Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Criterion or norm-referenced? Which should it and can it be?

Year on year we hear the arguments as GCSE and A-level results come out. Standards have gone up, standards have gone down, too many people are getting top grades. At exam boards within Higher Education we worry if results in one module are out of kilter with the rest.  At the institution that I’ve just left we even used a tool that showed this. We worry too, if the standard deviation changes over the years or is vastly different from the average standard deviation for a cohort.        



A driving test is generally criterion-referenced. Certainly at least the theory part is. You have to have a very high score to pass. Even in the practical test, there is a recognised minimum performance required. After all, one is about to let you out with a powerful killing machine. The good driving instructor will work out what you need to know and which skills you need to acquire and how to teach you all of that. If that instructor improves her own teaching skills then she should have lots of students who pass.
Yet there is still often a feeling that the examiners want to pass a certain number a day and any more or fewer than the average would be queried.
The old O-level and A-level were norm-related. This means that a certain percentage of students were going to get each grade. This could have the distinct disadvantage that if you were in a “good” cohort, then the bar was raised.


Why we shouldn’t worry about GCSEs

When they were first introduced in the 1986 the big news was that they were supposed to be criterion-referenced. We were supposed to work out what needed to be learnt – and this was not just knowledge but skills as well- and then work out how best to teach it. There was a possibility, then, of standards rising year on year. Yet when this does happen, it is regarded with suspicion.

My two concrete examples

For much of my time at the University of Salford I taught two specialist courses: Introduction to Children’s Literature, and Writing Novels for Young People. My research has constantly fed into those modules so that at the end of nine years I was teaching a much more complex and demanding courses. However, my teaching skills also improved (about time too, after 42 years!) so despite the courses in effect getting harder results were also getting slightly better. Certainly, the collective knowledge and skill competency were increasing.

Perhaps we need both?

Criterion-referencing helps us to really define what is needed. Norm-referencing helps us to control and investigate. However, if we get a low standard deviation, or all students obtaining 60+, we shouldn’t just assume that the course was too easy or assignments too leniently marked. We should scrutinize the course and the outcomes carefully.                         

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Once a teacher, always a teacher?

End of an era?

On 30 September 2016 I retired form my post as senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford. I’m 64. 65 is the normal retiring age for academics, though this isn’t necessarily enforced. My husband intends to retire at the end of March. I thought it neater to retire at the end of an academic year. Leaving on 30 September allowed me to complete the year, attend graduation, oversee clearing, oversee resits, supervise and mark some Masters’ projects and complete the leave year so that there would be no dispute over how much leave I should take. In fact I took most of it in September, returning to tidy up and mark the Masters’ projects.
After a major career change at 55, I’ve had a ball. However, it was high time to make room for younger colleagues, get back to my own writing and ensure that some minor health considerations don’t change into something major. I’m pleased to say I’ve been replaced by another full-time colleague who is also a writer of fiction.

Those who can’t teach?

Just not true. You have to be able to do “it” i.e. write, in order to be able to teach it and there’s almost an argument that you should teach if you can “do” so that you pass on your skills and knowledge to the next generation. However, I’ve been allowed to write what is less commercial and not had to worry because I’ve had little time to market my work as I’ve received a decent salary. I’ve certainly earned from my writing in that sense.

A different form of teaching

I’m involved in editing for several publishing houses and in a sense that is a form of teaching. My teaching anyway at the university involved quite a bit of marking, critiquing and workshopping all of which are very much like editing.  I’m also a member of a SCBWI critique group. I amused one of my students once by inviting her to join us.
“How does that work?” she asked. “Oh,” she said after I’d explained. “You mean it works just the same way as Final Portfolio?”  
Mmm. I could see her thinking that this sad woman replicates her day job at the weekend. Ah, but you see, that is the beauty of having a day job that you’d do even if you weren’t paid –as long as you didn’t need the money.

Going back anyway

Yes, I’m going back for the second trimester to teach for 160 hours. This means that I’ll be at the University for most of the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays for twelve weeks of the semester and will pick up 183 scripts to mark. Aha. Yet I’m looking forward to this. It will just be teaching without any other aspects of the job. I hope by then I’ll have lifted my profile as a writer a little further.        

What else

I’m certainly carrying on with school visits. I suspect at some point I might do something with the University of the Third Age. I can also see me running on-line courses and offering full day master-classes. However, I’m not going to rush into this. I’ll just see what happens.  I’m very open to suggestions, so do feel free to make them ….
I look forward to hearing from you.