and Communications department since, without an undergraduate programme, it meant depriving doctoral students of the opportunity to gain teaching experience. Ironically, addressing the learning needs of one group of students meant restricting the learning opportunities of another.

Given this landscape of teaching and learning in the Department at the end of the 2007 – 2008 year, it became clear that a tailored approach to meeting the needs of both doctoral and masters students was required for the 2008 – 2009 year. Doctoral students had an urgent need for continued teaching opportunities that allowed them to learn how to teach. Masters students had a need for extra learning support that enabled them to better cope with their course demands and the high expectations of the Department and School. But before introducing the solution designed to meet both of these needs, our Support Seminar Series, it is helpful to briefly address an area of pedagogical theory that frames its primary objective: student-centred learning.

Student-centred Student Teachers: A Pedagogical Perspective

The term student-centred learning is “used very commonly in the literature and in University policy statements” and is defined in various ways by various authors.  Although less commonly put into practice, it implies “active learning, choice in learning, and the shift of power in the teacher-student relationship” (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005, p.34). Active learning entails a focus on “experiential learning and opportunities for reflective dialogue” (Duron et al, 2006, p.162), and a de-emphasis on unidirectional or lecturing teaching styles. A core goal of active learning techniques is the development of critical thinking, which can be defined as “the ability of thinkers to take charge of their own thinking”, and which is encouraged by active learning (Duron et al, 2006, p.160). Choice in learning refers mostly to curriculum design, and “allows students to set some of their own learning objectives/outcomes” (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005, p.30). It can also refer, quite simply, to providing a vast array of core-course components, as well as learning-support components, so that as many aspects of educational experience as possible are available to students.

In terms of power shifts, this represents a “paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning”, which in turn has “encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student” (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005, p.27). In other words, student-centred learning prioritises the needs of students and recognises that their learning is most effective when it involves activity and practice. Student-centred learning is rooted in a constructivist perspective, stressing “the centrality of the learner, and the fostering of independent learning through the use of negotiated learning strategies and of learning contracts” (Carlile and Jordan, 2005, p.19). These constructivist roots in turn allow for teaching approaches that recognise and prioritise the presence of diversity in learning, and the plethora of world-views held by learners (Carlile and Jordan, 2005, p.19), something especially relevant to the international profile of LSE students.

Furthermore, traditional teacher-centred learning tends to emphasize summative assessment. Student-centred learning, however, represents a move towards formative assessment and ongoing feedback throughout the academic year. O’Neill and McMahon (2005, p.31) argue that formative assessment provides “a focus for the student by highlighting their learning gaps and areas that they can develop”. This can include providing feedback on informal writing as well as other strategies that do not necessarily culminate in year-end marks, but rather give students critical and constructive commentary on their work throughout the year. According to longitudinal research on how “real people” learn (Race, 1997), an important obstacle to effective learning is the lack of practical opportunities, as well as the lack of feedback and digestion time. Students need a space to rehearse the theories and concepts they learn in other courses: to put these ideas into their own words; and to work with them in other areas of thinking and practice. Race points out as well that effective learning requires “digestion time”, equalling the opportunity to “make sense of the learning experience”. This kind of formative attention through teachers’ recognition of digestion time has been lacking, based on reports of master’s student learning experiences in the past.

A UK university study assessed how students react and respond to student-centred learning and found that they “generally held very positive views” of it, even though few had heard of the term before (Lea et al, 2003). In fact, student respondents to this study “felt there was more respect for the student in this approach, that it was more interesting, exciting and it boosted their confidence” (Lea at al, 2003 quoted in O’Neill and McMahon 2005, p.33).

This brief discussion of student-centred learning has highlighted certain key terms: ‘practice’, ‘active learning’ and a ‘power shift’ from teacher to student. O’Neill and McMahon (2005, p.29) argue that in the practical situation of the classroom, learning is not experienced in a dichotomous form as either student - or teacher-centred, but situated instead along a continuum book-ended by both. In other words, student-centred learning does not remove the teacher from the learning equation, but reorients the teacher as someone who responds to student needs and creates a framework within which active learning and empowerment take place.

The information gathered in Department reviews and wider School assessments imparted the importance of delivering learning support and formative feedback to masters students to help them cope with their workloads. As such, we have created a “digestion space”, focused on transferable skills that include critical reading and writing skills, as well as learning how to operationalize theories and methods through students’ own thinking and research practice. Next, we will look at the process involved in designing the Support Seminar Series.

Support Seminar Series Design Process

Following a series of meetings with the Head of Department and LSE teaching-support experts from the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC), three doctoral students wrote a proposal for the Support Seminar Series. The objective was to design a learning-support schema as relevant to master’s students as to the doctoral students teaching it. In terms of the former, the series’ relevance was all the more imperative because it would not be accredited. Arguably, an unaccredited seminar provides little extrinsic motivation (Biggs 2003, p.61) for master’s students to attend, compounded by the facts that this series would not formally reward students, nor would it be taught by any Department faculty.

Master’s students would need to be able to distinguish the series from other School support resources already available, such as those provided by TLC and The Language Centre. This meant designing workshops that not only trained students for academic reading and writing skills but that also grounded those skills within the discipline of media and communications. Additionally, GTAs would need to address theories and concepts in the same way as lecturers do so as to provide GTAs with the relevant and transferable skills for a teaching career. Finally, we would need to avoid reiterating the same theoretical or methodological material presented in credited courses and avoid introducing completely new or contradictory material not explicitly tied into the existing Masters programs.

This team of doctoral students identified Theories and Concepts in Media and Communications and Methods of Research in Media and Communications as the fundamental courses for the masters programmes in Media and Communications. Most, if not all, students have to take these courses in order to receive their diploma; the courses span both the Michaelmas and Lent Terms; and together, they deal with essential theories, concepts, and methods that a postgraduate student in the discipline should know.

