Wednesday, 7 May 2014

OCR are not towing the line! Lord help us all!

Russell Brand at the House of Commons

It appears that OCR (an Exam Board operated jointly by Oxford, Cambridge and the RCA) have just announced a new English A-level programme, which has been developed in conjunction with the English Media Centre.

Let's just take a moment to consider the level of subject expertise represented by these four groups....

Ok - to continue.

According to OCR:

The range of texts to be studied is the most diverse yet for any English A Level. It ranges from classics such as the poems of Emily Dickinson and William Blake to memoirs like Twelve Years a Slave and contemporary works including poetry from Jacob Sam-La Rose, Jez Butterworth's stage play Jerusalem, fiction by Jhumpa Lahiri and Russell Brand's evidence on drugs policy presented to the House of Commons.

Personally, I think this all sounds rather exciting.  The texts are certainly diverse, and allow for an interdisciplinarity (combining the study of culture, literature and language in ways which border some aspects of sociology) which many of us who work in the field believe to be essential to keep the subject from calcifying into an anachronistic fossil of academia.

Rather predictably then, the Department for Education has reacted like Matthew Arnold reviewing a Banksy exhibition. "Schools should be aware" they have apparently commented, "that if they offer this rubbish in place of a proper A-level, then pupils may not get into good universities."

I am not entirely sure why the DfE are calling 'rubbish' a curriculum which seems to me a perfect response to their own published guidelines on A-level studies in English.

Except... no, scrap that. I am sure.

Look at the names mentioned:

Emily Dickinson: A female poet whose works are now heralded as some of the greatest in American literary history, but who spent her writing 'career' in obscurity largely because of gender inequalities.

William Blake: A poet who sits outside of any established systems - who created his own religion, his own mythology, and who railed against the inhumanity of industrialisation.

Twelve Years a Slave: The story of a slave - a victim of an officially sanctioned trade in human lives which has its origins in this country.

Jacob Sam-La Rose:  A black poet and educationalist who champions the literacy of youth culture.

Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem: Which mocks the ideals of English traditional values by contrasting them with contemporary social issues.

Jhumpa Lahiri: A Bengali writer from America who writes about Indian life.

Russell Brand: A comedian and an increasingly furious anti-establishment figure, who irritates people by being irritating - and irritates them more by a surprisingly eloquent and astute social critic at the same time.

In other words - all of the names chosen seem to be topics which are, in one form or another, anti-establishment.  They are all texts which invite students to explore criticisms of the establishment, criticisms of England's (ig)noble history and parochial heritage-mongering and notions of cultural exclusivity.

No wonder the DfE are so incensed.  This goes against everything they have been working for: An education system in which those who cannot afford a better education are encouraged to study only texts which (symbolically, if not literally) support the notion of English establishment.

The last thing they want is young people learning to question the social structures which the DfE are building to protect their own privilege.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Academic v administrative staff in HE: A recipe for disaster?

Here is a joke:

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 51 and 52 degrees latitude and between 0 and 1 degree longitude.”

“You must be an academic,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist ”everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no ideas what to do with your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all.”

The woman below responded, “You must be an administrator.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

Good, isn't it? Because to begin with you think it is a joke at the expense of the pedantic academic - but then the pedantic academic deals a killer blow and demonstrates clearly the pointlessness of the jumped-up administrator.  It reflects an attitude towards administration in educational institutions which is not uncommon - but I want to argue that perhaps what education needs more than anything is more administrators and that they need more credit.

The Higher Education Chronicle recently reported that a 28% rise in HE workforces in America is primarily due to an increase in administrative staff.  Naturally reports like this often lead to mutters and rolling of eyes - particularly among academics who are often prone to implicitly assuming that 'research' is the only legitimate work undertaken at a University.

The report itself highlights some of the reasons why this increase in administrative staff is needed: "the role of student services has been growing since the early 1990s" argues Robert E. Martin (@MartinRobertE), "when colleges believed that they had to provide more services outside the classroom".

