27 April 2006

On getting feedback

I've finally cleared out my office. My successor starts work on Tuesday, and I wish her all the best.

For years I have stored all kinds of ancient files in my office, and moved them unthinkingly from institution to institution and office to office. Actually, last time I moved across campus, four years ago, I contrived to "lose" the contents of three whole filing-cabinets, and no-one ever noticed, least of all me. In fact, recently I have not opened my one remaining filing cabinet for months; and today I found a half-bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates in one drawer! And—I am pleased to say—evidence that supermarket plastic carrier-bags are really bio-degradeable; this one fell to pieces as I tried to lift it.

However, my really ancient files pre-date computer use, and the most ancient of them all were from my undergraduate days. Hand-written essays with hand-written tutor comments on them. First, I was struck by the detailed comments, at the same level as I aspire to nowadays. Then I read some of the summary comments at the end (we didn't get a grade for routine essays; all the assessment was by "finals"--three weeks of concentrated exams at the end of the whole three-year course.)

I was not at Oxbridge, but at Sussex, then known as "Balliol-by-the-sea", which adopted the same pattern of teaching. The only obligatory attendance requirement was at a weekly tutorial for each course (module); usually one or two students with a tutor. A student read out an essay, and it was discussed, and then another essay was set; so if there were two students, one produced an essay to read and discuss, and the other got written feedback on theirs.

And reading the comments on one of my first-year essays, I was transported back to the tutorial. I don't remember the details at the moment, but they'll come back to me; what I do remember is my mortification at reading those summary comments. Frankly, I was used to praise or encouragement for my efforts at school, but these were not like that. They provided feedback on the content, at an uncompromising academic level.

And I remember how I reacted. Just as we complain that our students react. (Yes, of course I know every sentence needs a verb in the main clause, you pedant!) I did not read them, until now, 40+ years later. I could not bear to. I just felt "put down". And so I did not benefit from their points.

Tutors gave critical feedback to the student who read their essay, of course. But it was verbal, and uttered in their presence (and in the presence of another student, usually) and therefore modified and often mollified by the conversational interaction and social context. I remember one tutorial in which a tutor took me to task for denying the sexual element of courtly love, in mediaeval literature. Even allowing for the waning inhibitions of the time (1964) he did so very gently, especially as my co-tutee was clearly much more worldly-wise than me. But what would he have written down, had I not been "presenting" that week?

Written feedback needs to be addressed to the student, not merely an expression of our own reactions. Consider how the student will read it (if at all--and, I now realise, don't castigate them for not reading and acting on it) and what you want to achieve by providing it.

I am now going to revisit the marking matrix (see http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/marking.htm, for an up-coming module to check that it provides guidance on how to improve, rather than mere condemnation of aspects of failure. Perhaps then students will be able to summon up the courage to read it.

25 April 2006

On jargon

This is not just another excuse to publicise the article the heading links to. Honest!

I passed on the link above to my brother, who responded;

Thanks for the TES web site reference - I have just had a look at it although I didn't understand much of what it was about! [...] By the way, what are 'givens'?
How could anyone not understand it? Very easily. When Richard drew attention to it, I re-read it from the viewpoint of a non-teacher, and I was surprised by the jargon phrases which pepper it. We have developed a private/professional language which excludes those who are not privy to it, but it has crept up on us, so it takes an "outsider" to draw attention to it.

This problem (?) is endemic to all occupational groups. The more we develop a professional shorthand, the more we exclude those who do not share it. We expect it of doctors, lawyers, and engineers; it is part of their mystique, and some of them cultivate it for their own vested interests.

But teachers? We are supposed to be committed to the dissemination of knowledge, rather than to corralling it. OK, there is a necessary professional jargon, largely enshrined in abbreviations, about GCSEs, NVQs, OCN, SEN, NQF levels and the like (and don't worry if you don't know what all of them mean—that merely reflects sub-divisions within the whole).

But education belongs to everyone. In the jargon (of course) of current political discourse, everyone is a "stakeholder" in education. So our language should be as transparent as possible. (That, of course, is an example of the kind of insidious jargon I am talking about; it means "everybody should be able to understand what we are talking about")

Most of the feedback (what's that? It refers to email messages about my websites—yes, I know that is jargon, too, but how far can you prune it back? That's a serious question... as is the use of gardening metaphor... My brain hurts! And that's an allusion to Monty Python...)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself— Most of the feedback about my sites compliments me on avoiding jargon (or at least on de-mystifying it), but it comes from people within the teaching/learning/education community, who just don't notice the extent to which we have developed a private language.

And: "what is a 'given'?" It is shorthand for a "given truth; an idea which is so self-evidently true that there is no point in questioning it. a.k.a 'no-brainer'. 'Given' as in 'handed down from above with impeccable authority'" Self-evident, isn't it? No. Not if you are a chemical engineer.

But then, I haven't a clue what he is talking about within his discipline.

The difference is, that apart from extreme situations like public inquiries into pollution, my brother has no obligation to be "transparent" to the rest of us. But educators do.