30 May 2006

On reflective journals

It's that marking (grading) time of year again. One fascinating aspect of that is to get to read students' learning/reflective/professional journals. They go by a variety of names, but they are all thoughtful accounts of practice, which identify areas for development and make links to general principles (a.k.a. "theory").

Frankly, I haven't a clue how I mark them. That is phrased carefully. I know "how to" mark them; I authored the criteria in the tutors' handbook for the course. But that is different from the way I actually do it.

Students writing journals are frankly in a bind. Should they 'fess up to everything which went wrong, and gain marks for honesty and reflection? Yes; but of course they may lose marks for sheer incompetence. Or should they spin to emphasise success? Yes; but we can mark them down for being insufficiently self-critical.

It's the same kind of bind that convicts experience when applying for parole. If they admit their offences and exhibit remorse, they will be let out. But if they continue to protest their innocence, they stay in prison. What do they do if they are actually innocent? There have been a few recent cases which have highlighted this. (OK, I should reference them, but it's late and it's complicated to search for them... Are you going to mark me down on this?)

I'm glad I don't have to produce a reflective journal. Actually, I do, and this is it. But you are not going to mark or grade it (althought there is an occasionally-used comment facility; please use that more). But I don't have to do it. I do it because I find it useful to do it; and it does not matter very much what anyone else thinks.

Could I write like this if I thought someone would mark it? I'd like to think so, but frankly I don't believe it. Setting a "reflective journal" as an assessment task is highly problematic.

19 May 2006

On the other side of the coin

This is viral, but not very reflective!

A friend just passed this link on to me; apart from being "The Onion" at its best, it puts a different slant on all those, "my computer crashed and I lost my work!" excuses.

16 May 2006

On encouraging surface learning

I'm bemused! On 3 May I posted about the Cambridge University Extension Course I am taking at the local Retirement Education Centre, the content of which continues to be stimulating and enjoyable.

But last week I was slightly surprised that the lecturer introduced the session by telling us how to write an essay on the material covered to date (the tri-partite nature of knowledge). He explained that as it had to be 1500 words, it would consist of seven (or perhaps eight) paragraphs, and then summarised on the whiteboard what each paragraph should contain. Odd, I thought. One does not expect this kind of thing on a course such as this.

Today, after the coffee break, he raised the assessment issue again. It is important, he explained, because the funding of the course, and hence that of the Centre, is affected by the number of people passing the course. A discussion ensued, of course. If this were an Oxford course, he told us, we could have passed by merely producing a two-paragraph proposal, but under current Cambridge regulations we do actually have to write the essay, and it needs to be at least 1300 words. I asked whether we were confined to the set titles. Absolutely, he replied; after, all they did between them "cover the whole syllabus".

Did it matter, then, since the assessment was merely to secure the funding stream, whether we passed or not? He was surprised but then explained about the sheer hassle which would be created if anyone submitted and failed. But there was no reason to fail, he said, because he would explain exactly what was required...

Cambridge University is one of the great universities of the world. It is a bastion of liberal, if sometimes antiquated, educational values. The very idea of teaching a course on epistemology to a bunch of retired people who can only be expressively motivated is a wonderful remnant of liberal education in an increasingly instrumental world. What has it come to, then, when they are apparently forced to adopt an assessment regime which is both inherently anti-andragogic (sorry for the jargon—it's just shorthand) and even anti-humanistic, in one of the great traditional humanities disciplines?

It is, moreover, the kind of assessment which is almost forced to promote surface learning, in a group of students who would naturally tend towards deep learning. It virtually rules out engaging in the higher levels of the SOLO taxonomy, and indeed I would tell my students that it pitches at the lower levels of Bloom (or Krathwohl and Anderson)

Interested as I am in the notion of hidden and unintended curricula , (and especially given that the course is about the nature of knowledge), I am bemused by these contradictory messages.

Apparently only one person has ever submitted and failed (and he was a former Fellow of an Oxford College). Sorry, there may be another on the way!

12 May 2006

On excusing oneself

This may well be one of those fatuous late-night "insights" which seem profound at 2.03 am but prove to be merely banal in the morning, but;

I have attended several conferences recently. It is a commonplace observation that conferences are as much about "networking" as about the substantive content of the sessions. "Networking" means, I think, making face-to-face contact with people who may be useful in developing one's ideas or promoting one's projects. That sounds exploitative, and in a sense it is; but if everyone knows the nature of the game, and has a mutual interest, the process is more accurately described as "symbiotic".

I am not good at it. I don't really want to be good at it. I prefer to meet people on the basis of being interested in each other, or at least in each others' ideas, for their own sake. Still, it is a fact of life, so it worth reflecting on.

The other day, at a day conference, I psyched myself up to approach several people I had never met before, to make myself known. I admit that I did so mainly for "networking" reasons. After all, I am now self-employed, so I have to make my "brand" known.

I have never attended any training on doing this (thank goodness), but I can imagine that if I were to do so, it would concentrate on how to introduce oneself (and cite much spurious research on the importance of first impressions).

But would it say anything about how to excuse oneself and get away?

There are several options, of course. Most famously, Mr Polly in H G Wells' novel, used to mutter, "Little dog!" and scurry off leaving the other person bewildered.

