Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Games students play

In my last blog I extolled the virtues of group work and even group assessment in Higher Education. Profit for learning but Pain for tutors.
Part of the pain involves the setting up of a system or process that either monitors individual effort within the group or allows students, through a peer review process, to influence and moderate the group mark so that individual contributions are recognised.
But let's now consider the students, themselves, the natural competition between humans, especially young ones and the desire to "win", the strategic approach to learning and anything to do with it, and the opportunity that group work, however carefully it is designed, provides for the achievement of individual objectives. Let us also consider the natural sense of justice and fairness that is embedded in most human nature and the potential for both punishment and forgiveness for group members. In short, Games that students can play.

Consider the following:

Free riders - perhaps the most obvious beneficiaries of group work. These students rely on the efforts of group members and their unwillingness to punish too harshly.

Dominators - those able to select weaker group members, dominate the group effort but exact unequal benefit by negotiating favourable peer review scores in exchange for better than expected group marks.

Collaborators - these students join "friendship" groups and agree that all members of the group will score each other equally in the peer review - whether this is justified by effort or not.

Traitors - those who agree scores with their group as collaborators but then cheat their friends in order to gain higher marks individually.

To avoid these issues, which happen rarely in practice, group work is often reduced in scope and impact in later stages of degree programmes. No one single mechanism for peer review will iron out all problems but perhaps that is just the point. To avoid the "learning effect", whereby the above student types "game" the peer review system, tutors need to deploy a variety of methods over time.

Tutors need to "game" the " gamers" to achieve the full benefits that collaborative learning can bring.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Group work in Higher Education - Pain or Profit?

In most areas of my life I rely on other people:

  • A Family, where my long suffering wife contributes skills and attributes that I never perfected.
  • A Team, where work colleagues combine resources, talents and ideas to ensure that 2 + 2 equals much more than 5.
  • A work group, where we all learn from each other and modify our ideas to produce effective outcomes.
In each case I hope that I contribute my skills, ideas, talents and learning too...

So why should working in a group be so alien in Higher Education where students have an excellent opportunity to combine their skills, produce better work together than alone and undertake learning from each other?

The answer, I fear, is in the twin fears of:
  1.  the complexity of managing groups - they can go horribly wrong!!, and
  2. the nagging suspicion that lazy students can free-ride on the efforts of others.
There is PAIN in setting up, managing, supervising, marking and allocating individual marks to groups of students.  And the PAIN is normally up-front whereas PAIN from marking a summative exam or assignment from individuals is deferred.

But there is PROFIT too in enhanced learning, enhanced skills such as organisation, communication, negotiation and compromise.  PROFIT comes in the quality of the work too.  Well designed pieces of group work and well considered mechanisms for reflection and peer review can deliver higher quality outcomes for all students.

So, don't deny students the PROFIT because of the PAIN for the tutor.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Old is the New New

Teaching awards are sprinkled liberally around many of our Higher Education institutions.  They celebrate and give a pat on the head to "creative" and "innovative" teachers (they sure ain't going to get paid more for mere teaching - so give them a prize and tell them how important they are).  But just what are these innovations in Higher Education?

Technology Enhanced Learning - that was what happened when Guttenberg printed the first Bible - is it innovative to simply use the current technology?

Authentic assessment - actually measuring what you set out to measure  - isn't that "common sense"?

Flipped Classrooms - does this mean reading the book before going to the "lecture" - I was doing that in the 1970's

Activity based Learning - now I remember that from Primary School!!

Good teaching is undertaken by engaged, informed and passionate communicators who succeed when they transform the lives of their learners.  There's nothing truly innovative about that - good teaching has always been good teaching.

Is good teaching actually innovative in many Universities?

Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s like déjà vu all over again

The recent passing of Yogi Berra, US baseball star and pundit - and his quote that is the title of this post - gave me cause to reflect on the lack of reflection evidenced in the typical Higher Education offering.

Quality Assurance systems force academics to review performance and feedback as they tweak their teaching for the next Semester to reflect the concerns and changing needs of their students...or NOT. How many QA systems simply go through the motions and fail to fully reflect?  How much teaching is undertaken in a mould cast many years ago when certain assumptions about student preparedness, ability to undertake independent learning and thought were well founded?  How many changes to assessment, contact hours, teaching styles etc. are founded in "supply side economics" i.e. timetable constraints, academics teaching their research topics and the knowledge that "we've always done it this way"?

And yet, those same academics are now asked (actually they have been asked for many years but there's a big difference between hearing and listening) to encourage their students to reflect on their own skills and their development through a programme of study in order to enhance their learning.

Reflection is a key part of learning.  It processes experiences, feedback, lecture and reading inputs and needs to be encouraged and supported at module and programme level.  So, when do you find time to reflect?

Oh, and just in case readers think that these posts are rather cynical and could get me into trouble...."I never said most of the things I said" (Berra)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

CHEAT!! is Plagiarism a failure of students or academics?

I wonder how many start of term induction talks that threaten dire punishment for the commission of PLAGIARISM (a.k.a. Cheating; IP theft...) are going on this week?

Western academe protects its purity by exhorting students not to commit that most heinous crimes of 
  • daring to omit citations and references
  • failing to paraphrase adequately
  • Copying substantial quotes from the work of others (whether cited or not)
And you will be found out!

Through the 24 billion+  stored documents boasted by everyone's favourite text matching software, Turnitin, academics can spot crime and often use the "evidence" of the high "matching" score to punish wrongdoers.

Equally, how many academics recognise that actual cheating is very, very, very rare?  and that timely intervention with appropriate academic skills training and practice can not only prevent plagiarism but can also boost independent learning and cognitive development in a way that purely subject based fare cannot?

So, academics.  Get off your moral high-ground and realise that your world is alien to most students entering HE or FE, they need to be trained, acclimitised and nurtured, not caught, punished and humiliated.

And an exhortation NOT to plagiarise emitted during a packed induction day alongside orientation advice about the nearest coffee machine or lavatory is simply a cop out.