It is difficult to argue against this.  The last few decades in Higher Education have been characterised by an ever-increasing sense of responsibilities towards students.  Widening participation has led to an increasing body of students who struggle through their studies with financial, social and academic challenges unimaginable to many of us more 'traditional' graduates.  Tuition fee increases have only served to exacerbate those issues, while at the same time bringing a sharp focus on the issue of 'value for money': When students are now clearly paying so much more for their degree, it is quite right that they are more attentive to what support they are receiving for their cash.

The idea of the student as consumer (further evidence of what Jameson refers to as the dominant culture of capitalism commodifying every aspect of social life, and what Freire refers to as the attempt by capitalist interests to stifle educations traditional role as a source of ideological opposition) has at least had this positive effect: It has empowered the student to the extent that Universities are far less able to determine student rights, and have to be far more reactive to their needs.  Meeting student needs more effectively, leads to higher retention and achievement statistics - which leads to more funding.

Paul Greatrix (@registrarism) adds further explanation for this increase in administrative staff: The increasing demands on lecturers and academics themselves.  These demands can be evidenced by increasing class contact hours, increasing demands on research activities and identification of research funding, increasing demands to provide more student academic support, to adapt to new technologies, to provide increasing loads of reports, attend staff development events, check data, etc..  As Greatrix points out:

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work.

Certainly I am sure there are many academics who will know what a difference it can make when they are supported by excellent administrative support.

All of which makes it puzzling therefore, that the new data published by HESA on 2012/13 demonstrate that between 2005 and 2013 UK Universities have seen a huge drop in non-academic staff.  Indeed between 2005 and 2013 there have been only 2 years in which there has been an increase in non-academic staff.  This is contrasted with academic staff, which have seen a growth in numbers in all but one year during that same period:

Academic Staff Non-academic staff
2012/13 +4200 -4125
2011/12 +200 -3945
2010/11 -410 -4820
2009/10 +2555 -440
2008/09 +4095 +2115
2007/08 +4950 -1605
2006/07 +5120 -1490
2005/06 +4220 +665

So what has been happening?  Why is there such a dramatic reduction in non-academic staff at the same time that demands for administrative support are growing?  There is little evidence, as Greatrix again points out, of these support frameworks being outsourced - so one can only imagine that non-academic roles are being amalgamated, retired or passed on to academic staff instead.

I'm not sure, but to me this sounds rather a recipe for disaster.  I have certainly had experience of being required to undertake highly complex administrative tasks because the administrator who used to do them was made redundant.  Although I do not pretend to understand any of the issues relating to staffing in any particular institution (least of all my own) it has occurred to me that given the pay scale of a lecturer, and the amount of time it takes for them to complete these tasks, the process itself can suddenly become a lot more expensive - and a lot more prone to error.

The problem (or at least, a problem) is that I have now lost count of the number of general elections in which the term 'unnecessary bureaucracy' has been held accountable for everything from failing educational standards and hospital patients lying in corridors, to budget deficits and global warfare (ok, not the last one. Not yet.).

'Administration' is often perceived to be a part of that unnecessary bureaucracy - in spite of the fact that it usually the government which imposes that bureaucracy and the administrators who attempt to address it.  Somehow we have managed to create an assumption that greater efficiency means an increase in reporting and support mechanisms, but a reduction in administrative staff.  It is hard not to think that the only consequence of this continuing cycle is academic staff having to increasingly fulfil administrative responsibilities - something which I fear can only ever have a detrimental effect on both student experience and academic standards.

Good administration seems to me to be the most fundamental requirement of any educational institution - and frankly I suspect this country could do with a little more of it.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Creative Writing can make you more employable, and make your essays better


I have been pondering of late my new venture into teaching Creative Writing - which I will be doing this semester. It comes at the same time that I have been expending considerable thought on how to embed employability more explicitly into the English modules which I teach, and one of the first things I have had to address is the issue of how useful a Creative Writing module will be for students?

After all, the idea of Creative Writing on an English Literature and Language degree might at first seem a little incongruous. Even the images associated with 'Creative Writing' tend towards the archaic and the disconnected: Old type-writers, pencils and fountain pens scratching away on parchment-type paper.  Unlike linguistics or the theoretical and historical weight of Language and Literature, the idea of sitting around discussing our own jolly wee stories might seem a little irrelevant - like an short vacation from the critical rigours of academic study. 

