Dr Alexandros Koutsoukis and Dr Jenny Mathers - awarded the BISA Prize for Distinguished Excellence in Teaching International Studies in 2019 – discuss the teaching strategies and innovations that made ‘Behind the Headlines’ a successful first year undergraduate module in International Relations.
Teaching innovation is often seen as a taxing burden on the busy academic, but it can also be a valuable and rewarding part of our pedagogical life. The module ‘Behind the Headlines’ has been exemplar in this sense. It has successfully engaged first year students, achieving 94% student satisfaction, by incorporating innovative teaching strategies and a productive interactive and empathic approach to teaching. The module’s central aim has been to help students think critically about the news cycle and enhance their employability skills, while supporting, stimulating, and strengthening their innate youthful curiosity. In short, it innovated by bringing the ‘real-world’ into the classroom, and making the learning and teaching experience of students an aspirational environment by critiquing those who produce knowledge outside the class. In effect, we hope, that the classroom became a workshop of how society might look like had it been a little bit more self-critical.
Positive contributions to learning and teaching
‘Behind the Headlines’ challenges students respectfully to enable inclusive learning, engagement, and a feeling of community. This approach to teaching and learning is based on an innovative combination of less hierarchical and more interactive learning consolidated through an evidence-based duty of care.
It is less hierarchical and more interactive for two reasons. Firstly, it facilitates free-wheeling debates on contemporary news informed rather than stifled by expert guest lecturers and students’ own experiences, opinions and questions. Secondly, four interactive workshops help reinforce the sense of ownership of students for their own learning, and challenge them to advance their transferable skills necessary for their studies and future employment.
The evidence-based duty of care reinforces the sense of honesty and efficiency of this approach to learning and teaching, and consists of three pillars. First, the teaching team fosters respectful dialogue to make students feel that they are part of a community of thinkers curious about real-world problems. Second, the teaching team demonstrates it values students’ opinions to help them build their confidence and sense of being stake-holders of their learning process. It brings them in touch with diverse professionals, and organises workshops where students are encouraged, in a structured way, to take charge of their own learning. Third, Blackboard is configured in such a way that respects students’ demand for more user-friendly on-line learning platforms. It caters for both the increasing number of students with disabilities and the diversity in students’ learning styles. This was particularly acknowledged by Aberystwyth University that awarded the module the Exemplary Course Award 2019.
Use of innovative teaching strategies
The backbone of ‘Behind the Headlines’ is four interactive workshops. Not only do they support the rest of the module, but the rest of the module acts as the necessary connective tissue that makes the ‘spine’ act as a meaningful support system: students practice what they are learning. The workshops consist of a film viewing and discussion, a careers ‘café’, a crisis game simulation, and a public affairs strategy simulation. They all deal with topics that guest lecturers and the first semester curriculum address, and with students’ employability prospects.
Each workshop was supported by Blackboard. The module convener uploaded videos, tutorials, documents and text that highlighted each team’s mission and tasks, and what the workshop experience would be like. This served to help students grasp their responsibilities ahead of each workshop, prepare alone and in groups, and be more relaxed at every workshop. It also communicated all that in a respectful and accessible way by accommodating different learning formats and abilities. All content was presented in distinct, orderly, logically sequenced folders with summary descriptions and video tutorials, while paying attention to colours and size of text. In short, interactive learning with an empathic duty of care had started even before the workshops.
Meeting the needs of the diverse student population
The needs of the module’s students could be separated into three categories, and ‘Behind the Headlines’ does succeed in helping students to meet all of them: learning differences, orientation towards real-world disagreements, and employability interests. This is congruent with the module’s aim to cultivate respectful, practical and hands-on student interactions that help them build their employability skills and sense of belonging to a community of thinkers with common concerns and sensibilities.
Firstly, the use of Blackboard not only supports workshops but also demonstrates respect for learning differences. It integrates a range of resources, a folder with ‘Learner Support’ information, and another one with Links to Supportive Technologies.
Secondly, the orientation of students towards the world ranges from more left-leaning to more right-leaning, and the module encourages this diversity by design: respectful interactions, and a challenging hands-on practice. This lies at the heart of the interactive-cum-dialogic approach of the module, which aims not to impose critical thinking but nourish it by raising the bar of the debate in seminars and workshops; the ‘spine’ of the module.
