A little guidance goes a long way

July 5, 2002

The 2002 National Teaching Fellowship awards will be presented on July 9. Below, two of the winners discuss their changing roles as higher education moves towards mass participation.

I remember a dispiriting conversation I once had with a lecturer who was about to retire. Announcing that I was about to take up my first full-time lecturing post, he sighed wearily: "I must say, I'll be glad to go. Nowadays, all students do is complain. So few write competently, but if they get a bad mark they are banging on your door, claiming that it is your fault. They think education is just a commodity. That is not the university life I want to remember."

I did not register much of this at the time, dismissing it as the jaundiced views of a tired, old campaigner. But last Friday afternoon, as my inbox filled up with messages drawing my attention, as course leader, to a couple of lectures and a fieldwork visit that had been unavoidably postponed due to the ravages of a flu bug, I caught myself wondering irritably whether these students would not be better off spending more time in the library and less time penning complaints to me. "Must be getting old," I muttered to myself and set to work, thanking students for drawing the issues to my attention, apologising, noting the possible implications for their final assessments and exploring possible ways forward to support their assignment preparations.

Discomforted by my initial uncharitable reaction, I reflected on the nature of this lobbying. It did seem preoccupied with grades and doing well in summative assessments, as the old campaigner suggested. A typical missive ran: "I have invested a huge amount in this degree and will only be satisfied with a very good result. As you will appreciate, this requires a lot of help and guidance." It is easy to take this comment as a threat:

"I've paid my money and deserve the goods, which you must deliver. If I don't do well, it's your fault, not mine." Another view I try to maintain is that of a first-year who has given up a lot to be here, is nervous about her capacity to make the grade and knows she needs our help. University assignments are very different from her prior experiences and she is struggling to make sense of the new expectations for her work. Perhaps this is a plea: "This degree means a lot to me. I know I have to do a lot, but I'm not sure how to go about this and I need your support." Assessment, from students' viewpoints, represents a huge threat, especially in the context of widening participation. As a student once told me: "It's all very well understanding something, but if you can't get that over in your assignment, you've had it." The course I teach aims to help students "wake up" and question the world. Achieving this is not the problem. One of the biggest challenges teaching staff face is to help unconfident students move from the breathless excitement of seeing the subject afresh to using academic discourse to reason and argue a case. You cannot wake up people who do not want to be awake, but those who do deserve our help.

We have put a lot of energy into developing strategies to help guide students through their first-year assessments. We try to help them see assignments as a chance for learning, engage them in discussions about our expectations, encourage them to share their writing practices and to discuss their perceptions of merit.

On one level, these seem to help. Speaking of the value of an online writing task, one student commented: "It's much better than chucking you in at the deep end. I feel more confident about tackling the assignment now, as I know more what they're after."

But on another level, opening up assessment practice is not an easy option, as the process raises questions where there was once mystique. It is easier and safer as busy people not to invite our students to ask questions and seek help. But that is not the university life I want to remember.

Kay Sambell is senior lecturer in childhood studies at the University of Northumbria.

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