Of course, this impression would be entirely wrong.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The value of assignment feedback (and how to extract it)

 First blog of the year.  Although, let's be honest I have been somewhat lacking in blogging commitment over the last few months - something for which I am sure you have been extremely grateful.

Of course the stimulus to start up again is - as is so often the case - marking.  When faced with a seemingly insurmountable pile of work, frankly any kind of displacement activity will do.

There is another motivation though.  One of the reasons marking work can be such an arduous activity is that a great deal of effort tends to be exerted into finding the best way to provide summative feedback to students.  The feedback on essays has to serve three main functions:

1)   Justifying the grade to students: A grade should never be arbitrary. Often a marker might spend quite a lot of time determining what the most accurate grade is - distinguishing carefully down to the last %. The feedback is, in one sense, a record of that decision-making process and evidence of the reason why the work has achieved (say) 58% rather than 62%. At the very least, feedback should try and help students understand why the grade is within a certain class (i.e. why it is a 2.2, or why it is a 1st).

2) Justifying the grade to moderators: As I have described in an earlier blog, once a piece of work has been marked it is then pitched over to a ‘moderator’ whose job it is to verify that the grade is fair and accurate. Even after that process, the work might end up part of a sample of scripts which are reviewed by an ‘external examiner’ in another institution. The marker therefore needs to ensure that the feedback justifies the grade clearly for these other academics. Often the first marker will also be the person who has taught or led on the module, which means they are often in a key position for knowing exactly what the students have been asked to do, and what the expectations are from them. These expectations may inform the grade, and the feedback needs to ensure that moderators and external examiners can clearly understand as much as possible the whole rationale for the grades given.

3) Providing guidance for students on how to improve work in the future - how to build on the strengths they have demonstrated, and how to improve weaker areas.

It is no easy task to fulfil all of these expectations of feedback when you have only a limited amount of time to write it. And it may therefore cause lecturers some distress when they read that students rarely end up reading it - and even more rarely making any use of it. According to a study reprinted by Faculty Focus, feedback makes little or no difference to performance in nearly 67% of students.

For 17% of students, performance following feedback actually goes down.

Not surprising given the results of another study, which suggested that “39 percent of the students indicated they spent five minutes or less reading the feedback. A total of 81 percent spent 15 minutes or less reading feedback”.

I suspect these figures are a trifle optimistic - not because I am suggesting that students are at fault, but because the mechanism of feedback is fundamentally flawed. It is entirely natural for students to question the value of reading about how they could have done better on an essay which they have already submitted. It is a bit like being stuck in a traffic jam, and somebody helpfully suggesting that perhaps you should have gone another way: The advice comes too late to help you reach your destination any more efficiently, and any more generic advice you might be able to extrapolate about consideration of alternative routes when going on another journey is of limited value.

I believe that students will be more interested in advice which relates to the journey they are presently undertaking, and are therefore bound to be less interested in advice relating to a journey they have (at least to a large extent) already completed.

What is the solution to this?

Well, there certainly is value in continually questioning the pedagogical methods involved in feedback provision which, as the short article on Faculty Focus suggests, is “another example of teaching by telling—of expecting students to learn by listening, as opposed to learning by discovering and doing”. An alternative model is not going to emerge overnight though - and it is difficult to imagine a workable system where feedback is provided prior to final submission.

In the meantime, perhaps the key is to try and provide clearer guidance to students on how they can get the most value from feedback. Having trawled through a number of University sites providing guidance on feedback, it is interesting to note how many of them focus on formative feedback provided through various mechanisms during the semester - rather than on summative feedback provided at the end. I did, though, find a couple of outstanding exceptions.

UWE offer some succinct, but excellent advice. “Make sure you understand feedback” is a point which may sound simple, but is far too often overlooked. They suggest that a good think to do would be to “make a list of any comments or terms that you don’t really understand or don’t know what to do about and check these with the marker”.

