I Can See For Miles

I’ve mentioned Cardiff Parkrun before. This is a weekly, free 5k run organised entirely by volunteers. Running is something that I do on a fairly regular basis, and like studying it can be a very frustrating business.
When studying it is obvious that over a period of 3-6 years, that there will be highs and lows. Deadlines missed, disappointing grades, work that is not up to your own standards, other students that annoy you, lecturers that annoy you, and, of course, life events that get in the way of our study. But, counterbalancing these lows will be unexpectedly good grades or complementary feedback, fabulous lectures/seminars/tutorials, sudden realisation that something is easier than you thought, new friends made, old friends rediscovered and, of course, exams passed.
In running too there are highs – personal bests, new distances conquered, new friends, new courses. And, of course lows – poor times, injuries, lack of motivation. In both studying and running landmarks are passed and highs are achieved. That’s the point, isn’t it?
So I was really pleased last Saturday to reach my fiftieth Parkrun. It wasn’t a PB, and I certainly came nowhere close to winning, but nevertheless it was a milestone that, during a year of minor injuries, I never thought I’d make.
Reflecting on the run later I started to think what bigger lessons were there. If I’m honest, I never really struggled as a student, so I can’t think of an essay or seminar that was analogous. Perhaps the day I submitted my PhD thesis to the University of London is the closest. Unlike, the PhD, however, I don’t feel that the Parkrun is the end of a journey, but rather simply a point on a continuing journey.
Which made me think that perhaps, after all, so was the PhD. I have always been an advocate of life long learning. This is where running and learning connect for me. Life long learning implies a lifetime commitment to learning, not necessarily a life long commitment to passing exams. Since my PhD I have tended to avoid exams in which I am the participant. As a lecturer I set and mark exams for others, of course.
In my running ‘career’, I have completed a marathon, a couple of half marathons, a couple of 10k’s and, of course 50 5k’s. It has not been a straight line, gradually doing longer and longer distances, but rather characterised by sudden bursts, unexpected faster times, followed by a diminishing of motivation or punctuated by injuries of one sort or another.
Life long learning is a process by which, over time, we come to realise that the knowledge ‘out there’ is far greater than the knowledge in our own heads. Sometimes, being a life long learner means taking formal courses and exams. More often it is about retaining a sense of wonder about the World we live in. It is often a case of being prepared to learn, rather than being prepared to be taught. Students often set up a hierarchical expectation where for them to learn, ‘we’ must teach. In reality, that makes learning a function of teaching and whilst some knowledge may pass from one person to another, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place. Lecturers often like the relationship simply because it flatters their ego.
Life long running is also a process. It does not have to be about winning, going faster, or going further. Every time I lace up my shoes and step out for a run, I have, in effect, won. Likewise, every time I ask a question, check something on the internet, read a book or simply wonder ‘what would happen if….’ I am improving my mind, and learning.
I would like to thank all the people who organise and turn up on every Saturday morning. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. But, I’d also like to thank all my lecturers, tutors and especially students, past, present and future, for being co-passengers on my journey.
I know that I have more runs and more learning inside me. At the moment, I feel that I am on a hilltop from where I can see for miles. I also know that in that landscape are highs and lows. In the lows it is sometimes difficult to imagine the highs that lay ahead, but, trust me on this, both running and education are really no more than an endurance test..

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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.