Who are you?

 Erivan White – Surrey Business School 

One of the things that rings true throughout a long and (perhaps) slightly illustrious teaching career is that the best way to elicit student responses is to request them early and make habitual the tendency to respond.  It doesn’t matter what the question is, so long as the answers come in; from that foundation there is always something to work with.  This is one of the reasons that we request something from students before we even set foot in the classroom with them.  

We ask that each student produces a brief autobiography (no more than 400 words) and submit it to the VLE for their tutor to read in advance of the first scheduled one-to-one meeting (usually about three weeks into term). The approach has a number of advantages: 

  • Students feel they are being taken seriously and are valued as people with personal histories that others are interested in learning about 
  • It enables reflection and personal insights for the author at a pivotal time in their lives – weighing up the past and contemplating the future 
  • It offers the teaching team an opportunity to assess the writing skills of a new cohort of students before they embark upon their assessments. This can be used to offer advice about appropriate support if necessary 
  • The tutor has something to instigate conversation in a one-to-one situation, which can be excruciating without some kind of catalyst for conversation 
  • It familiarises students with submitting work to the VLE without the pressure of it being an assessed piece 

We email students a brief set of instructions in advance of them starting the course and give them a submission deadline.  The instructions are very brief and limited so that we don’t cramp their style.  They include things like the word limit and questions about the student’s background, motivation and how they plan to get the most out of their university experience over the coming months.  They can write about these things, or something completely different, and they often take the latter course.  Anything too prescriptive can take the element of surprise out of the exercise! 

We have been surprised by the response rate for a task that is optional and holds no reward (in terms of grades at least).  We have been requesting this input for two years now and over both years the proportion of students who submit is between 80 and 90 percent of the cohort (approx. 140 students).  It certainly seems to support the notion, initially put forward by Krause and Coates (2008), that early personal communication with an academic staff member supports first year student engagement.  We have yet to elicit student feedback on this element but the level of engagement itself suggests it’s a worthwhile exercise. 

I’m really grateful for anything that helps me spark up a conversation with a nervous student taking their first tentative steps into the unknown – it’s a comfort blanket for all concerned.  Try it.  

For further information contact:  Erivan White, Senior Teaching Fellow, e.f.white@surrey.ac.uk  

Krause, K.L. and Coates, H., 2008. Students’ engagement in first‐year university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), pp.493-505.