As we come to the end of another academic year and people debate whether we are giving out too many firsts, I find myself pondering a few questions.
But before I start people arguing I should make clear that I completely agree that we need to ensure a level of consistency for our students. Especially in the light of exceptional circumstances like snow interruptions to lectures and practicals which don't happen to every cohort.
Ok so that said I think one of the things we need to decide as lecturers is:
Is it to teach a specific set of skills (or knowledge) to our students? Or is it to produce a clear ranking of who's the best and who's the worst? This question lies at the heart of the debate because the two goals require different teaching and evaluation strategies.
If we are providing our students with skills and knowledge then as good teachers we should be providing all the students with the best opportunity to learn those skills and knowledge. Good teaching strategies will reach diverse students, enhancing their learning through safe and motivating learning experiences. Under this scenario, in theory, all students should have the chance to achieve high grades if they participate in those learning experiences and acquire those skills. In addition, under this scenario since we are good teachers we will continue to adapt our teaching strategies to enhance student learning from year to year which should result in more students acquiring the skills and knowledge in subsequent years, increasing the number of firsts (of course as someone who cares about teaching, I'd love to give the credit of rising grades to the teachers!).
But should we stop adapting once we have the perfect way to impart those skills? This brings me to the next point - students are starting uni with different skills. Similarly the jobs we are training them for also have evolving expectations. So in an ideal world we should be adapting our learning goals to bridge between entry skills and job requirements. A bit obvious? Ok well if we increase our learning expectations from year to year how can we compare a first from this year to a first in 5 or 10 years time since the expectations will have changed? I think this will be very important for us to consider when comparing cohorts in the near future as I would argue we are in a transition period from memorising knowledge to skills acquisition - in particular complex problem solving and team/people skills (to name a few - a topic for another blog).
If we explore the other option where our teaching goals are to rank the students then what does this mean to employers? Students have so many options especially in their final years - each of which teach a different set of skills or knowledge - a student with a first may still not be the best option for a particular job if they had selected modules more suited to a different job….
My personal philosophy (as you may have guessed from the biased way this is written!) is that we are here to teach skills and if the students learn those skills they should all have the opportunity to get high grades. I also feel that the skills required for success in a changing world are different to what they were in the past.
Why am I pondering all this? In exam board there was a point made about a new aspect of assessment that I introduced to my third year module which resulted in good spread of grades. However that wasn't my intention when I instigated the change. In the past I had noticed that third year students still find writing concisely a challenge. In response to this observation the final coursework (two short essays on topics linked to the lectures) included two marking criteria. The first was the standard criteria they have been evaluated against their whole degree. The second was worth 25% of the grade and was deliberately written to evaluate concise writing skills. To ensure the students had the best chance to learn these skills I ran a formative workshop where students submitted a paragraph of text the night before and during the session I projected the paragraph on the screen (anonymised) and as a group (there are 13 in the class) we reworded the paragraphs to be more concise without losing the meaning. I provided a handout with a substitution table which contained common long-winded statements and concise alternatives. The marking criteria included use of the substitution table along with a few other points and we worked through the new marking criteria in the workshop so the students knew exactly what was expected.
I confess when marking some of the essays I was disappointed that although overall there was good improvement, there was still fluff in some of the essays. This is what resulted in the mark spread for which I was complemented during exam board. I actually felt this was a failing of my teaching - that there is more I can do to enhance these skills next year. But is spread a bad thing? Maybe some spread is a good thing? It certainly shows we are stretching the students with skills not already learnt. The students expressed appreciation for the skills training (in person, in the module evaluation and to the examiner who asked). I will still strive to improve writing skills further next year which may result in less spread…I wonder what will be said at exam board if one year there is good spread and the next year there is less!?
Do I have a point to this blog? Not really except to prompt further thought on firsts, spread, comparing cohorts and what is our underlying goal of undergraduate teaching. So what do you think?