Category Archives: teaching

Hopefulness or not?

I don’t know where the last year went other than into a busy working life. I think my last blog piece was in April last year. Part of my plan for the blog was to remind myself how to write, and use the blog as a way of keeping writing. Keeping writing seems to have been a bust! At least in blog terms. Although I have been working on a couple of individual pieces for publication, done an introduction to a proceedings and am editing (with colleagues) a collection for SEDA, so maybe writing has still been going on.

My daily working life is one which is fairly full with a lot of reading, writing, presenting, talking, thinking aloud and generally trying to keep up with the busy-ness of developing professional staff and understanding (and helping others understand) the sector I work in. I mostly, most of the time, enjoy what I do. Of late, working has taken over far more of my other time (for my partner, my cat, my house, my sense of self, my connection with friends and novels and the world beyond work – yes there is one, honestly!) and in particular seems to have left me with little time for thinking.

I read two things recently which have pushed me back to this blog and to thinking through writing (and writing to think), and about the future of higher education, as well as my own future place in HE.

The first piece I read was a blog about hope and despair (or not) and higher education in the USA I thought the piece was sad, but I recognised too a familiar sense of hanging in there by the fingernails that is echoed by many of those I know working in HE in various countries round the world. All we can do is teach, and write and try to make small differences and not be overcome by the pressures of governments and money to undermine any values HE provides, and the despair of a world that seems to grow less fair, less equal and more divided. The author doesn’t believe they can change the world for the better through their work, but there is a sense of trying (not despairing) to make small differences to individuals.

The other piece I read was an article about being an academic reflecting on the impact of overwork on health and trying to find some balance. I was reminded of the besetting problem faced by those whose work is often cerebral – we separate our bodies and our brains so very effectively that our bodies have to shout at us, very loudly, to be heard (usually by laying us flat!) . My own body has been sending me signals for a while now, and I’m trying to listen, but the bruises from a recent fall are a strong reminder that I wasn’t listening very well!

It seems to me that HE is at a crisis point (which may take 20 years to actually fully show). Governments have/are ‘tinkering’ and the ideological shape of that tinkering has yet to be understood. Technology is radically changing the sources and ownership of knowledge. Economic changes and approaches are driving students expectations, managerial processes and professional practices to such an extent that HE is already very different to how it was even 20 years ago. Not all the changes are negative; in fact the partnership between students and staff in Universities and the opening of HE to a far wider range of participants (both as students and as academics) is a bright light in murky waters.

But we can’t go on hoping it will all go away and everything will return to normal. And I’m definitely not convinced that the increased managerialism and business-minded approaches that seem to be advocated as an alternative are in any way suitable for education at any level.

Education changes lives. Education opens doors. Education creates citizens and revolutionaries. Education is scary, and beautiful. Those who are educated ask questions, they think, they interact, they explore creative solutions. Universities are full of educated people, so surely the answers are already seeded in the minds and hearts of those people. If we are at a crisis point, we should be well placed to identify creative solutions. We shouldn’t be despairing the end of HE as we know it, but imagining and even creating the future HE as it could (and maybe will?) be.


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Ramblings about reading and writing and learning

Interesting article about writing and speech:

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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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

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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