Paralleling these courses, the seminar series was set to 19 one-hour sessions across the first two terms of the academic year including weekly office hours for student consultations. The maximum number of students per seminar was limited to fifteen, well within Brown and Atkins’ (1988, p.51) recommendation of no more than 20 students for optimum seminar activities. Objectives and learning outcomes were developed for each seminar, although the overall objective of the series was to develop master’s students’ general vocational and intellectual competencies (Barnett 1992, pp. 155-162): skills that would enable the students to pass (or excel in) their accredited courses, but also attain transferable skills for future professional or research practice in media and communications. The seminar series was designed as a narrative arc for the student’s academic development throughout the year so as to generate student interest and participation in the seminar itself. This arc would follow the rhythms of the two courses mentioned above by practically tackling the core concepts of those courses. The first core element of the seminar series that we included focussed on the specific academic hurdles of the year, such as preparing for essay submissions and written examinations. The second core focus addressed eight case studies illustrating the operationalization of concepts and theories through academic writing and research, as well as the implementation of media and communications-related methodologies.

Over the summer, seven GTAs were selected by the department to teach the series. Masters students were invited to register online for one of the seven weekly seminars. At present, 104 students are registered in the series and teaching is underway.

Next, we focus on the case study approach by providing a more detailed overview of the seminar series, and illustrating the teaching practice of one case study.

Overview of the Support Seminar Series Content

The Case Study: Orientation and Approach

As mentioned, the core curriculum of the seminar series consists of eight case studies. Each case study addresses current, published media and communications research, including research-in-progress by Department faculty and doctoral students. Case studies are usually an abstract or short article between 250 and 700 words in length, distributed, read and discussed during class. Thus we avoid giving students additional preparatory work in their already work-intensive degree programs and at the same time, impart the value of class time itself. The case study-oriented classes include two on operationalizing theory; one on research question formulation; three on connecting theories with methods (and vice versa); one on using multiple methods; and one on applying theories and methods simultaneously.

In class, instructors give a brief introduction to the case study, relate it to students’ coursework, and emphasize its importance to broader issues of media and communications theory, research and practice. Accordingly, the activities that follow prompt students to think about issues specific not only to that case study, but also to general theoretical and methodological issues of the field. However, since the parallel objective of creating this course was to maintain our early-career teaching opportunities, the suggested case studies are just those: suggestions; others teaching on the course procure and apply case studies more suitable to interests, teaching styles, student needs, or group dynamics. We have selected one of these eight case studies to discuss at more length and illustrate how this approach has been actually used in the classroom.

An Example: Case Study II: Operationalizing Theory

The primary objectives of the class are that students begin to understand how theory can be operationalized in research and critically address various operationalizations of that theory, thus learning how to “put theories to work”. The case study selected was current research on Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere” (addressed that week in other courses).

Three research abstracts that work with Habermas’s public sphere were distributed equally among the students (see Gimmler, 2001; Papacharussi, 2002; Poster, 1995). Students read their piece individually, looking for which research object was being related to the public sphere (in these cases, the Internet) and how principles of the public sphere were put into practice in the research. Then in small groups of those who had read the same abstract, students discussed the theoretical principles in relation to the specific features or claims about the research object. Small groups were then asked to explain to the rest of the class how the public sphere was being addressed and “put to work” in their abstract. With the class in plenary form, a number of questions were posed that considered the abstracts’ approaches to the Internet and whether the latter has the capacity to sustain or overturn the idea of the public sphere. Reforming in small groups, students were then tasked with brainstorming other ways of extending, challenging or criticising the idea of the public sphere. Students from different countries were invited to briefly describe their national media system to one another, then to brainstorm together ways that the “public sphere” could be operationalized in those contexts. The class ended with an open discussion of what it means to work with, or operationalize, a theory, as well as an invitation to consider other theories in this manner.

Class Observations

Students started with an individual task, followed by a small-group discussion, then by an open exchange of individual and small-group work. This process was repeated, allowing movement from structured to unstructured activities, and individual thinking to group-wide debate. With the material being new to all students, group dynamics were generally unencumbered by the need to have read extensive material beforehand, or to cite specific authors or passages. The likelihood of a few students having done all the reading and thus dominating class discussion was lessened. Instead, a broad range of concepts relevant to the public sphere were offered equally, which in turn, were paired with tangible aspects that either complemented or challenged these concepts.


In terms of master’s students’ objectives, the Support Seminar Series creates an opportunity for analyzing and understanding the theories and methodologies of formal coursework in an informal setting. This is accomplished first, by presenting case studies of published research that complement students’ theory and methods course material. Second, by leading students in practice-based work that unpacks, analyzes and begins to comprehend the underpinnings, objectives and outcomes of that research. Third, by paralleling this practical work with support for students’ year-long academic requirements, including essays, exams, research design, implementation, writing and submission. Fourth, by developing students’ analytical and critical skills, research planning and implementation, in tandem with formally assessed coursework. And finally, by exposing students to the additional perspectives of alternate instructors and new peers.

In terms of doctoral students’ objectives, the seminars create the valuable opportunity to develop their teaching skills through practice and active learning, present relative and timely material, advise students, and formatively assess their progress. Furthermore, this practical teaching experience applies towards completing the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education.

In the true spirit of student-centred learning, and without compulsory or formally assessed conditions, these seminars allow both instructors and students a low-key, informal (yet still challenging) setting in which to develop and build upon their respective teaching and learning ambitions. Future challenges to the Series include the development of formal and informal assessment methods, as well as year-on-year improvements to the Series in order to better address both our student-learning and student-teaching objectives.


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