Monday, 7 August 2017

Risky Business...

Dr Alison Riley
Enterprise Education Manager

One of our five Enterprise Capabilities that we want to develop in students is 'Risk taking'.

This is the one capability where, when we discuss it with colleagues who teach in The University, we might see a wince. Much like this.


Of course, we don't for a minute mean sky-diving or base jumping type risk taking. What we want is for students to:
  • anticipate the outcome of their actions and take measured risks to advance their learning
  • make decisions in the absence of complete information, or in changeable conditions, dealing with and learning from uncertainty, whilst being tenacious and persevering with their idea or approach.

But how do we provide opportunities for students to do that in the curriculum? How do we make this less wince-worthy?


The problem

It seems like there could easily be a fundamental disconnect between our desire to support students (both in terms of their learning, and their wellbeing), and our desire to enable them to develop this capability. And it is easy to see how grappling with this risky business might make our colleagues uncomfortable initially. When you hear the term risk-taking the initial questions or assumptions might be:
  • Isn't it irresponsible to encourage students to take risks? 
  • Wouldn't it be unfair to ask students to take academic risks that might affect their progression or attainment?
  • Surely asking students to take risks means me taking risks with my curriculum?
  • How on earth can I control learning outcomes when risk is involved?
These are really important questions and its our job to answer them.


A response

Is it irresponsible to encourage students to take risks? The context to this question is often the (mis?)conception of risk as negative. Its often associated with the notion of gambling - think of the (now slightly dated) stereotype of the serial entrepreneur, risking his parents' cash on an ill-advised venture. Or think of the 'Wolf of Wall Street'/ 'Big Short' investment banker image - taking risks with other people's money with little regard for the consequences. Never fear, this is not the type of risk taking we want to encourage! There is a different type of risk taking, one that is altogether more positive. This is the kind of risk taking based on measured analysis of potential outcomes, employing the critical thinking skills that we are hoping students are developing in their academic studies. This is the type of risk-taking where students reflect on and learn from failure, applying this learning to future ventures. This is the type of risk that leads to innovative outcomes - trying something new and perhaps, just perhaps, succeeding at changing the world.

Of course, we want students to be able to practise and develop this capability in a safe environment. The things they shouldn't be risking are their grades/attainment of learning outcomes, or their emotional well-being. But there ARE ways to take risks in a 'soft landing' environment. It all goes back to the idea of supporting and assessing a learning process and not the outcome (see also my posts on assessing creativity here and here). VoilĂ , failing at an attempt to do something doesn't mean failing academically, as long as you have demonstrated an ability to generate a number of ideas, critically evaluate them, plan and implement a process, critically evaluate the outcome, and think about how you would apply that learning in another context in the future (there's a list of LOs for you!). Our role as teachers and facilitators here is to scaffold that process, providing meaningful learning experiences, authentic assessments, and supportive learning environments.

It can't be avoided - yes, this means taking risks ourselves as educators and practising what we preach. Most of our current teaching and assessment methods aren't designed to encourage this process (with some notable exceptions), and so this means implementing something new, and trying it out in the classroom, risk taking by encouraging risk taking (how gloriously meta). But that's where USEA is here to support you.

One tricky question remains (and I'm not sure I have the answer as yet). If we are providing a safe environment for risk taking, assessing a process and not an outcome, what is there to actively encourage students to really take risks and go beyond the obvious? One potential area to explore is the introduction of games/competition into the learning experience. As long as the competition or game has no effect on students' actual assessment or grades, the introduction of a little healthy competition might go a long way to encourage students to try something new. For example,as part of the Organ Donation Project (see case study here), students are made aware that a number of groups would be put forward for a final showcase pitch of their ideas, with a winner selected by peer votes. The prize is relatively small, and is not cash-based (chocolates and student membership of the Anatomical Society was last year's prize), but nevertheless, it seems that this element encourages students to take risks in presenting more innovative ideas than they would do otherwise. The competition element comes after the assessment of the campaign pitches, and has no bearing on academic marks. Please feel free to comment below and let us know of any other examples of risk taking in the curriculum that you can think of!


Watch this space...

I hope this post has helped to contextualise what we mean by risk-taking, and also helped to allay some fears. Over the next few months, we will be developing some specific planning and teaching resources on risk-taking, so don't forget to keep checking in with the ORB for new content. I'll also be writing some further blogs looking into the literature and pedagogy behind risk-taking in the curriculum, and examples of application in different contexts and resources you could use.

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