What happens when a FASoS tutor suddenly becomes a student again? Reflections from the other side of the lectern

By Elsje Fourie

This has been an upside-down year in all sorts of ways, and I’m no exception. After more than a decade on the other side of the classroom, I suddenly found myself cast in the role of a student again in January. The setting was an eight-month online course in creative writing offered by a well-known UK publisher. With the help of our faculty’s Research Valorisation Fund, I’d enrolled to learn how to communicate my research findings through less traditional academic formats, as well as to receive support in writing the novel I’m working on. The course content itself was daunting, exhilarating and illuminating. But being a student again also prompted me to think about my own approach to teaching and about the experience I’d like to offer my students. As the course comes to an end, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a few of these reflections.

Lesson one: peer feedback is useful, but it cannot replace feedback from tutors.

Like most creative writing courses, the course I followed placed a heavy emphasis on “workshopping” student output in peer groups. Here at FASoS, too, it seems that more and more courses make peer review a central component of formative assessment. Online tools such as FeedbackFruits’ Peer Review (which can be embedded in all FASoS courses in Canvas) now make this process customisable and potentially quite elaborate.  As a student, I experienced all the benefits that peer review is said to offer: giving feedback honed my ability to evaluate quality, and my peers often spotted problems I’d missed in my own writing. Let’s be honest, peer review is also cost-effective when resources are limited (and when aren’t they?). But the feedback that I received from my tutor and other experts on the course—people who had the vocabulary and experience to put into words what my classmates and I still struggled to understand, let alone articulate—were simply on a different level. This is not to say that we should do away with peer review in our own teaching, but simply an acknowledgement that quality teaching costs time and money.

Lesson two: structure matters in successful online and flipped learning.

This was not only the first time in more than a decade in which I stepped into the role of student, it was also my first experience of being on the receiving end of a fully online course. What surprised me here was how well this format lent itself to a more “modular” or structured course design. In courses I had taught thus far, the informal and collaborative nature of the offline PBL classroom meant that much of the meso- and micro-structure of the courses arose more spontaneously between tutor and students. In online learning, it seems that synchronous activities can only take us so far before everyone is exhausted.  This means that asynchronous activities that students do in their own time may have to be better structured and more elaborate.  In the course I took, each two-week session on a specific topic comprised one synchronous event (almost always with a different expert), one set of readings, several small assignments and one round of peer review. This provided an effective, predictable rhythm that nevertheless also felt like it contained a lot of variety (see this blogpost for more on the benefits of routine in online courses). I find myself wondering how we at FASoS can keep using our trademark student-led and real-world problem-solving approach to provide this structure in the virtual (or hybrid) PBL classroom.

Lesson three: well-organised courses do not just make learning run more smoothly, but also inspire confidence.

When things ran as planned and we knew what was expected of us as students, the organisational aspect of the course was almost invisible. But on the few occasions when little things did go awry, the implications felt not only practical but what I might almost call psychological. Of course, mistakes happen and people are human. In fact, having been on the other side of the educational divide at FASoS meant that this time I could put myself in the place of my tutors. But my participation in the creative writing course, conversely, fostered some degree of understanding with our students. And one of the lessons here for me was that a well-organised course signals to students that we “know our stuff” in all sorts of other ways.  We’ve all made some glorious mistakes putting our courses online over the past year – and understandably so. Learning from these mistakes the second time around might be easier and more valuable than we think, according to this pragmatic take.

And finally, by way of conclusion, lesson four: mature students can enrich a classroom.

My classmates and I came from many different walks of life and varied in age from late twenties to early seventies. I think it’s fair to say that none of us were bright young graduates fresh from a prestigious undergraduate degree and certain of our abilities to write the next Booker prize winner. But what we might have lacked in confidence, we made up for in life experience and a willingness to hone our craft the hard way. I noticed that I approached this course with more intrinsic motivation than I’d ever applied in my studies before—I was doing this for myself, and this meant no cutting corners. It might never be too late to learn new skills, but you really do get out what you put in, I realised. And in this last lesson, then, there is perhaps a takeaway for our students too.

About the author

Elsje Fourie has coordinated, taught and designed courses in the BSc Global Studies, MA Globalisation and Development Studies and MA European Studies. She also supervises graduate students and serves on several educational committees.