Category Archives: assessment

Ramblings about reading and writing and learning

Interesting article about writing and speech: http://blog.oup.com/2013/02/academic-speech-patterns-linguistics/

I am always a fan of reading work aloud to rewrite it, which the author advocates. However, I’ve also marked a number of pieces of work in my life written by students using their spoken understanding of language, and their accents, and pronunciation can lead to some real confusion (‘being’ written as ‘been’ for example, because that’s how it is said in parts of the North East of England). So while I I am a strong advocate of making sense of writing through speech, and writing in far more straightforward ways than many academics seem to favour, I also believe that people also write better if they read. Many of the students who wrote ‘been’ were not readers. They would not normally read novels, or even read a newspaper regularly. They read, with some difficulty the academic texts they were directed towards. They often commented on how these texts and articles were difficult to understand, and in fact when writing an academic critique would sometimes comment on something being ‘badly written’ because they didn’t understand the conceptual thinking the author was expressing.

I would often find myself discussing with these students the challenge of writing about concepts and complex theoretical ideas in simple ways. I would also suggest that reading academic writing was like doing aerobics of the brain – if you practice and practice it gets easier and you get better at it, and your academic reading muscles become much more flexible. However, sometimes I probably agreed with the students assessment – some academic writers were not communicating their ideas very well.

I also admit to a real concern that these same students would learn how to write from these academic articles and from the feedback I and my colleagues provided on their written work. If that is all the input they have on what good writing is, what do they learn?

This seems to me to be an argument for getting students reading non-academic material – in the US some universities have ‘common reading programmes’ for all first year students, often with a book (usually fiction) agreed for all new students before they arrive. These are often novels which provoke discussion and thinking and students are provided with opportunities to discuss the book as a group. Admittedly USA degree programmes are more likely to be 4 years (in England, and much of Europe programmes are usually 3 year), which gives time for the first year to be about orientation and broader education. Whereas a 3 year programme means hitting the discipline ground running, making it hard to get agreement across an institution that taking the time for general reading would have value. But we also face ongoing frustrations from academics who teach about the writing abilities of the students. We can’t expect school (Pre-18) education to do everything, but should we expect them to get students’ reading and writing ready for HE? I’m not sure they do expect this in the USA, and if they do there is still room for ongoing engagement with reading, given their common reading programme. I wonder if we should learn something from this?

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Filed under assessment, books, Higher Education, Learning, reading, teaching, writing

Thinking about subject disciplines and assessment

A percentage of my work involves helping academics in HE think about the design of their teaching and assessment. My priority in this work is helping them explore the variety of ways they can create good learning environments for their students, and can help the wide range of students now in HE in the UK to succeed. However, there are days when I feel deeply frustrated about the ways in which the cultures and codes of disciplines constrain imagination and creative teaching. Of course on good days it’s the other way round: discipline perspectives and ideas produce a richness which enhances teaching and learning.

I work with staff from a breadth of discipline areas and have learned to approach ideas and issues in different ways (heh, sometimes I even dress differently when I work with different discipline teams!). Ive learned too, to value the variety of ways of thinking that come from different subjects and approaches. Sometimes taking a good idea from one area and translating it to another is a deeply satisfying part of my job.

Today hasn’t been one of those good days though. I’ve had a conversation about assessment in science and listened to a really forward thinking teacher argue that they should have more exams in their faculty because that’s what other science faculties in other universities do. I tried to suggest that maybe they were ahead of the game and other universities should be copying them (not the other way round) but apparently they don’t want to be outliers. I was also informed that employers in these disciplines like exams too.

But there is plenty of evidence that exams (of the blind time constrained kind, which is what was being advocated) don’t actually test what graduates (in any discipline) need to know. Being good at exams is a very useful skill for passing exams! It appears to have little real transferable learning to offer (unlike presentations, project reports, practicals, and even, to some extent, essays). In a modern world, having a good memory for facts (vital for success in exams) is a far less useful tool than having good research skills (relevant for projects and essays for example) or being able to build or produce something (practicals). There is fairly strong evidence that exams tend to encourage surface and rote learning, but we keep being told that our employers and our society want deep thinking, analytical, adaptable, reflective, creative workers and citizens.

In a UK post 1992 University, where many students have already done relatively badly in conventional exams before they get to the University (it has always interested me how many students having done badly at school under an exam model blossom in a HE context which is not too wedded to exams), using an exam method only reinforces their lack of success, whereas one of the potential advantage of some modern university learning is that it provides an environment for enabling students from diverse backgrounds to flourish and succeed.

It is frustrating to me that this retrograde thinking in favour of a return to a traditional assessment model, ‘because that’s what other science programmes do’, runs alongside a context where promoting diversity in assessment and encouraging the idea that assessment can improve learning has been on the table for quite while! And where so many good developments in both teaching and assessment have been happening across all disciplines, including science.

If you are interested in ways to think about assessment in the sciences, its worth looking at Phil Race’s guide. He also suggests ways to make exams as effective as possible so this isn’t an anti exam guide! It’s available here
http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/ps/documents/practice_guides/practice_guides/ps0069_designing_assessment_to_improve_physical_sciences_learning_march_2009.pdf

NB just in case anyone wondered, Im not against exams per se. In fact, oddly enough, I was pretty good at them myself (i’ve not had a use for that particular skill for a fair number of years though!)

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