Thursday, 30 May 2013

Students getting feedback

I’ve finished my marking and moderating now. What a relief! But no, it doesn’t get quieter now that the semester has finished, even when that’s done.  There are the exam boards, getting ready for next year, countless meetings and training sessions, conferences and if you’re lucky a little research. You may even take some leave though it’s often difficult to fit in the thirty-two days to which we are entitled or find a time when you’re not going to miss something crucial. And of course, there’s the students’ reaction to how you’ve marked their work to be dealt with.  

Using an effective moderation system

Naturally, some are disappointed. That is why we have a moderation system that works really well if applied rigorously. And we do apply it firmly. The moderator is someone who has not taught on the module but who will understand the issues. They must sample ten scripts from groups of up to a hundred. If there are 101 scripts they must sample twenty and so on. Sometimes it’s more; for instance if several people have taught on the module, if there are several marks that border classes and if the marker signals a concern. The moderator tends to look at the highest, the lowest, middle of each class and borderline grades. Later an external examiner also looks at the sample.
We’re normally pretty spot on. However, it can be established that a marker has:
  1. Generally marked too high
  2. Generally marked too low
  3. Bunched the marks together too much
  4. Spread the marks too much
  5. Been completely erratic  
Adjustments can be made easily for 1-4. 5 signals a complete remark. Fortunately that has never happened. I can think of just one case where all marks were put up.     


We do this quite informally. We’ll look at each other’s marking as we go along if we have questions about our own. We can even ask a colleague to look at a script we’re concerned about. As the students submit electronically, we can view their work from anywhere in the world and at any time of day. Now, we’re not recommending that someone works 24/7 and leaves the beach whilst on holiday, but this can even save a walk to another corridor. As at this time of the year we’re rarely all in the same building at the same time, this is an extremely handy feature.

How students get their results

They pick these up electronically. In the old days they used to have to come to our offices and pick up the hard copy. We and probably a lot of their friends would see them get their results. This isn’t too bad if it’s good news. It can be devastating if the news isn’t so good. And awkward if two friends come together to receive substantially different marks. At least now they can contemplate their results in privacy.

How students react

There is always a first, emotional reaction.  Then there is a more reasoned one. When I release my marks I tell students to get in contact if there are any questions about their work. I always make sure, however, that I don’t see them until at least forty-eight hours after they’ve seen their mark though I may agree to the appointment within ten minutes. This gives them a little distance from the result before we discuss it.   
I do like a face to face contact for this. Emails can go on for ever and may miss the point. We can look at the work together. If that’s absolutely impossible – and often it is at the end of the second semester – the student may be several thousand miles away – I’ll talk to them on the phone with both of us looking at the submission. I’ll have to explain exactly why I’ve awarded which mark to the different aspects of the task and what my comments mean. I may expand on them a little.

Results not negotiable

Because we are rigorous in our moderation and because we marked anyway to a finely pinpointed set of grade descriptors the result must stand and the student cannot negotiate.  However, we sometimes find there is a technical issue that can allow some leniency. Sometimes a student may not be able to attach drafts and may have sent them separately and the marker has forgotten. There is, of course some responsibility to be taken here by the student.  It’s always possible to attach drafts. Hard-pressed lecturers may not remember every single email. The submission process may have screwed the formatting. One year, the system took out all of the italics of one student so it looked as if she hadn’t referenced correctly. If they use anything but Word, formatting is not supported. They can submit a PDF but neither we nor they were aware of this problem when the system screwed the originally correct formatting of fifty scripts .  
However, the adjustments that we make in these circumstance are anyway only of three or four marks. They are also very rare.
A student may appeal after they have their official transcript but appeals are generally unsuccessful because the moderation system is used effectively.   

Summative and formative feedback

We do give both, even on final year final semester assessments. After all, any script that does not have 100% must be flawed in some way. We like to keep pushing our students higher. I have a student who attained 75% coming to see me on Monday. She’s keen to carry on with her novel. I commented on the voice. On Monday we’re going to sit and look at her submission together and work out how she can make the voice sound more young adult.        

Friday, 24 May 2013

Student engagement

We worry about attendance. Actually, though, attendance isn’t the problem. Engagement is. I found it very amusing to listen to a student recently saying that they got just eighteen minutes more contact time for the huge fees they were paying. So, if it’s that big a deal, I thought, why don’t you come to class?  
A class I deliver almost every year and that is normally quite well attended has been less well attended this year. I have two groups. One class was quite well attended but less so than normal. The other class was poorly attended. However, the engagement in class was better in the less well attended class.

Engagement within class

This shows in many ways. Students are engaged if:
  • They are willing to express an opinion.
  •  They argue with the lecturer and other students but back up their arguments convincingly.
  • They have done the preparatory task.
  • They leave class prepared to do the “homework”.
  • They bring work to share at the workshop part of the class.

Engagement with the course

This will include a complete knowledge of how the Blackboard site works. (Blackboard is the virtual learning environment tool at the institution where I work). Here they have access to learning materials, example assignments, exact details of assessments, wikis, forums, calendars and eventually their own marks. We’re required also to upload lecture notes to the Learning Materials area.            
Every staff member dreads looking at their email in-boxes yet we maintain a culture of getting back to students as quickly as possible- even when we’re snowed under with marking.
So, students have a lot of access to the workings of our minds even if we don’t see that much of them fact to face.

The VLE as a substitute for a lecturer?

