SEDA writing retreat: space to think and space to write

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On a bright and sunny spring morning a small group gathered from around the UK for the annual SEDA writing retreat. The sun was glinting off the Woodbrooke’s creamy magnolia and the grass was fresh and green. We had come from all directions to Birmingham. Woodbrooke is a beautiful old mansion build originally by one of the Quaker industrialists.  In more recent times it was a Quaker college and now provides education, space and quiet for a range of courses both Quaker and otherwise. It is on the edge of Bourneville, in beautiful, extensive grounds.  We shared the space with others taking courses on counselling the bereaved, acting ethically as solicitors and a refresher course for nurses. Continue reading

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#53ideas 43 – Most assessment involves (unreliable) professional judgement – and is all the better for it

Over 40 years ago Roy Cox summarised a wealth of research evidence about the reliability of marking in universities. What the evidence showed was that much marking, across a wide range of disciplines and types of assignment and examination questions, was extraordinarily unreliable. Markers disagreed with each other to a startling extent. In some studies, who the marker was contributed more to variance in marks than who the student was. In my own studies of marking, involving multiple markers, most individual student final year project reports received marks that varied by one or two degree classifications. Agreement between markers was rare. Continue reading

#53ideas 42 – ‘Student engagement’ is a slippery concept

Higher Education experiences fads, some of which pass by unlamented. The buzzword at the moment is ‘student engagement’. Whether it is national bodies, student organisations, institutions, or teaching development units, everyone is pressing the ‘student engagement’ button. Even the recent government Green Paper on the future of higher education in England refers to student engagement. However, a bit like use of the term ‘student centred learning’, the term ‘student engagement’ has come to be used to refer to so many different things that it is difficult to keep track of what people are actually talking about. It also seems to be the case that good evidence about the importance of engagement of a particular form has been co-opted by those interested in promoting other forms of student engagement for which there is actually little or no evidence of impact. The term ‘engagement’ is used to sprinkle stardust on almost any related activity. Continue reading

#53ideas 41 – Rewarding excellent teachers may not improve teaching much

In the early 1980’s I organised what was probably the first conference in the UK devoted to recognising and rewarding excellent teachers, with speakers from several countries outlining award and promotion mechanisms already in place at their institution. SCEDSIP, the organisation that eventually became SEDA, published the proceedings. I was optimistic that if only the way rewards were allocated could be changed, then teaching would become more highly valued and academics would try harder to be good at teaching, and teaching would improve. My institution, Oxford Polytechnic, changed their promotion regulations to emphasise teaching excellence to a much greater extent – and it created quite a stir. I remember a prominent researcher from a Science department, who had a reputation as a quite dreadful teacher, crashing into my office and shouting at me for 15 minutes, arguing that research was the only thing that really mattered. My response was to say: “If that is what you believe then I suspect you are working in the wrong institution”. He stayed, and carried on teaching, badly. I carried on undertaking research into award and reward mechanisms and publishing practical guides on how to do it and how to build it into institutional strategies. Continue reading

#53ideas 40 – Self assessment is central to intrinsic motivation

Whilst undertaking my research on assessment and the way students respond to it, one of the most striking findings I came across, and one that has stuck forcibly in my mind, was a little study by Dai Hounsell at Edinburgh University that showed that a significant proportion of students were not bothering to collect their marked essays from the departmental office. They had gone to the trouble of writing their essays but their interest ended as soon as they had handed it in. Other research showed students frequently glanced at their marks and then filed their assignment away without reading the feedback or re-reading their own work. Why would they do this? And what does this phenomenon tell us about our conventional assessment arrangements and their effects on student motivation and learning? Continue reading

#53ideas 39 – Student choice often lacks substance

Item 37 by John Biggs argued that teachers should specify educational goals with great care so that they are then able to design educational processes that are properly aligned with those goals. The emphasis on alignment may have hidden the issue of who sets the goals.

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#53ideas 38 – Clearly stated goals are not always helpful to students

John Biggs powerful idea (No 37) is in part a new take on an idea that has been around for a very long time: that the most important part of planning education is deciding where you want to get to. When I first started out as an educational developer this took the form of specifying ‘behavioural objectives’, written in the form “At the end of this unit students will be able to…” and then specifying a verb such as ‘”define”, “recognise” or “calculate”. Behavioural objectives were about what you could see and verify students actually doing with whatever they had learnt – about their visible behaviour, not about their invisible thinking. When I joined the Open University in the 1970’s every course unit on every course had a list of 20-30 such behavioural objectives, even in Arts courses, and there were 12 units on a course so that was up to 360 objectives! The Open University eventually abandoned this practice and I’d like to discuss why, and why such detailed specification might sometimes be less useful than often believed, or even unnecessary.

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#53ideas 37 – You cannot design learning activities until you are clear about your outcomes

Graham has invited a number of well respected international thinkers and writers about university teaching, and how to improve it, to each contribute one idea to the ’53 Powerful ideas’ collection. This post is by John Biggs, who hit upon the idea of constructive alignment while teaching at the University of Hong Kong. CA theory and practice are developed through successive editions of Teaching for Quality Learning at University, the last two editions co-authored with his wife Catherine Tang. Post-retirement, John is exercising his right hemisphere by publishing fiction. 

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#53ideas 36 – Standards applied to teaching are lower than standards applied to research

As someone who has spent my entire working life trying to redress the balance between research and teaching it may seem like heresy to say that research standards are higher. But they are, and this is made inevitable by our current procedures and practices.

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#53ideas 35 – Conventional higher education does a poor job of facilitating learning transfer

Graham has invited a number of well respected international thinkers and writers about university teaching, and how to improve it, to each contribute one idea to the ’53 Powerful ideas’ collection. This post is by Christopher Knapper, who is is Director Emeritus of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He was founding President of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and a founding editor of the International Journal for Academic Development from 1994 to 2004.

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