In terms of development, they suggest as well that students could collate all of their feedback from the previous semester and draw up a list of the following:

What am I doing well?
What am I doing not so well?
What do I need to work on?
How am I going to improve?

Having done this, they can set “realistic targets for what you need to work on”. Formalising these targets on a Personal Development Plan, or sharing them with a Personal Tutor or a peer group would add additional structure and motivation for actively doing something about them in the future.

The University of Tasmania provide an excellent page of advice, emphasising that each assignment submitted is not the end-point of a learning process, but small stage in a bigger process. “It’s important”, they say “that you learn from your assignments and gradually build up knowledge, skills and expertise in your subject areas”.

They refer, as well, to the fact that feedback is usually a regulatory entitlement - and that students therefore have a right to valuable feedback. If a student cannot gain anything of value from feedback provided, then they have every right to “contact your unit coordinator or tutor and ask them for clarification and/or ask how you can improve your performance”.

Some excellent reflective questions are provided - and if I had my way all students would be going through these questions after each assignment, as I am convinced they may often help students understand their grade better than any feedback:

Time Management
  • Have I been using my time wisely during the first part of the Semester?
  • Did I spend enough time on this assignment?
  • Have I been putting in my 10 hours per week per unit?
  • Do I really know how to manage my time for study and all my other commitments?

Academic issues
  • Have I done what the assignment guidelines asked me to do?
  • Have I completed all aspects of the assignment?
  • Is what I have written relevant to the requirements of the assignment?
  • Have I fully understood what I was expected to do?
  • Have I shown evidence of  reading widely in the relevant area?
  • Does the rubric help me to understand what I have done well and what I could have done better?
  • Do I understand the feedback and comments from the tutor or lecturer?

  • Are my grammar, punctuation and written expression up to the standard expected at tertiary level?
  • Are my ideas clearly expressed, logical and ordered?
  • What references have I used to support my ideas? Are they correctly listed at the end and correctly cited in the text of the assignment?
  • Did I keep to the word limit?
  • Was my assignment presented as required in the Unit Outline?  Was it presented on time?
  • Once you have reflected on these questions, you can decide who to approach to get support, advice or feedback

Feedback will always be a problematic issue - but with the right guidance and a pro-active approach from students, it can still lead to huge improvements in grades and performance.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

5 Reasons to Read Shakespeare

In preparation for a class, I am here posting my lecture presentation and notes.  All comments welcome... as long as they are nice ones...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Assessed Discussion for a module on Culture

Here we are again with another assessment to post.  So far I have not had any bad feedback on the various draft things I have been planning to inflict on my students - which either means that they are not so bad after all, or that people are simply too polite to say anything.

This one is for a final year module on Cultural Studies.  The aim of the module is to encourage students to apply the methods of textual and critical analysis used in the study of literature, to a broader range of 'texts' drawn from culture and society.

This element of the assessment is an assessed discussion.  It has always seemed to me that a discussion is a more effective way of measuring a students' capacity to synthesise and evaluate ideas than a mere presentation.  It demands that students engage with a less fixed or planned set of ideas, and means that there is a focus placed on the interactive skills which students are encouraged to practice during normal seminar discussions.

Here it is then - my topics, and my guidelines for students on what an assessed discussion is, and how it will be assessed.

Comments welcome, etc.

Level 6 Culture Module: Assessed Discussion

     The discussion element of your assessment is designed to enable you to explore particular topic through the filter of the various ideas and theories explored in this module.  The discussion form of assessment is one in which your grade is based not only on what you present, but how you facilitate and how you contribute to other topics.
    Your own topic can be anything – provided you explore some of the ways in which you can extract a cultural or textual significance from it, drawing on the theories explored in the module or those of other cultural theorists.
    To give you help in identifying your topic, a set of topic cards are reproduced here from which you can choose your topic.  Each card provides your topic, and gives clues about the theories and theorists you can link to it, and what aspects of the topic might prove fruitful for closer analysis.  Each topic will be discussed during the module.  If you wanted to explore a topic not covered by these cards, then you are welcome to do so – but please speak to your tutor and get approval for your topic as early as possible.

