Turning Research Projects into Butterflies

I’ve just finished a fourth meeting with my group of MSc students who I am supervising through their project management dissertation projects this summer at The University of Manchester, and we’ve had a breakthrough. I have a group of ten Chinese students, with varying abilities in English, and varying degrees of shyness and willingness to engage with the group beyond just doing a rapid presentation and then quickly sitting down.

I’ve been thinking about how to get them engaging more effectively with our time together, and to feed this into our process for learning and improving drafts of work done until final submission of dissertations by them at the beginning of September. Until now, the process for our class sessions has included them turning up, being really lovely, helpful, quietly submissive to the instruction to fulfill what they need to on time and then do a PPT presentation on work and reading done so far. But last week I modelled what their abstract and introduction chapter should include, and asked them to follow that model to provide a summary on their own abstracts and introductions done so far. They duly did this. But before their own presentations this morning I then modelled what their methodology chapter should include, asking them to provide a summary following that model for next week. And at the end of this presentation, before reminding them about the schedule of impending deadlines for submission of various draft versions of their work over the summer (first one due next Monday: first version of structure and outline to me for feedback by email), I then put the Austin’s Butterlfy video up on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms

I introduced it by explaining the context – a group of first graders in an American school – and that obviously this was a very different setting and level to their own, but asked them to watch it and consider how they might apply it to their own practice while learning, researching and writing up their research projects. They thoughtfully reflected while watching the video and all agreed that they found the principle of providing mutual critique in a learning group to be of value. They liked the approach recommending honest, specific and friendly critique, and I then challenged them to think of how things had been in our group so far. I said it was good that they were doing as asked: turning up and presenting. But I suggested (strongly) that we now needed to move beyond just giving a quick and maybe dismissive presentation, clapping each other’s presentation and then sitting down too fast. I said that from now on, in order to make the most of this opportunity and time we have together, that I wanted each person presenting to ask for feedback, comments and ideas for improvement at the end of their slot.

Everyone slowly nodded, apprehensively.

I also pointed out that this would require thinking and engaging mentally with someone else’s presentation while they were giving it – not just watching with our eyes, smiling and nodding. They realised this was going to require a bit more mental work than usual.

But, they did it. Slowly but surely they got braver and were able to reflect and offer some good ideas and advice to each other following each presentation.

A few students humorously commented on the current stage of their own ‘Butterfly’. “I’m already at draft 4 of my butterfly”, laughed one student, with mock arrogance, knowing full well he was a little previous with such a statement. One female student might have already hit draft 5 though and everyone could clearly see that she was someone to learn from. You could see people in the room cognitively upping their game as she spoke. Others made their suggestions and comments more challenging for her, which was a little unfair but she could take it. She spoke to me after the session and asked if they could set up a FaceBook gropu for group discussion on their work – it amazes me that they think they have to ask for permission for this kind of thing. I encouraged it, of course.

In conclusion: Austin’s Butterfly… not just good for school kids – also good for MSc students. Can’t wait for their butterflies to keep hitting my email inbox over the summer now, getting bigger, bolder and more beautiful each time  🙂

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