Thirdly, ‘Behind the Headlines’ supports students’ diverse employability interests through its innovative type of assessments. They all capitalise on the hands-on interactive approach of the module, and assist students to cultivate transferrable skills. The teaching team marks seminar performance, an ‘Opinion Piece’ (Op-Ed), a Headline Briefing Paper for an imaginary Member of Parliament (MP), and assesses but does not mark performance in the workshops and simulations. In short, all assessments mimic authentic post-education environments to facilitate transferable skills.
Sharing of good teaching practice with colleagues
The development of ‘Behind the Headlines’ would not have been possible without the pursuit of emulation and dissemination of good teaching practice with colleagues. An organisational meeting before the start of the academic year, a debriefing meeting after the end of the module, and the teaching team’s own collaboration and initiatives all helped make this possible.
There are a few distinct points that have tested this orientation in practice. Firstly, the module takes stock of previous iterations of the module convened by Dr Berit Bliesemann De Guevara. Secondly, it has endorsed the seminar evaluation and feedback forms from another module taught by Dr Jenny Mathers and Dr Lucy Taylor. Thirdly, it incorporated Dr Mathers’ suggestion for a World Café workshop. Fourthly, it applied Dr Alexandros Koutsoukis’ idea of a crisis game simulation, that he had practiced in other modules, and developed during his Post-Graduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education. Fourthly, Dr Mathers and Dr Koutsoukis discussed the success of the workshops and simulations and Dr Mathers, as the 2019/20 module convener, has been emulating variations of these practices. Fifthly, Dr Koutsoukis has already presented his knowledge of simulation practices to two of Aberystwyth University’s Annual Learning and Teaching Conferences, one of which together with Dr Warren Dockter, and intends to do this in future conferences too. Last but not least, Dr Koutsoukis has disseminated teaching practices from ‘Behind the Headlines’ to the University of Central Lancashire by incorporating them in his teaching practice and curricula. All in all, ‘Behind the Headlines’ has been successful because it relied on utilising colleagues’ good practices, and continues down the same path for the benefit of fellow professionals and students.
Stimulating independent learning and critical thinking
The whole pedagogical approach underpinning ‘Behind the Headlines’ aims to empower students to believe in themselves, their critical insights, and their inherent curiosity in international affairs, while challenging them to get even better. We cultivated this through the maintenance of clear hospitality rules for discussions that applied to both the visiting and resident teaching team and the students, and multiple feedback ‘points’ throughout the semester; thus, facilitating productive, open-ended and critical discussions.
The module evaluation questionnaire results indicate that this approach was effective: students evaluated the module with 94% overall satisfaction, and with 94% satisfaction for the module’s usefulness regarding employability skills.
‘Behind the Headlines’ innovates by blending its interactive ethos with a caring pathos that helps develop students’ critical insights and sense of community. All of the module’s activities act synergistically in pursuit of this goal. Thanks to the duty of care and the game-like dimension of the key activities of the module, students actually do want to participate and advance a deeper sense of curiosity than initially. Each activity is made to be both fun and challenging and this has helped with inclusive learning and passionate participation. All in all, this module has been a joy to teach and a true reflection of the Aberystwyth School’s critical investigative spirit.
Dr Alexandros Koutsoukis convened ‘Behind the Headlines’ in 2018/2019. He is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Central Lancashire. He previously received his PhD and completed his Leverhulme Trust post-doc research as assistant to Professor Andrew Linklater on symbols and world politics in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, where he was also teaching since 2012. His work has been previously recognised with the student-led awards Post-Graduate Teacher of the Year (2017) and Outstanding Feedback Award (2018), and Aberystwyth University’s Exemplary Course Award (with High Commendation) (2019).
Dr Jenny Mathers convenes ‘Behind the Headlines in 2019/2020 and was member of the teaching team in 2018/2019. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Politics with more than 25 years’ worth of teaching experience in higher education. She was a pioneer in the University in the use of Twitter in teaching and regularly organises panels on learning and teaching at national and international conferences of scholars of International Relations.