Topic Cards:   

Is a discussion the same as a presentation?

    No.  In presentations you will speak to the class either reading from a prepared paper (i.e. reading an essay aloud) or, more usually, speaking from notes and improvising using a cueing mechanism (like PowerPoint).  Presentations are usually followed by questions from other students and the tutor.  This may, if the topic is interesting or the tutor has structured the module around the presentations, lead to a discussion.  Therefore, with a presentation it is your talk which is assessed, though sometimes the tutor will take account of your response to the questions.  If a discussion follows, this is not usually assessed.

What is an assessed discussion? 

    On this module, the assessed discussions will take the form of a series of student-led discussions.  Each student takes a turn to lead a discussion (around 20mins in duration, depending on the size of the group) with the group.  The tutor does not take part, but simply listens and marks following an agreed system and set of criteria.  If there are 15 students in the group each student will, therefore, lead one discussion and take part in 14 more. 
    There will not be more than three discussion in any given session, because it is hard to concentrate for any longer.

What is your role as a leader?

    Think of yourself as a facilitator or someone who helps the discussion along.  The discussion is like a good seminar class where everyone is contributing and adding to the ideas on the table.  Or you might think of it as an informal meeting that you have arranged to discuss a topic of interest to you all. 
    Your job is to get the discussion going by sharing some information or examining some sources together.  You will need to spend about 5 minutes doing this, or the group will have nothing to talk about, but don’t let these initial few words turn into a presentation.  You will know more about (and may be more interested in) the topic, but you do not have all the answers up your sleeve and the group should not try and question you to elicit those answers.  If they do start to question you, throw the questions back at them and insist they have a go at answering. 
    Remember it is not your ideas which are being discussed and tested, but theirs.  You might ask the questions, but it is the group who will come up with and evaluate the answers.  We want them to exchange their knowledge with each other and, collaboratively, develop their understanding of the subject.
    Once you have started the discussion you will intervene as often as necessary to:
1.    keep the discussion going (e.g. by asking another related question off your list)

2.    deepen and develop the discussion (e.g. by cross-questioning someone, or by asking a supplementary question, or by comparing one student’s point with another to generate another question). 

Structuring your discussion

    To do this you will need to structure in your mind and in your notes the path that the discussion might take. 
•    Imagine you were writing an essay on the topic and do all the usual research.  Write yourself a plan of that essay, complete with developing argument.  This will provide you with both a list of the pertinent issues and a logical order that gradually deals with the topic in more and more depth. 
•    Now make notes on how you will introduce the topic.  When it comes to the discussion day, don’t jump straight to question one at the start of your discussion, because we will be listening and giving marks for this introduction and scene setting!  It should last 5 minutes, not a lot more or less.
•    Next make a list of the main questions that you feel you really ought to ask because they represent the important issues.  There will be about as many as you have paragraphs in a short essay (7-10?).   Make sure you ask these in some form or another.  They will provide the back-bone of the discussion.  Think, how long to spend on each (3-5 mins?).  Perhaps underline, embolden or use a different colour for these questions, because underneath each you should have some supplementary points/questions.  If the group does not pick up and run with your question, you will need these to encourage them to take the bait and explore the issue in depth.  These should not just repeat the first question in different words, but should look at the topic from different perspectives, or apply it in different contexts, or compare it to other points/questions/texts, anything that gets them grappling with the complexity of the main point.  You will use only as many of these as you think necessary.
•    Your questions will often be supported or based upon references to the subject(s) under discussion or another text (primary or secondary), to other discussions, classes or modules, to the arts, films, television, politics, or any other aspect of culture that is relevant.  Remember: making connections is a good thing. 
    You might have some kind of visual aid:
•    PowerPoint – with quotations on or a structure of your discussion (but beware about giving away the structure too easily because it sometimes encourages people to jump to your later topics);

•    handout – with quotations, or, more likely, an extended textual extract, a picture;

•    a television or film extract – don’t talk about films without showing an extract; practice handling the clips in a smooth, quiet and efficient manner;

•    pre-written flip-chart or white-board – perhaps with two sides of an argument on it, or with some intriguing remark or image.
•    An object related to your topic – something tactile which can be passed around the group is often a good way of ‘sharing’ the focus of attention.

