The Post-Festive Season Slump: Managing Teaching after the Break

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Many HE institutions in the UK face the problem of a post-Christmas/festive season slump in engagement, when students return to complete just one or perhaps two weeks of teaching before going into mid-point exams or assessments.  This article discusses ways in which teaching staff can maintain continuity over the break, re-energise their classes, address anxieties about assessments, while at the same time broadening their students' horizons beyond the assessment period.

Build continuity

Plan the break well in advance, making sure that you create a bridge between the final class of the year and the first class of the new year. The trick is to avoid the trap of passivity in the classroom after the break, so consider setting your students an assignment that will involve them being proactive and engaged, and that puts the onus on them to make a small presentation at the start of the class. Assignments could be field work, a survey, a review of a key piece of literature in your field, or similar. Keep the assignment small but stress the importance of their engagement with it over the break. Better still, negotiate the task with the students. Offer them a choice of several tasks, pointing out their relevance to the module learning outcomes, and then let them decide which of them they will commit to undertaking during the break.

Keep things brief

Whether you are giving a lecture, tutorial, seminar or demonstration, remember that attention spans may have been shortened over the break, so break the class up into short segments. Use the first part of the class as discussed above; then move on to the body of the class, being sure to indicate to them how it will be divided up in advance. This sort of signalling sets clear limits on what can otherwise seem an unending time period for those who have got out of the habit of sustained concentration.

Recap their study

The first class of the new year can be an ideal time to look back and summarise the module and their learning to date. End your class with a summary overview, to remind them of how far they have come, and to invite them to consider any areas they remain unclear about. This is also an opportunity to make broad connections with other modules or aspects of their learning, to contextualise their knowledge, and to encourage them to think holistically about their learning rather than to focus narrowly on assessment.

Let students lead

It is natural, however, that assessment anxieties will dominate students’ concerns at this time of year. Towards the end of the class, open it up to student discussion. Give them plenty of air time to voice their concerns and to ask questions about any upcoming assessment procedures. This might also be a good time to remind them of degree marking guidelines, and to give them a few sample answers so that they can practice applying the guidelines themselves.

Get mentors involved

Peer involvement can be an effective means of stimulating learning. In the first weeks of the new year try setting up informal or formal mentor schemes, using older students to give advice and guidance to younger ones, or splitting classes up into small peer groups who can meet up outside class for advice.

Use Technology

VLE forums can be put to good use at this time. Consider building an online survey about the course, or encouraging peer discussion about themed topics related to the course in an online class forum. Monitoring the course of discussion could also help you to plan the next steps for your module, by giving you a clearer insight into students’ needs.

Look forward

Finally, give your students a taste of what’s to come in the forthcoming weeks. Give them a snippet of an interesting text, or key facts from a forthcoming module, to stimulate their curiosity and remind them that there’s more to learning than assessments. To reinforce that message, you could also arrange for a talk from an alumni who is working in a popular field, so that students can see the evidence before their eyes of the benefits and possible rewards of hard work in their field.

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