  • The most obvious option is to let the other person break it off; but that may well mean that you have outstayed your welcome.
  • You can always pretend to have spotted someone else you must talk to, across the crowded room; but that sends a message about the person you are currently talking to being less important than your next 'prospect'.
  • You can of course acknowledge that the other people are busy, and say, "Well, I must let you get on..."; that's fine when there is more than one of them, but a bit phoney when you are going to leave them standing alone...
Some months ago, a friend and I were at a reception attended by a cabinet minister. Whatever my view of his politics and performance (I generally steer clear of such issues on this blog, but I confess he and his preceding lecture did impress me), I was really struck by his ability to "work the room". He spent several minutes with us, doing a good job of appearing to be interested in our work (which he almost certainly wasn't, of course, but I'm not going to accuse him of hypocrisy; I would rather that he feign interest rather than be dismissive), and then moved on. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to observe his "moving on" technique; a Nigerian post-grad was brought into the conversation and he took the opportunity to bend the minister's ear about corruption in Nigeria, so we were simply isolated and drifted away.

Perhaps, if you are the focus of attention, that is the optimum strategy; let your previous interlocutors feel important and interesting, but be dragged away by prior obligations. But if you are not that important? And you just don't want to stand there mouthing inanities until you are dismissed or ignored?

(After all, the essence of "networking", I gather, is never to out-stay one's welcome. The scale of reception ranges from enthusiastic embrace through polite reception to [equally polite] rejection. One never wants to get a "rejection" on one's record...)

Frankly, I'm neither good at managing this nor interested at getting better at it. But it is an interesting cultural issue...

11 May 2006

On self-assessment

A friend has sent me this link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the US equivalent of the THES). I discussed it with colleagues yesterday, and we agreed that it did not really accord with our experience of self-assessment exercises. On the whole our students tend to under-estimate their competence rather than over-estimate it.

We hypothesised (OK—guessed) that if true, this might be because our students are more mature than undergraduates (even clinical students in medical school), and/or it might be a cultural difference between the UK and the USA.

So some questions to anyone who actually reads this blog! It's about time you did some work—as if reading my ramblings were not work enough;
  • Does anyone know of any UK research which focuses on similar issues? and in particular,
  • Do you know of anything which compares the UK and the US on this? and/or
  • Compares undergraduates and post-grads/professional course students?
Thanks, looking forward to hearing from you.

03 May 2006

On nostalgia

Yesterday I grasped the nettle. I am actually retired, so I went to my first course at the Retirement Education Centre. It is a brilliant initiative in our town, which has now been going for a quarter-century or more (and with which I had occasion to argue twenty years ago).

The REC decided they wanted to add an extension to their building, and sought planning permission for it. In so doing they drew the attention of the local authority to the planning permissions which attached to all the properties in the Square where the REC is located; and it became apparent that the building in which I then worked did not have planning permission for use as a teaching facility. So we had to move out to a temporary building on another campus, where we stayed for nigh-on twenty years. If the REC had never mentioned it, our Social Work Education Centre might still be in that wonderful old Victorian house...

I signed up for a Cambridge University Extension course on epistemology, but I missed the first session last week, unfortunately. We are a group of about sixteen people; I may be the youngest, and the oldest is clearly well into his eighties (I hope I am as acute, when/if I reach that age). We are also, sadly, entirely white and --I suppose almost by definition-- middle class.

However, I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a "syllabus" with "aims" and "content" but no "objectives", a sheet of guidance for the essay (it was already clear that submission of the assessment was primarily to ensure the continued funding of the course by the university, and had little to do with assessment of learning, although one can apparently accumulate credits towards a certificate if so inclined), and a reading list.

The session was around two hours, with a coffee-break. The tutor lectured, with occasional questions and thought experiments directed at us, and occasionally (well, quite regularly) having to field spontaneous questions from "students". He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint.

It was brilliant.

I can't wait to go back. This was andragogy at its best. There was absolutely no sense of being patronised; there were no assumptions ("objectives") about what we should "learn"; here was a teacher simply exposing his knowledge so that it might be shared by others, for no reason other than that it is interesting.

It was not about the tutor's technique. (He might of course read this, although it's highly unlikely unless I tell him about it.) He was clear, sometimes pedantically so. Occasionally he put down a contribution from the floor rather flatly, "No, that's incorrect, because..." (And he effectively told me I would have failed the undergraduate module on this because although my answer was right, I did not have the correct reasoning to reach it! Fair enough.) He made no concessions in terms of academic integrity to his audience of old buffers, which was great. I could see ways in which he could have judiciously illustrated some concepts to clarify them. But it was not about technique or tactics.

(I am not just basing my remarks on this one occasion; I have observed my students teaching here for several years.)

It was about "strategy" or really values. The REC's strategy/value base is clearly one of respect for their self-determining learners; they probably have to claim health benefits or something in bids for funding, but it's all run by the members. I know little about their funding streams. Members/students have to pay a subscription and a fee for each course, so they may be a self-financing "club" (which will of course exclude quite a lot of retired people, who have other financial priorities). Clearly the Learning and Skills Council will not be interested, because members have by definition finished "work", in the sense of making an economic contribution.

However; this is what "life-long learning" is really all about, as far as I am concerned. Who knows what people are gaining from it? Who knows how it is affecting the economy? Who knows whether these economically unproductive people who are about to die, will pass on their knowledge to their grandchildren, the workers of the future? Who cares?

Still, the bottom line is that somewhere there are still scholarly learning opportunities for intrinsically motivated learners, which are about liberal education, based on the conviction that it is a Good Thing. Per se. Deontologically.

Long may it continue!

See also the University of the Third Age