Your role as a facilitator

You might also plan ways in which you are going to ensure everyone joins in with your discussion.  We don’t just want it to be question/answer/question/answer with the usual chatty souls coming up with the answers, do we?  That would be rather tedious and would not help anyone.  Instead, we want it to develop into a lively, interactive, multi-way discussion, in which you as the leader don’t speak all that often.  Instead you will simply intervene occasionally to keep things going. You will act as an: 

•    information and opinion giver
•    information and opinion seeker
•    direction and role definer
•    summarizer
•    energizer
•    comprehension checker
•    encourager of participation
•    communication facilitator
•    tension reliever
•    process observer
•    interpersonal problem solver
•    supporter and praiser

Specifically this means:

•    move the subject on, because things have got stuck on a topic;
•    deepen and focus the point under discussion;
•    develop and broaden the point under discussion;
•    get the quieter individuals to contribute;
•    get any dominant individuals to take a back seat;
•    compare points made in the session;
•    compare with other modules or sources;
•    move the discussion into a new area;
•    signpost where the discussion is going and how the current point fits into the whole;
•    remind people of what has been said and where they should go next.

In other words, a good discussion is much more than reading down a list of questions, though clearly you need to have some questions in mind and on paper in front of you. 

Get everyone joining in

It may not be easy to get everyone chatting and contributing.  Try some of these techniques (not all of them or we will be in a spin!):

•    ask for an opinion/gut reaction/first thought from everyone;

•    go round the room asking for one word from everyone on a given topic;

•    get everyone to write something on the topic on a flipchart and use this to start the discussion; you can then ask people to justify their comment;

•    plant quotations or questions among the group (choose the quieter people)  and warn them that at some point you will ask them to read out the quotation/question and comment on it; others can then follow-up with more remarks;

•    get everyone to write down a definition of something and then have everyone or every other, or every third person to feedback; 

Try to keep the texture of the discussion varied so that it is not always question / answer / question:

•    record answers on a flip-chart or white-board;
•    use a few props (occasionally a student dresses up and gets in role!)
•    distribute objects or pictures for your audience to look at;
•    pass around any interesting books that you have referred to;
•    ask a member of the audience to read something aloud for you;
•    get them to vote;
•    bring some symbolic object or picture that helps people understand the point you are making;
•    share an amusing anecdote or story that supports your point;
•    ask a question and say you will ask for the answer at the ends;
•    say you will do a quiz at the end to check who has been listening;
•    play some appropriate relevant music;
•    or an extract from a film or TV programme;
•    and so on …


Finally, you need to conclude:

•    Summarise and synthesise the discussion (low marks for the former, higher marks if you can bring the points together into a meaningful whole and make the conclusion greater than the sum of the parts).
•    There should be a clear winding down and sense of an ending; don’t just stop abruptly.
•    You might have a final quotation, extract, piece of music, picture or some such that will nicely act as a cap on the proceedings.
•    You might bring the discussion full circle and repeat something said in the introduction.
•    You might show that, actually, the discussion has travelled a long way from your introduction.
•    Tidy up any lose ends.
•    Don’t apologise for the discussion you have just run.
•    Take 3 or 4 minutes on this conclusion.

What is your role as a contributor?

    You need to contribute regular, relevant comments to the discussion and you will be assessed on both the quantity and quality of your remarks. 

How often must I speak?

    Quite often!  It is difficult and dangerous to speculate, but I would hope that you would make at least half a dozen comments in a 20 minute discussion.  But this is a rough estimate.  You will have more to say in some discussions than others and that’s fine.  If you only say one or two things, one week, try and be chattier next time. The marking tutor will take an overview.  Usually the only people who fail are those who say very little (nothing some weeks and only one or two comments at other times).
    However, there can be too much of a good thing and you must not dominate.  For the higher marks, you will need to show that you can help the discussion along, support and encourage quieter members of the group and use a range of discussion skills.

