I've put some of the materials I use with the Postgraduate Research Students into a new collection on HumBox
Roger Brown is spot on with his recent Guardian article “Student choice is a myth - and it's immoral”. He starts off with a reference to the Key Information Set (KIS), something I have written about on previous occasions. Most of the information in the KIS is meaningless and is subject to manipulation by institutions in any case— if you start judging organisations by certain figures, the leaders of these organisations are apt to focus on improving the figures, even if they are totally irrelevant to quality. I’m yet to be convinced that any aspect of the KIS will be useful in informing student choice. I suspect that it will inform student choice, but in the same way that Mystic Meg informs people of which lottery numbers to choose.
What interested me most about Professor Brown’s article was this comment:
…the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made.
I wrote a blog post in December which responded to an article comparing higher education choice to buying car insurance.
I said it there and I'll say it again. The two things are not alike. If my car insurance company treats me badly or put its prices up I’ll go elsewhere next year. I can replace my car if it dies on me, though I will be annoyed. If my house fell down I could find somewhere else to live. In North America graduates often refer to their college as their alma mater (that is a “nourishing mother”) – a sense of the great esteem in which one’s university is held. Despite all the emphasis on the rights of parents to choose a school for their children, research seems to suggest that a child’s life outcomes are influenced much more by what happens at home than by what happens at school. Is a poor or regretted choice of university course as damaging as an uncaring parent? Is blaming an 18 year-old for making a poor decision in the choice of university like blaming a child living in poverty for choosing parents who don’t have much money?
The (US) Chronicle has just run an article about a graduate student called Monica Johnston who has an $88,000 debt. Part of the reason for her debt was that she spent $40,000 attending an institution with a great reputation, which turned out not to be right for one reason or another. Some of those commenting on the article suggest that much of this debt is her own fault for spending a year at an unsuitable college and failing to graduate. I know nothing about the college Ms Johnston dropped out of or the one she is at now, but the choice to go to that expensive college obviously seemed like a good idea at one point. It was not the right choice and it has substantially increased her debts. I’m not sure that a KIS or anything like it would have prevented her from going there. It may have actually led her to being more even more unsuitable choices.
A friend asked for my advice on applying for undergraduate courses last year. I was able to give some help, but I was shocked at how little help I was really able to give despite having spent the last 17 odd years studying and working in higher education. There are so many variables in play, different course content and combinations, reputation, distance from family and friends, and career possibilities (for someone who like many young people is not fully sure what she wants to do afterwards). The KIS would have been worse than useless and league tables are no use. In fact we could have ended up in conversations with me explaining that just because Course X has a graduate employment rate of 73% and Course Y of 75% does not necessarily make Course Y the better choice. But students will make choices on this sort of basis.
My worst fear is not that students will ignore the KIS. My fear is that it could become the sacred text of university applications.
Craig Mahoney’s call for a Higher Education Teaching ‘license’ predictably polarises opinion. Any article in THE about ‘training’ (don’t like the word) for teachers in higher education inevitably leads to comments along the lines of “I haven’t had any training and I get great evaluations for my modules”.
I have mixed feelings about Mahoney’s call. As an undergraduate and postgraduate student I had many great teachers, the vast majority (or possibly none) of whom had ever done any training in how to teach. Their lectures were interesting, even inspiring. They encouraged me to think for myself about the material. They asked interesting questions and challenged conventional wisdom. Sure, there were a few who were a bit boring but I never believed that teaching in higher education was broken and in need of fixing. Nothing I’ve seen, read or heard in eight-and-a-half years working for a subject centre has ever led me to seriously revise this opinion.
On the other hand it seems right that people who teach should have some sort of support as they embark on their academic career. Perhaps the students deserve to know that their lecturer is a ‘fit and proper’ person to teach just as one needs to be a fit and proper person to run a minicab firm, a football club or a multinational media company – OK bad analogy—or that their lecturer is competent to teach just as a person who passes their driving test is competent to drive. No doubt when the driving test was introduced there were those who said “I’m a good driver and never had to take any lessons or a test—all my friends and family think I am a good driver”. On the other hand we all know that the driving test has not eliminated poor driving. And whilst there are claims that public exams are ‘dumbing down’ the driving test only gets longer and more difficult.
Along with their warnings about not going under a car supported only by a jack and not changing a tyre in the fast lane of the M1, the Haynes car manuals have a section in the front about advanced driving. To paraphrase, those who learn by experience react to problem situations when they arise often depending on the quality of their ABS brakes. However, the advanced driver will avoid getting into the problem situations in the first place. The ‘experience-led’ driver may see themselves (and be seen by others) as a good driver and be accident free, but the advanced driver will foresee problem situations before they have the opportunity to arise.
I think the advanced driving metaphor is really what learning to teach in higher education is about. I find it impossible to believe that good (notice I say good) courses about teaching in higher education can be anything other than a good thing. However, licensing will not prevent poor teaching any more that driving tests prevent poor driving. Most of those who learn to teach by experience will probably not be ‘found out’, but when the syllabi change, students expectations change or leadership change the experience-led teacher will be unprepared and stressed out. However the thoughtful the lecturer who invests his or her time in becoming an advanced teacher through thoughtful reflection on teaching, reading about teaching and continuing to learn about teaching will be a good teacher whatever the difficult situations arise in the future.
Mantz Yorke’s article in the latest edition of Studies in Higher Education “Summative Assessment: dealing with the measurement fallacy” has caught my eye. In my view assessment is (and arguably should be) anxiety producing for the assessor as well as the student. Yorke’s concern, as he notes in the first paragraph is for the students who are neither very strong or very weak, the bulk of students “where differences between individuals tend to be small, but can have a large impact on opportunities” (p.251).
Reflected in over 70 references the article covers a lot of ground including the UK degree classification system and the appropriateness of a classification grade which somehow summarises all summative assessment over the course of three or four years of study. Changing the classification for a letter grade or an overall percentage is not in itself any better—Yorke quotes the VC of Bedfordshire University’s evidence to the House Commons universities, Sciences and Skills committee “… as a chemist I would be telling my students not to average the unaverageable, then I would walk into an examination board and do exactly that”.
Yorke identifies many of the familiar and less familiar flaws in assessment and concludes that we need to acknowledge these before any improvements can be made. He writes of taking an overly judgemental approach to summative assessment to challenge the measurement (and seemingly scientific) fallacy of summative assessment. This would (my summary here from Yorke’s points on pp.262-265.
- Make it unambiguously clear (to students and others) that summative assessment are judgements, not refined measurements.
- Would help deal the variability in the use of the percentage scale (if percentage scale is really an accurate way of describing the marks given to students) between disciplines and for difference types of assessment within disciplines.
- Require students to accept that assessment grades are judgements of their work and not precise measurements. (Perhaps this would be the most difficult sell here).
I can’t do this article justice in summary form—it is well worth a read for anyone who deals with assessment in higher education.
Reference: Mantz Yorke, “Summative assessment: dealing with the ‘measurement fallacy’,” Studies in Higher Education 36, no. 3 (2011): 251-273. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070903545082
There are quite a few words I don’t like when talking about educational development. ‘Training’ is among these words. Why do lecturers ‘teach’, but educational developers ‘train’? Why is somebody who teaches students a lecturer or a teacher, but anyone who teaches lecturers is deemed to be training rather than teaching?
The difference may seem insignificant to some but I passionately believe that higher education is a valid and legitimate field of study and there is no difference between those who teach and research about higher education and the things that go on in universities and those who teach and research about sociology, physics and nursing. This is why I like to see educational developers have job titles which indicate this (Lecturer/ Senior Lecturer. Professor etc.)