Monday, 30 April 2018

Exam Season and Fox Hunting


Oscar Wilde described fox hunting as: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!” 

And, there is still a fox hunting season - November to March according to Countryfile Magazine  in the article "15 things you (probably) didn't (want to)* know about fox hunting".

In Higher Education there is an Exam season (almost upon us).  Oscar Wilde might have said:

"The unprepared in pursuit of the unacceptable!"

I wonder just how many of the following 10 things you did not know about exams?**
  1. The use of exams to assess students dates back 2000-3000BC and originated in Assyria and ancient Egypt.
  2. The first use of exams specifically used to assess English students was in the late 1600s. It developed into its more recognisable modern form during the late 18th century.
  3. The exam season traditionally runs from May to June.
  4. According to Diane Abbott, in 2004, MPs voted by a majority of 356,531,986 to 1 to ban the use of exams in Higher Education. The law came into effect in 2005. Exams were banned in Scotland in 2002. 
  5. Countries that permit the use of exams in Higher Education include the US, Russia, Germany and everywhere else.
  6. Traditionally, you could identify students taking an exam by the number of buttons on their cape – 5 buttons for a PhD, 4 buttons for a Master and 3 buttons for an undergraduate.
  7. Coursework assessment has replaced exams in some areas. It involves the provision of developmental feedback to students in a timely manner.
  8. The Keith Inquiry, set up in 1999 to assess the impact of exams and the consequences of a ban, identified that between 60,000 and 80,000 full-time jobs depend on exams in the UK.
  9. Research by Ronald McDonald at Oxford University's Fast Food Research Unit suggests that the average duration of an exam – from when a klaxon is sounded to when students trudge forlornly back to their part-time jobs – is 67 minutes.
  10. Exams have been shown to be very good tests of memory, rote learning and speed writing - all aptitudes highly prized by employers (not).
* my italics       
 ** only some of these things are actually true.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Another flipping change to my practice...when will it end?

Well, it won't end soon...

We don't all have to stand on our heads or engineer Flipped Classrooms but we do need to consider the different and changing needs of today's students.

Actually, I hear you say, today's students are no different to generations who have gone before, we just stress more about them because they have gained a degree of power and influence through such mechanisms as:

  • The National Student Survey and its inclusion as a reliable metric in League tables, Subject level "Excellence" awards etc.
  • The empowerment of students through Quality Assurance systems (and the knee-jerk reactions of the random VC who "gets down with the kidz" and wants action on every minor moan).
  • The promise/threat of technology.  Expectations are high for Millenials.  This is the 21st Century after all...
  • The utter contempt in which many Universities hold their staff who are, naturally, exchangeable for recent PhD graduates with no experience or interest in teaching - a position that is not lost on the student body.
NONE of which changes the basic fact that engaged students learn better.  So, standing on your head or jumping through hoops, learning communication methods that students actually use and maintaining a focus on THEM, not YOU should underpin your Continuing Professional Development...

CPD? I hear you say, what on earth is that?

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Count Dracula, kissing Frogs and force-fed Parrots

According to The brothers' Grimm (1812), there have long existed folklore tales involving kissing a number of frogs, one of which turns into a handsome prince.  The moral of the phrase was also summed up almost a century later:  “We learn from failure, not from success!”  ― Bram StokerDracula (1897).

So, why do we try our best, as academics, to protect learners from failure?

Let us look at the risk-free, spoon-fed journey that a typical UK student might encounter:

Typical age at first attempt
Number of retakes allowed
Tutor feedback before submission of work
A level
Undergraduate Degree
*Unless you have genuine mitigation

Typically, there is no time to retake GCSEs endlessly and fewer years to retake A Levels before University admissions tutors begin to ask why a 40-year-old unemployed person is presenting for the first time for admission.  The vast majority of students intending to progress to University do. of course, pass their exams at the first attempt but the knowledge of being able to improve grades and the availability of tutor feedback creates a safety net in the minds of the young.

If Higher Education, for whatever reason, (revenue, retention metrics &c) begins to provide the safety net that secondary schools and colleges do, will we see an end to Learning as we know it?

What we will have is a generation of memorisers and force-fed Parrots.

So, what is needed?

Well, as ever, a balance between the risk of failure and the benefit of learning.  Allow students to fail in formative tasks, to barely pass in summative ones and the gap between their actual and protected performance will become apparent to them.  Ensure that learning outcomes are key drivers for course design and that course delivery and assessment are integrated into the learning process.

Dumbing down and lowering boundaries does nobody any good.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Educational Case Studies: Writing#2


Having decided on your learning outcomes, type of case, level of information given and overall structure - and whether the case is to be used for classroom discussion, an assignment, or an examination.  At different levels of study (undergraduate, Masters, Executive Education) you will have to make a judgement about how accessible the case is to students.

But once you have got all of that sorted out all you need to do is to decide what to write about.

So...write about what you know.

In a Business School faculty members are divided into FOUR types, according to AACSB and as noted in an earlier BLOG entry:

Practitioners will have a number of war stories, anecdotes, networks of folks still in industry who have stories and issues that can be anonymised (if necessary) to illustrate a case.  Academics will have research projects and collaborations that illustrate real business issues (one would hope).

So, all they need is a spark of imagination, the motivation to engage students and the comfort (for those that need it) that not every waking hour needs to be spent pursuing research to do your job fully.

Get writing!