Category Archives: Research

The Battle for Latin: Reports from the front line of research into Latin teaching

This article was originally published over on the brand new ‘FASS Centre for Scholarship and Innovation’ blog. Visit that blog and follow @OU_FASSTEST on Twitter to find out more about how the Centre supports the critical, scholarly evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning in the Arts and Social Sciences.

Hiding behind any respectable project that seeks to improve the student experience is always an element of nerdiness – an obsessive love of stats and number-crunching – as well as a curtain-twitching urge to take a peek into the lives of others. What precisely do teachers and students get up to in their classrooms? How does it all go so right for students – and sometimes so wrong?

Well, that’s our experience anyway. We are James Robson (Professor of Classical Studies at the OU) and Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student) and our story starts about seven years ago when we met up for the first time over multiple cups of tea, nursing the shared ambition of carrying out a bold project that hadn’t been attempted for a generation: a nuts-and-bolts survey of beginners’ Latin and Greek teaching in Classics departments across the UK. We carried out this survey in 2014 and as the data poured in and we feasted greedily on the diet of bar charts and pivot tables we were creating, one statistic kept jumping out at us: nearly one in four students who began studying Latin at university (23%) didn’t complete their module. Why was that? And how come the pass rates at different universities varied so greatly?

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

That is how The Battle for Latin was born, a project dedicated to examining the factors driving student success, failure and withdrawal amongst beginners’ Latin students. More in hope than expectation, we put together a bid for the British Academy small grants scheme, drawing on James’ long experience of classical language teaching at the Open University and Mair’s expertise in Modern Foreign Language and Latin pedagogy. Importantly for the bid, we were able to cite the statistically-rich research that we had already published. And crucially, too, we had a burning question that, to us at least, seemed so vital to answer: why were so many aspiring Latinists in UK universities unable to stay the distance?

A few months later, we learnt that our bid had been successful and when our spontaneous whooping and partying eventually subsided, we set to work. As stats fiends, one thing we felt we needed was more targeted, up-to-date data, so we ran a new survey of UK Latin instructors, who between them kindly furnished us with data on 30 different Latin modules covering 888 students nationwide. As our graph below shows, the variation in completion rates was striking once again. Remarkably, too, we also learnt that, while a greater number of students were completing and passing our own Latin module at the OU, this was not a picture reflected across the sector: nationwide the completion rate for beginners’ Latin modules was stuck at 76%.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

So, what were the factors driving student success, withdrawal and failure? Our data allowed us to rule out elements such as module duration, credit value and even student contact hours to a large extent (the exception being a handful of particularly intensive modules which included five or more hours’ classroom time each week). Nor did the choice of textbook or assessment strategy appear to be determinative (although we did note a possible benefit of including substantial elements of assessed coursework). Ultimately, whatever hypothesis we investigated there always seemed to be modules that bucked the trend. Clearly, staring at the stats was only going to get us so far.

Fortunately, our project also built in human contact: a series of whole-class observations, interviews with instructors and students, and even an online student survey to allow us to understand better the obstacles to student success. We learnt a lot from our activities, not least the need to ask a small number of very focused questions if you hope to finish the interview on time! But we were also delighted to discover the warmth, dedication and reflectiveness not only of Latin instructors, but also of the students they teach, who were generous with their time and hugely thoughtful and thought-provoking in their responses to our questions.

So, is there a magic bullet for improving student success on beginners’ Latin modules? Well, maybe not, but our research nevertheless provides some useful trends and pointers, we hope. Plus, our forthcoming paper also distils some of the top tips that Latin students would pass on to new starters – all the more useful, we hope, for being direct quotations in the students’ own voices. If we have an overarching conclusion, however, it is perhaps that the magic lies somewhere in the dynamic interactions between the teacher, students, textbook, teaching methods and class as a whole. Of course, these are factors that are challenging to quantify and pin down – but this merely convinces restless enthusiasts like us that another research project is needed to scrutinize these more closely.

