25 January 2010

On explaining grades

The linked piece is a column (dated yesterday but I think I've seen it before) in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Gina Barreca of the University of Connecticut. What I found most remarkable was not the piece itself but part of the first comment:
"Nobody should explain a grade to a student."
As flat and dogmatic as that. On the contrary, nobody should ever give a student a grade without explanation.

The principles of formative assessment (or "assessment for learning") suggest strongly that students can learn an enormous amount from good feedback. Indeed, Hattie concludes that the single most effective way of improving learning is to give "dollops of feedback". And all assessment can be formative. The mark or grade is simply a summary or proxy for the feedback, but it is so abstracted as to give practically no information. On a course on which I currently teach, there are no grades, just "pass" and "refer" (which caan lead to an outright "fail"). But there are dollops of feedback.

Last week one of the participants--"student" is not quite the word for well-qualified professionals in their fields who happen to be learning to teach that field--did ask a colleague for a grade.He demurred, but he could see how uncomfortable it made her. She had been through school, an undergraduate degree and a Master's getting grades all the time; a piece of work had not been properly assessed unless it got a grade, as far as she was concerned even if as in this case, it carried credits if it passed.

It's interesting that the education system is so hooked on grades; in the rest of the working world we get plenaty of feedback, but only in teaching do we get graded (by Ofsted)*.

I suspect that the sub-text of the original comment is that no student should ever question the judgement of a faculty member, however arbitrary.

*Not entirely true, but substantially so.

Labels: , ,

08 December 2009

On an ingenious approach to marking assignments

Steve Hill of Southampton Solent University has been experimenting with Camtasia, a screen recording package which also takes audio, as a means of recording his spoken comments on students' work, which he can then send to them.
Students submit assignments electronically using our Moodle-based VLE. I then get a studentís Word file on screen and edit it, whilst simultaneously giving a live commentary on the changes that Iím making. This is like giving a student their own personal tutorial.
Sounds like an excellent idea!

Labels: , ,

12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

08 May 2009

On feedback

Do read the linked columnóand, as important, the comments.

The author (now a professor) has kept her former professor's annotation of an essay she wrote in her second year as an undergraduate. She reproduces them and her readers comment on them. It's fascinating, and also rather disconcerting to see how many ways the notes can be interpreted, as well as to consider whether that kind of feedback would be acceptable thirty years on.

Labels: , , ,