Does it matter what I say?

    Yes!  We will assess the quality of your comments and you will not be rewarded for remarking on the weather or the fact that you are hungry.  We are looking for you to show as good a level of understanding as you do in an essay, so make sure you try and make thoughtful, intelligent comments.  However, remember that there are a number of straightforward things which need to be said to help a discussion along, so don’t worry if not every remark is insightful.   If, for example, you summarise a plot that someone has forgotten, or remind someone of a point that was made earlier, or remember a date or name, or intelligently support someone’s remark, you will be rewarded because all these comments help a discussion on its way.  It is also often the case that you do not know quite what point you are making until it comes out, so do have a go.
    You might:
•    reply to the question directly;
•    connect the question to an earlier point;
•    refer to a source to support your comment;
•    refer to another module  to support your point;
•    compare;
•    contrast;
•    speculate;
•    be provocative;
•    be supportive;
•    cross-question the leader or a group member;
•    play devil’s advocate;
•    encourage someone to speak;
•    generalise from a specific point;
•    make a specific point from a general one;
•    make a short answer;
•    or a longer one;
•    ask a question in response to a question;
•    share an idea;
•    test an idea.


You should treat the discussions exactly like a drawn out examination.  If you have a very good reason for being absent (illness with supporting doctor’s note is the most common), your contribution mark can be adjusted for your absence and your ‘leading’ session moved to another day.  If you simply fail to arrive, you will be marked as if you have sat in silence and your average number of remarks will be proportionately reduced.    


If at the end of the process, anyone has failed and wishes to re-take, we would expect to negotiate an appropriate alternative assignment.  We would probably ask for a written essay.


For some discussions another tutor will sit in order to provide moderation on the grading.  Our choice of what to moderate depends largely on the time-table and the logistics – it doesn’t mean you are particularly good or bad or anything like that!

In addition, discussions will be recorded.  This is for several reasons, but primarily to ensure that the marking of discussions is fair and consistent.  You will get used to this in time.  Just ignore the camera once you are under way.

The External Examiner will be sent recordings of the discussions so that they can check that our standards are correct, and the External Examiner also has the right to attend the discussions in person.

Marking Criteria

When we mark your discussions we are looking for specific things.  These are the ‘criteria’ by which we will judge the discussion.  To be sure that we, staff and students alike, know what the standards are we describe them in detailed criteria tables.  The one for discussions is attached to this leaflet.   Read the table carefully in conjunction with this leaflet. 

The criteria headings are as follows:

Leading a discussion:

•    content i.e. the leader’s personal knowledge and understanding, their choice of focus and the resources they use;
•    communication skills i.e. the leader’s ability to structure and facilitate a discussion and the pace and timing of questions.

Oral contributions:

•    content i.e. the contributor’s knowledge and understanding and use of sources;
•    communication skills i.e. the frequency and deployment of contributions and the discussion skills used (such as supporting, debating, arguing, encouraging, cross-questioning, asking for clarification, playing devil’s advocate, adding details, relating points).

You can see an example of a discussion feedback sheet here.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Assessment design and critical (literary) theory

Once again I have been wrestling with the difficulties of a module designed to introduce students to critical theory.  This is particularly difficult on the degree course I teach, because English only constitutes 50% of the course - so however I try to fit critical theory in, it needs to be done effectively enough so that students have a confident grasp of it before they hit their final year, where an understanding of the relationships between text and theory become pre-supposed.

I have been trying to grapple with this challenge for many years now, and have variously gone through phases of:

  • questioning the value of critical theory altogether, and asking whether we really need it? (I eventually came to the conclusion that we do).

  • embedding critical theory in modules, rather than having a dedicated standalone module (but this led to repetition and confusion).

I have mucked about endlessly with the mode of delivery of the module - exploring whether to apply different critical theories to a single text, or each theory to multiple texts

Here, then, is the latest in my eternal quest for the golden bullet of critical theory teaching.  It involves thinking about delivery and assessment as synchronous processes which build gradually in depth and complexity.