A paper with further details will be published shortly, we will post a link here when the article is live.

For further details please contact James and Mair:

James Robson, Professor of Classical Studies

Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student)

Herodotus Helpline

In this blog post, Dr Jan Haywood reflects on the first series of the newly instituted Herodotus Helpline – an online seminar series freely available to all.

Over the last few months, I have been working with Tom Harrison at St Andrews University on a weekly seminar series entitled Herodotus Helpline. The idea came about at the beginning of lockdown – as a way for colleagues to come together and share research ideas, but also to foster the sense of a scholarly community at what was a very difficult time for all! While the title of the series might suggest a narrow focus on Herodotean studies, our hope was that the figure of Herodotus would be read by all as a symbol of omnivorous intellectual discovery, thus attracting those with research interests in the wider Greek world, Near East, Egypt, etc.

Image by Karin Eremia. Please visit her website at www.karineremia.com

The series has since run every Wednesday, at 6pm GMT, and has attracted a huge variety of participants from across the globe (typically 40-60 individuals attend each week). So we have had people calling in from New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, USA, as well as across different parts of Europe (notably Italy, Greece and the UK). Topics have ranged from exploring individual chapters of Herodotus’ Histories to much broader assessments that encompass his understanding of the rule of law and the reception of his Histories in modern English-language poetry. All presentations have been followed by group discussion, which, as all attendees are encouraged in the strongest terms, should be purposeful, open and constructive.

I’m delighted to add that many of these presentations were also recorded, and are freely accessible on our YouTube channel. As you will see, all recordings have been accessed many times already (one more than 650 times!).

As we break for the summer recess, the first edition of the series has now come to a close. But rest assured: we have lined up a full suite of seminars, workshops, lectures and other events for the 2020-2021 academic year. There are also plans for publications taking shape – and talk is even afoot about a limited range of Herodotus Helpline merchandise!

Herodotus Helpline is and will always be for everyone. It is open to all.

Doctor Toga on Radio 1 – by Ursula Rothe

What to do when you get an email out of the blue from a BBC radio producer asking if you’re willing to be interviewed about the toga on a Radio 1 programme focusing on toga parties? You say yes, of course! I mean, you know it’s going to be silly, and you know you’re not going to be able to get much useful detail across. But on the other hand, everyone thinks they know what a toga looked like, when they rarely do: this was a golden opportunity for me as a Roman dress historian to challenge the misunderstanding surrounding Roman dress, and especially togas, and that to a large audience. After all, challenging misinformation and misconceptions about Roman dress is also the aim of my new website, Doctor Toga (www.drtoga.org ), a one-stop clinic for people from theatrical societies, re-enactment groups and the media to get expert advice on Roman dress for costumes.

The interview took place over the phone on Tuesday afternoon, and it involved Scott Mills and Chris Stark firing questions at me whilst also engaging in banter with each other. The line wasn’t brilliant, and it was not always easy, given the lack of visual cues, to know when to stop or start talking, but I think the result is pretty good nonetheless. It was clear they were trying to shock me with laddish innuendo at various stages, but Classical Studies scholars are not easy to offend – least of all Australian ones! I’m particularly pleased they left in my plug for my new website, although they did cut me talking about my upcoming book on the toga. Also, I was disappointed not to be able to tell them when they asked me when knickers were invented. (I must look that up.) But you can’t have it all!

It was interesting how much fun they made, at the beginning, of the idea that there might be someone who is an expert on the toga. Although perhaps somewhat confronting, it is always a healthy experience to be reminded of just how obscure the niche you inhabit is for some people. Let’s hope this kind of interview goes some way to convincing people that the classical world is still very much with us, and that it is a useful thing that there are people out there who spend their lives trying to understand it better. At the very least, let’s hope it will lead to a few more toga-like togas on the party circuit this freshers’ season!

You can find a link to the interview here (minutes 7.27-14.23): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07p676x