In today’s post, TLC’s Dr Ellis Saxey considers how preparing students well can help lead to outcomes far beyond a teacher’s original expectations.

student presenting at whiteboard

One of the treats of teaching is when students exceed your expectations.

I recently wrote on this blog about the LSE GROUPS collaboration with Imperial College, where interdisciplinary and inter-institutional groups of students worked together on research projects they design. The projects were inventive and solidly conducted.

But it was the student-created posters which surprised and delighted me. The supervisors had provided guidance and templates, but our students brought their pre-existing skills and their visual sense to the project, and they made stylish and communicative artefacts.

This pleasant shock reminded me of an exhibition I’d seen earlier in the Lent term, of student projects – ten minute documentary films – from IR318: Visual International Politics, a course convened by Professor William Callahan. The films had been ambitious, insightful and polished, and I wanted to know what teaching approach had facilitated their creation.

I discovered that students are well supported, but that the teaching staff are still consistently surprised at the quality of the students work. I spoke with course co-teacher and LTI Senior Learning Technologist, Darren Moon, about how they equip students with basic skills, and what enables students to go far beyond that minimum.

High-speed basics

Students start shooting footage that will be used in their final project from week four of term. As Darren notes, it’s “a real challenge in terms of getting them up to speed.”

At this pace, ‘learning by doing’ works best. “Practice comes first, then we use the outputs of the formative exercises to reveal to students the theoretical underpinnings; why what they’ve been doing is important.” For example, week one includes an introduction to narrative construction for filmmakers. “Then we put the cameras in their hands and tell them to make a three minute silent film. This completely wrong-foots them – we get looks of sheer terror!” But – as they assure the students – the point is to use the student-created films to dig deeper into both theory and practice in the subsequent seminar. For that reason, “a less successful silent short can be just as useful as a successful one.”

Ambitious progress

From this foundation, students rapidly become ambitious in both content and execution.

One film from 2017, titled Compassion Fatigue, looks at the explosion of photojournalism, and in particular images of the refugee crisis. The student group behind Compassion Fatigue emailed prominent photojournalists, one of whom invited the students to interview them. Darren believes that their disciplinary grounding encourages them to reach out: “They feel confident enough as students of International Relations, in their critical/analytical skills, to talk to a person in an informed, well researched manner.”

Other groups this year have tackled subjects as diverse and challenging as the politicised world of Muslim fashions, race and identity in dating, the gastro-diplomacy of the Thai government and have interviewed many notable academics and experts, from author Janne Teller, to artist and photographer Edward Thompson, to prominent UK politicians, such as MPs Ruth Davidson, Harriet Harman and Tracy Brabin.

On a technical level, students consistently go beyond what they’ve been taught. They always surprise us. They will use advanced techniques that we don’t teach as core – like focus pulls, and time-lapse – and it’s because they’ve encountered these techniques as consumers of media.” One group this year have neatly parodied the presentation styles of television news. “We take their baseline media literacy and try to build atop it, so they have the skills to understand how, when and why these techniques are used.”

Compassion Fatigue used a particularly effective technique, creating a ‘stimulus pack’ of images and using them in interviews with members of the public. Darren saw this as an excellent fit between theme and technique: “The film is all about the use and impact of visual material. So having interviewees talking and responding to these tangible, printed images, and also seeing those images as a viewer of the film – it breaks down a certain barrier, creating a shared experience between the viewer of the film and the interviewees.” The group then took this approach a stage further, playing back the interviews with the public for author, Janne Teller, and recording her reaction: “The work they’re producing informs their work as they’re doing it. The technique wasn’t something we taught them and it was wonderful to see!”

Supporting and enabling

Between IR318 and the LSE GROUPS collaborative project, I see key similarities that enabled surprising outcomes: developing foundational skills in students through ‘learning by doing’; providing supervision-style support for students to call on at the point of need; using a format that allowed students to draw on both their pre-existing disciplinary knowledge, and their other skills (visual literacy, creativity) developed outside academia. This framework allows LSE students to demonstrate the full range of their acuity.

When students are given this support to ‘pivot’ their existing knowledge into another domain, there can be excellent outcomes. Darren notes: “You have expectations of a final year LSE student – their discussion skills, and their written work – and it doesn’t seem fair to have the same expectations of film work. But that they are able to have that same level of sophistication of ideas and analysis, to achieve such clarity and concision of expression – it’s amazing.”

John Grierson, the seminal documentary filmmaker, stated in 1946: “I am convinced that the surest way to apprenticeship in documentary is a good degree in political science or economics.” Darren believes that what the IR318 students do “is exactly the spirit and the letter of that.”

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