Friday, 28 January 2011

Planning and Marking

There is a lot about teaching that is to do with preparing lessons and marking. Preparation looks forward and you anticipate glowing lessons where students will be enthusiastic and learn a lot very quickly. Marking looks backwards and permits you to see how near you have come to what the teaching set out to do.
I used to be a secondary teacher and now I’m a university lecturer. There are many parallels but some striking differences that are mainly to do with emphasis.
Lesson planning in both sectors can be very creative. In both cases also, one plans, delivers the lesson, evaluates, adjusts and plans again. In the university, one’s new research also feeds into the lesson plan. At school, you’re dealing with your own interpretation of a fixed curriculum and what you do depends very much on the students you have in front of you. If they don’t like, they’ll play up. University students might just not bother coming to class again and to some extent anyway are more forgiving if you don’t quite get it right: they know they’ve got to learn the material and the skills anyway. But a word of caution here: fees are high, debt mounts and students and whoever supports them deserve value for money.
Marking, in both cases can be divided into what one ought to do and what one absolutely has to do. In secondary teaching it is virtually impossible to keep on top of what one ought to do and I devised strategies to cope with this: set work that students could mark themselves, marked their work in class whilst they were writing and set work that we discussed in class. The compulsory marking was somewhat easier. It came in manageable lumps.
At university it is the other way round. The work that ought to be looked at only comes from a few final year and MA students and is looked at again in the Creative Writing Workshop. All of our seminars, anyway, contain an element of the workshop and this is the equivalent of setting work that can be discussed at secondary level. The work that must be marked is another matter.
I hate it when people say, in December and early June, “I bet you can ease up a bit now that the students have gone home, can’t you?” No, I can’t. I took off Christmas day, my birthday on 22 December, one day when our children visited and one day when we visited the in-laws at the end of last year. Otherwise I’ve been working solidly since the end of November on marking, moderating and conducting the post-marking admin. And I mean evenings and weekends as well as during the day. I’ve marked 165 scripts, and moderated another 35. That is between 200 and 100 hours’ work. So far, I’ve spent twelve hours on post-marking admin and have another five or so to do. This would be fine, except the other work does not go away. The semester begins next week. Fortunately most of the preparation was done in the summer. I’ll still be processing marks as the teaching begins.
There is an up-side to university-level marking, though. Except in a very few cases – and they’re usually the same students who have hardly come to class - you could probably give every single one top marks for effort. We get a full range of marks, with most falling between 50 and 80, and with a significant majority getting 60-69, and most people who fail do so for technical reasons, like not giving in all the bits and pieces that are required or handing work in late. At degree level, even undergraduate, that range of marks is pleasing. The students’ work is interesting and varied, though after a while one’s words on the cover forms begin to sound like clich├ęs.
I can’t really complain, though. There is little about my job that I don’t like and much that I love. Perhaps some of the admin bugs me a little – especially when I rip my fingernails on the post-marking admin – don’t ask! And yes, I do have time to write a blog. It’s writing and therefore part of my research.

Friday, 14 January 2011

What causes anxiety about marking

The marking per se is fine. It is onerous – each piece takes between 30 minutes and one hour. So, as I had contact with 30 students doing three pieces and ten doing two, that’s between 55 and 110 extra hours I’ve had to find over about one month. Even that isn’t so bad – most of the time I’m reading and commenting on interesting creative pieces. It actually helps me to reflect on my own work as well.
What actually causes me more stress personally is waiting for colleagues to moderate or have their work ready for moderating. It can be an anxious time anyway: what if they don’t agree with your marks at all? That rarely happens, thankfully. More often than not, if there is disagreement, it’s tiny and the discussion that follows is useful as it helps us to refine the marking process further.
Perhaps most of the anxiety, then, comes from knowing what has to be done next: we have to put the names on the scripts, enter the marks on to Gradebook, get those checked make sure any gaps are real gaps, split the papers, get copies of cover sheets and moderator’s comments to our exam officer and our support staff, and get a little pile sent off to the external examiner with a covering letter.
This always takes much more time than anticipated. Papers get detached and vital information buries itself. And several nails get broken. Bring on electronic marking, I say.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Marking Creative Pieces

I’ve recently been marking the creative pieces - and the essays for that matter – on my “Introduction to Children’s Literature”, a second year option course, the main assignment of which is a 2500 critical essay or creative piece for a particular key stage. This has been a very gratifying experience. The full range of marks is coming out but includes a pleasing number of firsts, even though most of them are scraped and there is still room for improvement in all of the scripts.
There are the usual blunders – failure to submit all of the components of the assignment, telling too much and not showing enough, not formatting or referencing correctly, overwriting, run on sentences and lack of structure.
However, the submissions delight all the same. Even in those that score the lowest marks there is ample evidence that the student has understood the key stage in which they are working and that they have put their work together thoughtfully.
Every module that we teach is meant to be 120 hours, yet contact time is a lot less. In this one the students have 20 hours in class and a ten minute one-to-one plus some e-mail and office consultation time. It is very clear in their work that they have put the time in. Some have produced very impressive reading lists. For others it is clear that they have read widely even though they don’t cite works. They would not be able to write with such insight if they hadn’t.
I couldn’t be more pleased.