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Teaching and learning tricky topics
Teaching and learning tricky topics

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2.4 Face-to-face storytelling

In distance learning environments, the few face-to-face tutorials that students receive take on a special meaning. Tutors must make the most of the student interaction and concentrate on the really important topics that the students find difficult. Hence the need to focus the tutorials on tricky topics with a face-to-face teaching intervention.

The face-to-face story-telling intervention explains how a tutor uses participative storytelling in a face-to-face tutorial in order to focus on the tricky topic of object-oriented programming in an Open University computing module.

The face-to-face story-telling intervention

Computing students often find difficulties in understanding object-oriented concepts. The context was a two-hour face-to-face tutorial for adult distance learning students, which would tackle some difficulties in object oriented programming.

The aim is to get students to concentrate on collections of objects, discuss them, apply them to something of their own choice and peer review their ideas. Distance learning materials provide the presumed initial knowledge.

Using a story-telling approach supports students’ learning and would encourage students to interact and participate.

The intervention

The tutor gives an initial short presentation of the topic and quiz. Students create their own presentation. The tutor can encourage creation of a fun and engaging story to get students into a flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Groups of students should aim to juxtapose their story with a standard tutorial, by exploring and analysing the topic before creating a story.  

This intervention uses paper storyboards to plan the performance and share ideas.

Each student group: 

  1. discusses and plans their presentation
  2. presents to the other groups
  3. feeds back as a plenary
  4. re-looks at the quiz.

If any misconceptions of the material are present, the tutor intervenes by questioning further and helping students to re-think through their misunderstanding.

Groups have developed interesting scenarios related to every-day lives. For example, one was set in an aquarium full of fish tanks with a character that was a fish, called Nemo. The plot was that Nemo had a problem of choosing the best fish tank for his holiday. (See Figure 12).

Described image
Figure 12 Storyboard group A - a fish called Nemo

Another group had a setting of school lunches, and the characters were students picking lunches and rating them, shown in Figure 13.

Described image
Figure 13 Storyboard group B – school meals

The stories and plenary discussions reveal students’ misunderstandings of collections. Students come up with questions and elicit questions from the other groups which help their overall understanding of the concepts. This approach reveals additional students’ problems, allowing the tutor to provide students with suggestions of how to tackle their next assignment.

This performance approach is a somewhat startling method for teaching computing, yet it is an appropriate method that uses the benefits of occasions when students come together. It takes advantage of the opportunity for face-to-face discussion and peer learning. Students enjoy this exercise because of the interactions with class and peers. Nevertheless, a tutor needs to set the activity up with sensitivity because some computing students are averse to social interaction. 

Reflecting on this as a teaching experience, clarifies how students should tell a story. Groups whose presentation lacked a storyline or plot gave presentations closer to the tutor’s example teaching activity. It is important to encourage students to identify plot, character, aim and obstacle. This process not only benefits the students, but also benefits the tutor as they learn from the students’ reactions and intra-group discussion. The students reveal the depth of their problems and understanding as they attempt to articulate concepts through their performance and subsequent class discussion.

This intervention could be supported using pre- and post- quizzes that can evaluate students’ understanding of the specific topic. Assessment techniques will be introduced next week.