Tuesday, 18 February 2014
OK -this isn't empirical research and it isn't statistically significant, but I had an encounter today with four students which stopped me in my tracks and caused me to rethink my approach to rethinking assessment.
Assessment is a big theme at the moment - it was the focus of the FutureEd mooc last week, its a matter of debate on the course I teach on, it's also the theme of an assignment my daughter is writing for her PGCE.
I have been really interested in Cathy Davidson's discussion of assessment in her book Now You See It and that in itself has been causing me to rethink a module I teach and how the assessment can be made more pertinent to real skills needed in the workplace and in life.
At the same time I had a worry that assessment methods were becoming a little unbalanced in our first year of the course with quite a strong leaning towards group work at the expense of individual assignments.
Group work is notoriously difficult to assess and often unpopular with students who may feel they are a) doing more than their fair share of work to make up for the loafers and b) missing out on good grades because of poor quality input from others.
Concerns about the quality of students' writing and referencing in years 2 and 3 also caused me to think about introducing more individual, essay-type assessment in the first year in order to try and improve these skills.
But the group that came to see me today, to discuss a first year group assignment I have set, really sold me the idea of group work - particularly for first year students. These four students have worked together in every module requiring a group project and have got to know one another well. One of their number had not studied the subject in college so she was benefiting from the knowledge of the others in getting to grips with the course. Another had come from a completely different education system in a different country so he was also learning from his fellow students - on the other hand, he had years of practical experience working in mental health so he was contributing that. A third student had recently completed an access to HE course so was confident with referencing and research skills and was teaching her friends!
All in all it's a combination that works beautifully and through their working together they have become friends, feel really engaged with the course and have grown in confidence. I realise that other students may be having different - less positive - experiences but if group work can help students engage and learn together, and if they can reap such enhanced benefits from working together across more than one module, this assessment strategy may actually be the best one we have come up with yet!
Thursday, 6 February 2014
We are coming to the end of the main phase of my Leading Teams module. The group projects have been completed, the peer feedback uploaded, the self and tutor assement is done and I am just about to release the groups' grades.
The group projects are presented using an online tool - such as Blogger, Wordpress, Wix - and the groups have a free choice of leader to focus on. Usually a film is selected and its main characters analysed against the main leadership theories and models. This year we had 3 Coach Carters (I banned Toy Story on the grounds that it had been done to death in previous years, I may have to subject Samuel Jackson to the same cruel fate). The Iron Lady and Twelve Angry Men cropped up again but new choices included Mean Girls, Robin Hood, Remember the Titans and The Shawshank Redemption. One group chose to focus on Lord Alan Sugar.
Each presentation is completely different from every other - colourful, interactive, full of images and even humour. Working in groups seems to make the students a little more adventurous and I get very few questions about format, style or even technical issues as they tend to find the support they need from one another.
Stage 2 is a personal reflective assignment, completed individually. At this point I get an endless stream of queries via email. This tends to make me doubt my ability to give clear guidance, so I try giving more in the form of FAQs, but that's not enough either. The levels of anxiety seem to be particularly high amongst the more able students. They find the idea of writing from a personal perspective very challenging and they want instruction about what theories to use, what structure to use, which headings to use.....
Left to their own devices some of these students seem to get lost - or as one put it in an email to me yesterday (and she wasn't intending this as a Good Thing): "this way of writing is so different, it's really making me think". .
Well, that was the idea! In fact I'd hope that by the end of three years at University, thinking would be something students would be really good at. But maybe all we have done is made them really good at passing assignments.
In the History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education MOOC, led by Cathy Davison of Duke University, we have been looking this week at the way education got made over using "scientific" methods to ensure it was able to turn farm hands into factory workers. I don't have a problem with employability as a goal for university education, just with the idea that students who don't know how to be creative, thinking indivduals are actually employable, especially as they are no longer very likely to find themselves working on the factory floor (or at least not in the UK).
This MOOC and Prof Davidson's book Now You See It, is really making me think (and I do mean that in a good way!) about how I teach and why I teach the way I do, what I believe about education and what makes me sad about it, and helping me to understand how we got to where we are in the current education system, and about maybe being part of changing it.
At the same time as I am pondering ways of getting my students to think for themselves, my daughter is training to be a primary school teacher where the aim seems to be to prevent that at all costs. Six year olds are being trained for their SATS tests by learning how to write "Experts say..." and "It is a well known fact that...." when beginning a factual sentence. Next week they will be experiencing aboriginal art by colouring in a pre-printed outline, in the colours specified by the teacher. They are not allowed to go to the toilet except in break times. A "My Favourite Story" theme week has been cancelled so the children can begin work on the text they have to memorise for their SATS test.
I could go on but I think you get the picture. There is much for students entering University to unlearn if they are to become successful, independent, life-long learners. There is also much for me to unlearn about teaching.
As a footnote, I should add that I feel really guilty about having jumped off the Rhizo14 MOOC to join FutureEd. I feel a little capricious - or maybe I'm just being rhizomatic afterall! What I do I know is that I felt totally out of my depth in the Rhizo14 Facebook group and that this Coursera MOOC has come along at exactly the right moment for me, with exactly the stuff I need to learn about.