Last week Marcus attended a couple of seminars by Phil Race (I was away & missed out :[ ) – he went on to write briefly about the ideas that were discussed & provided a link to Phil’s website. So when I had a minute I trotted over & had a look – some very thought-provoking stuff there. What I want to do here is pick up on some of the ideas in Phil’s seminar & website.
One of the assessment tasks for our first-year Bio students is an essay. Not particularly long, ‘just’ 1000 words (plus references). There are several reasons for having them do this: lecturers with 2nd- & 3rd-year classes used to complain that students didn’t know how to write essays or reports. The first-year papers include essays in the final exam, & there’s absolutely no point in doing that if you don’t give students practice in writing these things during the semester. (The exam thing is one reason that the word limit is 1000 words – the students need to be able to put ideas down as concisely & precisely as possible in an exam, since they’re working under time pressure, so the word limit for the internally-assessed essay helps them to gain those skills.) And – I want to help my students to develop their ability to pull together information from a range of sources and to combine it in a thoughtful & meaningful way – that is, to encourage them to think critically about an issue, rather than simply regurgitate facts.
Now, I hasten to add that we don’t simply set the question & leave them to it! Our wonderful science librarian provides a guide to referencing & citation, and another on how best to search for information in the library, its databases, & on the net. When the questions are set I also provide a brief outline of what key ideas I’d expect to see mentioned, & the marking rubric’s also available to them (before they submit) so that they can see how the marks will be allocated. They get practice at paraphrasing (a necessary skill & something that many of our first-years really struggle with) & we spend quite a bit of time in tutorials on things like interpreting the question, structuring the essay, referencing & citations, & why plagiarism is a Bad Thing & how to avoid falling into that trap.
But even with all that, the final marking/assessment of the essays is still a major task. (& one reason why there was a certain amount of opposition to the first-years writing them – someone has to do the marking!) The tutor & I split the task but it still takes 2-3 weeks of work. So I was interested in seeing what Phil had to say. I think I’ll use one of his suggestions this year – to hand out general feedback comments the day the essays are submitted. The rationale is that this timing means that the comments are most likely to be read :) With 3 different topics obviously this sort of feedback is of necessity very general: the things that you know from experience are likely to crop up every time. I’m sure that you can think of examples; my list would include: not following instructions on general layout (double-spacing, wide LH margin…); proof-reading (or otherwise) which should pick up on spelling, grammatical & punctuation errors; failing to read the question properly so that the essay is off-topic or gives the wrong weighting to the various sections; the need for consistency in how references are formatted; good practice in in-text citation…. Then, says Phil, when you mark the essays themselves, you can focus on how your students have addressed the topic as they’ll already have feedback on the ‘other’ stuff.
He also suggests handing back the assignments with feedback (see above) but no grade. When I first saw that, I thought ‘eeep!’. But his explanation made a lot of sense, & Marcus has tried it since & found it worked well. The idea is that you mark the assignment & record the marks – but not on the work itself. There, you just provide formative feedback, & ask the students to read it & say what they think the grade should have been. Reflecting on it, I can see why this is such a good technique – it makes the students read your feedback :), & it really makes them focus on looking critically at their own work & how it could be improved. So the next piece of work they submit may be much better; a win-win all round.
There’s also the idea that you don’t get the class to submit a whole long essay at all. (Phil’s talking here of 2-3000 words & over.) Ask for the abstract, or a conclusion/summary – they’ll still need to do the background reading & research in order to produce this, but the overall marking task will be much less while still giving you a good understanding of just where the students are at. That one I’m not so sure of at the moment, in the sense that I don’t know about doing it with the first-years; I’m still inclined to think that while assessment practices (across the board) remain as they are, that my students still need to learn & practice the skills associated with turning out the whole thing. After all, the abstract tends to be the last thing you write!