No, never. Not every university can be the OU. They do what they do superbly. That particular style anyway is for a certain type of student. But maybe class time can be used differently and the material that can be digested through reading, watching or listening can be left for the student to consume in their own time.  Class time becomes an opportunity for more direct interaction amongst students and between students and lecturers. There must be some value-added.
One student did joke “Your stuff’s so good on Blackboard it’s not really worth coming to class.”
Naturally the creative writing workshop comes into its own in the face to face class. You cover more ground more quickly and nuances of meaning are more explicit. We’re seriously thinking of making participation an assessed aspect of the course.

How engagement shows up in assignments

So, attendance was poorer this year.  Engagement, I was delighted to notice as I marked, was better. I had a full range of marks, but with just one possible exception amongst forty-three students, it was clear that students were fully committed to the work. This was evident in the amount and type of drafting they’d done. All had followed the requirements, laid out like publishers’ guidelines. Sure, there were mistakes but it was clear that solid attempts to get it all right had been made.  It was clear also that they had looked at all of the notes I’d put on Blackboard so my hard work had paid off as well. I was also pleased with their annotated bibliographies. They’d clearly read the set books and a heap of others.     

Value for money?

Grants have been cut back and in my area particularly we pretty well rely on student fees to cover costs. We have bigger classes, more contact time in fact, we’re working harder with personal tutees as this improves retention and bigger classes mean more admin and more marking. We’ve all had to populate Blackboard sites afresh: a policy of a certain amount of uniformity has been brought in and we’ve moved over to a later version of it. I’ve enjoyed populating mine but it has been hard work.
We’d always say that we have vocations, not jobs, and I guess if I spend the first forty-five minutes of the day reading, that’s part of my “job”. We never stop, really, except to eat and sleep but we do have the enormous privilege of having for a day job what we like doing best. But note, I’ve been marking every bank holiday this year and often at weekends.
That’s what you get for your fees.

Quality not quantity

There is a pedagogical argument actually that says only top quality contact time is worth the effort for student and lecturer alike. An almost contradictory argument I was offered when I was a high school teacher said you only had to deliver one good lesson a week per class to be a good teacher. Actually, though, I think these two arguments are saying the same thing. You just need to motivate your students and they do the rest.
I think I’ve used their dreams of becoming good and published writers to motivate them. They’re on that road now.
Thank goodness. Phew!                   

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Big Edit

It feels almost like an exam. Students are bent over papers, busily scribbling away. You hear the occasional clearing of a throat, a paper turning and, of course, the traffic outside.  But the latter does not distract; we are in the middle of the Big Edit and everyone in the room is set on perfecting the prose of the others.
This is not for the faint-hearted. I offer it as an alternative and / or a supplement to the one-to-one appointments normally available in the last teaching week of the semester. Students bring along the latest draft of their assignment – in this case a 2,500 word extract of a young adult novel and a synopsis they’ve worked on for this module - and their peers and I critique it. If there had been any reluctance to workshop their writing during the semester this must be put on one side for the moment. This process can be brutal.

The mechanics of it

It becomes a little like speed-dating. We have a two hour (ish) seminar – we must break ten minutes before the hour to allow the next lecturer time to get set up and this process is so intense we must take a ten minute break. I spend one minute describing the edit we’re doing and then the students spend nine minutes editing the paper in front of them – one passed from the left. After time is up, we pass the paper on and start the next edit. So, we complete ten edits. I join in, so every so often a student does not have a script to examine. “Make sure you bring a book,” I said. “Preferably a young adult one.”

Which ten edits?

Well, I’ve actually identified fourteen I like to do. The last but one, anyway, is the “read out loud” one and perhaps this is not appropriate in a room full of students. As we’re working on a relatively small sample some processes have been apocopated – see points 5 and 7 below for example. We actually worked with:
1.      Overall structure – look at the synopsis
a.       Is the overall structure sound?  - hook, inciting incident, increasing complexities, crisis, climax –
b.      Is the resolution satisfying?
c.       Does the time-scale work?
2.      Characters. Are they consistent? Do they develop? Do you know everything about them that you should?
3.      Check format and length against target market / reader
a.       Mixed genre
b.      Emotional closeness
c.       Leaving reader to decide
d.      Pushing boundaries
e.       Fast paced / high stakes
f.       Characters resemble young adults
g.      Bildungsroman
4.      Is it convincing? Is there cause and effect?
5.      Is there conflict and tension? Are there peaks and troughs? Does the pace vary?
6.      Point of View – is it consistent and if it “zooms” does it do so in a reasonable way? 
7.      Detail and description should be slipped in small chunks? Show don’t tell? Clich├ęs? Darlings?  
8.      Dialogue
1.      It should not be too natural
2.      It should only say important things
3.      It should differentiate characters' voices
4.      When angry, becomes childish
5.      Should take 2/3 of popular book
6.      Should convey mood, character and reaction
7.      Every speech should give information
9.      Overall flow
10.  Copy edit


As I handed the final script I’d critiqued back to a student I asked her “How does it feel having your work annotated like that?”
“I love it,” she said. “It’s so useful. And I’ve learnt so much by looking at other people’s work.”
This bodes well for next year’s Final Portfolio when they’ll be doing something pretty similar on a weekly basis. The one pity is that only a third of the students to whom this was offered turned up to the session. Year on year we encourage the students to take part in similar activities. I guess it takes a while before they feel ready to do that. These students were ready and took it on whole-heartedly.