Documentary work in a learning environment: leaving a legacy?
For many years I’ve taught a final year module on Asia in a fairly conventional way; lecture, seminars, two essays and one exam.
Feedback in recent years suggested that students were learning substantive information for the topics of their essays, but were given little chance to develop broader ideas and had no opportunity to discuss at length their findings with other group members. So in January 2015 I jettisoned one essay and the exam, replacing them with a self-reflection paper and a six-minute group documentary. And what I found in my first pilot year was that this kind of ‘legacy learning’ enabled my students to reflect more deeply on the subject and their own learning skills, and to situate their time and experiences at university within their broader life goals and expectations.
Legacy learning refers to the act of creating an archive or artefact for the benefit of posterity; collating, collecting and creating a virtual or tangible article for successive cohorts to utilise as a learning resource. It is also a tangible product that you as students may use to demonstrate your skills to prospective employers; something to take away with you from the process of learning. At the heart of the concept are two key factors: collaboration and the process of self-reflection. First, collaboration can come in many forms within the classroom; from one-off classroom team debates, to the long-term production of a piece of group work in a variety of forms. Various studies have shown how ‘peer learning’ within this collaborative environment can enhance a student’s ability to understand and articulate the problem in front of her, as well as to critique others within the group. The central focus of the object under development, in other words, forms the catalyst for deeper learning, social interaction, and closer self-reflection. Second, processes such as these can lead to informed and thoughtful deliberations on one’s behaviours and actions, and are believed to assist learners to become better at self-reflection, which leads subsequently to better academic achievement. Self reflection itself often comes in the form of a log, reviewing different theories of learning and applying them to the experience in question. It is, then, largely through the process of self-reflection that you can come to appreciate the fact that you have indeed created a legacy.
From my point of view as assessor, the six documentaries produced were of outstanding quality, and each group received a first-class grade. The six groups embraced the idea of collaboration in a number of ways, whilst applying different approaches: some divided tasks up immediately; others had a freer approach where tasks were not formally assigned. They had to learn to deal with the practical difficulties presented by the complicated timetables of different individuals and all groups agreed that a minimum number of face-to-face meetings was crucial. What was most striking to me was the fact that a number of students reflected not only on the module, but also on their time at university. They noted how beneficial it was to be offered the chance to work in a variety of settings, with different tasks drawing on different skills. In particular, they felt that they had gained a number of transferable skills needed to take their next steps into a post-university life. It was clear from their commitment to this project and their comments in their own reflection papers that most students felt as though they were engaged in a meaningful endeavour; that they would leave something for posterity; and that they would carry this piece of work into their job-seeking activities.
The process of learning within a university context often results in an ephemeral engagement with a text or project. Essays and exams can be quickly forgotten, along with their hastily memorised substantive content. Over the past few years, there has been a considerable amount of work to stagger deadlines, vary forms of assessment and to diversify the ways in which feedback is provided, and there has been a much greater emphasis on the inclusion of transferable skills within and across modules and programmes. The entire philosophy of the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme is premised upon this wider acquisition of knowledge and skills, and as LAS students you should recognise and fully embrace the many opportunities you have to develop a genuinely transferable and diverse portfolio of skills and to take with you the legacies of your own learning. Indeed, the making of a short documentary is built into the second year curriculum, alongside many opportunities for group work, filming, discussion and independent learning. I hope that as LAS students you will recognise these opportunities as a chance to create work of which you are immensely proud and which enables you to reflect on your growth as individual learners and thinkers. In my own view, in 2015 it is important for lecturers and students alike to embrace a diversity of learning experiences and to create a challenging classroom relevant to the worlds you will go on to inhabit.