You don’t know like I know (which is why I set the exams for you to fail)

Last week, I ended with a rhetorical question about the 2,000 word essay and its hold on the HE imagination. You may recall that my question concerned the use of an assessment of 144 characters. In effect, what I was arguing for was the bringing in to our World the world of social media. Rather than thinking of social media as an evil presence lurking on the periphery of HE it is time to embrace it.
So, you’d think I’d be delighted this week to attend a meeting on a new module at my own institution that proposed to replace the current Level One first assignment of 750 words with one of just 250 words. However, I found myself feeling that this shift down was a retrograde step.
On reflection I have to ask myself whether I am just being a big old hypocrite. It has been known to happen. Or, am I just miffed that it was not my idea? That’s been known to happen too!
In my defence, then, when I argue for the abandonment of the 2,000 word essay as the sole form of assessment it is because I have a view that students are capable of so much more. Most students arrive at university with stories of their own to tell. Many have highly relevant experiences which underpin their decision to study. More importantly, in my area social science, all the students are members of the society we are studying. It is right, and inevitable, that given that they have spent a few years in that society that they have opinions about it.
In arguing for more imaginative forms of assessment, I am keen that students should have the opportunity to express themselves in different, but also culturally relevant ways. Students use Facebook and Twitter already – often more confidently than their tutors. It would shift the power balance to them if we allowed them to use their existing skills as some part of their studies.
By contrast, those promoting the 250 word essay made great use of the term “weaker students”. The decision to reduce the word count is not motivated by a desire to harness the experiences and imagination of students, but rather a functional imperative linked by a concern that not enough students were passing the course.
I do not like to impute motives to my colleagues as I am sure that they think that what they are doing is ‘helping’ students. But, the emphasis on weaker students does worry me a little bit. Whilst I would not dispute that any cohort of students will have a range of abilities, it concerns me that we begin to devise assessment with the stated aim of ensuring, so-called, weaker students will pass.
I am not convinced that weaker students problems are actually helped by reducing the assessment to 250 words, when the things many students struggle with, grammar, spelling, sentence construction, presenting a coherent argument etc do not disappear because they have to do these things in less words. I rather feel that to present a coherent argument, in good prose, in so few words will be harder, especially for students who are struggling anyway.
More worryingly, is a tendency to continue to negate the experience and opinions of students. Many students tell me that the reason they are studying is that they have an interest in some aspect of society and what they want to do is find out how to understand things more effectively.
What they find when they arrive at university is that they are discouraged from drawing on their own experiences. They are discouraged from using their imagination, in favour of being filled with often abstract theories by academics who like to tell them things. Moreover, we like to tell them things in a language which is often deliberately obtuse. I do wonder whether this is part of the process of professionalisation where a specialist language is invented to create an elitist illusion.
I like to believe that students and lecturing staff are in a partnership. That sometimes I have knowledge that I am able to pass on, but that my students have knowledge of their own which can, and should, shape mine. Assessment, seen through this prism is not a way of simply testing whether students have listened to what I have said but a dialogue between partners.

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Isn’t it time (to abandon the 2000 word essay)

I’ve taken to asking a question at seminars and conferences lately, that usually elicits a room full of laughter. Now, like most people, I like the sound of laughter. It’s even better when people are laughing with you, rather than at you. I’m not entirely sure whether my question is an occasion for laughing with or at me.
So here’s my question: can you envisage a time when students will be asked to submit an assignment in 144 characters?
It’s a serious question, but thus far without a serious answer. A qualified ‘yes, possibly’ followed by a nervous laugh is the best that anybody has managed.
But, I think this question goes to the heart of two inter-linked debates in higher education. The first debate is around the use of social media in teaching and learning; and the second is the role of assessment.
I’ll return to assessment in a later post, but for now I just want to think about social media. It is obvious that students, particularly younger students, are very keen on social media. Whilst Facebook is probably the ‘market leader’ here, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest etc are all in the mix.
Higher education is into social media. Every university has its own Facebook page these days, most can be found on Twitter too, but these are not seen as places where learning takes place but rather as marketing opportunities. I suspect that university marketing departments are simply following what they perceive as a trend. A bit like buying a new car just because your neighbours have!
But, if the social media presence is a marketing tool, it is also a place where individual academics are able to say things that are on their mind. This is often also motivated by a desire to be seen in the places everybody else seems to be. Lets not pretend that academics are not capable of narcissism. So that the presence of many academics is, like the institutions of which they are a part, a form of marketing. In this case, it is self-promotion.
Some people, however, are more imaginative, seeing social media not just as an opportunity to engage a, still, relatively passive audience, but as a genuine opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with their students. Some have even incorporated social media into their assessment strategies. But, as far as I know, nobody has yet taken the bold step of offering the chance to submit an assignment in 144 characters.
Could they? Should they? Would the world of higher education collapse if we abandoned, even temporarily, the 2000 word essay or report?

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In last week’s blog I was talking about how people learn and pointing out that we don’t know as much as we might think about this. My friend Lindsay Wright posted a comment quoting Timothy Galway which suggested that learning involved either changing the way we think or the way we act.
At one level, this seems self-evidently correct. Nobody learns in a social vacuum. We tend to learn for a purpose. For example, if I sign up for dance lessons it is, presumably, because I’d like to improve my dance steps. This is clearly a case of changing the way I act. If, on the other hand, I sign up for a course in philosophy, it is to change the way I think.
Now, of course, whilst all this seems self-evident, I have to ask: is it? For a start there are all sorts of reasons people take educational courses. If people go to dance or gym classes, they may well want to learn something that changes the way they act, or their motivation may be nothing to do with learning to dance, but rather a way of meeting other people. Far from changing the way we act, that learning might simply be reinforcing a pre-existing pattern of behaviour.
And, if we extend this to the example of philosophy, and sorry to disappoint all my philosopher friends, but whilst students of philosophy may be motivated by a desire to change the way they think, many will simply continue to believe and think as they did before. They may know a bit more about Aristotle, Kant, Marx or Rawls, but their fundamental mode of thinking may not alter at all.
I think what this provides an example of is what the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. The manifest function of learning is the learning itself, what we learn; but, the latent functions of learning can be many things, including social acceptance, higher esteem, relationship formation etc. In defining learning in a formal sense as an activity likely to result in a change in thinking or doing, we exclude many learning activities that do neither of these things. Indeed, the majority of education, including higher education, which purports to be about learning is indeed about teaching – not quite the happy bedfellows we might have imagined.
Which brings us back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers might like to think that they change the way people act and/or think, and in some instances they might do so, but should that be their aim? Is it my goal when confronting a group of students to change the way they act or the way they think? Should I consider it a failure if I fail to do so?
So much teaching is concerned mainly with passing exams, that we have slid into a lethargic acceptance of results as the only measure of success. Many HE teachers will claim that their students only really care about their mark, but who can blame them? If learning is no longer about thinking or acting, but merely acquiring, then it is inevitable that students will only take part in activities that seem to increase their chance of success. For the teacher with a passion for their subject this raises a dilemma: how to convey that passion?
Perhaps an answer is to be found by subverting a quote which I think came from sociologist Stanley Cohen. Our job is not to tell our students what to think, but rather to give them an idea what to think about. If we can do that successfully then it is possible that the latent side-effect of our teaching will, indeed, be a change in the way they act or think.