06 February, 2006

Must try harder

The last few days have been a little depressing. I spent the week wearing my academic hat, marking the exams for the courses I taught last autumn, and it has been a thoroughly dispiriting experience.

Because they were – almost uniformly – awful.

That’s not a statement I make lightly; I just can’t think of anything good to say about them. In both of the courses I taught, it wasn’t just the factual errors that I had to contend with, but also the apparent inability of many of the students to actually express their thoughts in a coherent manner. For the essay questions, I was expecting something with an introduction, a presentation of relevant material, and a conclusion.
What I got in many cases was a haphazard scatter of (often wrong) statements, barely linked to those that preceded and followed it, and which if I was lucky had some relevance to the question that was being asked.

This situation has been preying on my mind, as I wonder how much of the blame for the students’ poor performance rests with me. In the past I’ve chuckled along with everyone else at the lists of student howlers which often accompany the release of the GCSE and A-Level results; but it’s not quite so funny when the students almost heroically getting the wrong end of the stick are ones that you’ve taught the stuff to. In my inexperience, was I so dire, so incoherent, that no-one learnt anything from my lectures?

I can’t deny the possibility that I may have been a contributing factor to the low level of understanding apparent in the answers. But can I be blamed for the laziness, the sheer lack of ambition, apparent in the essays? Perhaps I can. The lectures went little beyond a recital of basic facts and concepts, with very little referral to current research. Particularly for the third- and fourth-year course, is that not a lack of ambition? The lecture handouts were print-outs of Powerpoint slides. Is that not lazy?

In my defence, I inherited these lecture courses, Powerpoint presentations and all. I felt a little guilty at the time about how content-light they seemed to be, but I didn’t really have time to put much of a mark on them before I had to give them. I’m resolved, should I do any more lecturing, never to let that happen again. I must try harder.

But still. I wasn’t the sole lecturer on either course. Other, more experienced, people taught different bits, and set their own exam questions; the students didn’t have to answer mine. Yet they did. The questions I set weren’t difficult or obscure, and I wasn’t expecting knowledge outside of what was in the lectures; so even if I was appalling, at least some people should have been able to glean enough from the lecture notes and reading textbooks to get a decent mark. However much knowledge the students did (or didn’t) have, they should have at least been able to write about it in a clearer manner. Why didn’t they? I fear the answer might lie in one word: scaling. Bad marks make the department look bad, so the distribution of my marking will be shifted upwards. The adequate will become excellent. The awful will become merely poor. And the students will believe that the quality of their answers, and the level of their revision, was acceptable. What, then, motivates them to improve? From their perspective, they don’t need to.

Scaling is self-defeating. If we want the students to try harder, we have to make it clear that we won’t accept it if they don’t.

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