Appraise be Rhys, Otto and Ms Lupone

April 17, 1998

Students on a 'Writing for the market' course would be assessed by the very market they were learning to write for, so why did Adrian Mourby have to assess them too?

Last year I taught a course for Cardiff University's school of continuing education and professional development. My motives were twofold. First, I was writing a novel about a university teacher and this was a good way of researching this milieu. Second, after being secluded with my computer I needed to get out and meet people, real people. My class became a regular lifeline to that section of humanity that cannot be accessed by faxes, modems and email.

I would meet my ten would-be authors every Monday evening. We got on very well although, over the term I was teaching, I am sure I never had the same group of students twice. I was particularly fond of Rhys, who was tempted to write about relationships but could not quite commit, of Otto, who spent his days making precis of newspaper reports, and Ms Lupone, with whom I used to have interesting discussions about the meaning of words.

Ms Lupone did not go along with the general consensus on semantics as propagated in such repressive tomes as the Oxford English Dictionary. She chose instead to assign nouns and adjectives the kind of meaning that best suited her own purpose and continually wrong-footed me in argument that way.

They came and went, did my class, like gypsies returning happily to the fold two weeks later, picking up what wisdom I could impart on the business of "Writing for the market". I had suggested this course to the university because I thought creative writing could be taught only to individuals - if at all - whereas I could see a real value in passing on all the things I wished someone had told me when I started selling my own work. Halfway through the course a letter from the school tactfully reminded me that as mine was an accredited course I would soon have to assess my students, deeming them to have passed with ten credits, failed, or not attempted the assessment.

I felt a double reluctance to do this. First, I had always seen my task as an enabling rather than an examining one, and, second, there already exists a much better and objective yardstick of how successfully someone has learned to write for the market. It hardly mattered how many credits I handed out - or withheld. The market itself would judge whether or not my students could write for it. Was this not, I argued, rather like handing out a certificate to say whether or not people had learned to swim when all you need to do is put them in the water and see if they drown?

Nevertheless I did what I could to comply with the terms of my contract and signed up for a seminar the university was running on innovative assessment in the hope that I could argue my case against my course being assessed at all.

What surprised me when I met my fellow part-time tutors was how many of them had also encountered a problem with assessment. One poor woman was in charge of a long-running course in creative writing that had been required to become accredited three years ago. "My ladies still don't like it," she explained, shaking her head. Another, who was teaching botany, felt his hardier students hostile to any idea of assessment while the wilting violets of his group lost confidence altogether once they knew that others were doing better. One tutor even admitted that his attitude to assessment and accreditation had become wholly cynical. "There's every incentive to mark up. The students are happy. The university's happy and I get paid to run my course again. So I'm happy too." I made the point that many of us seemed to be teaching people who wanted vocational skills or to extend an interest further. As our students were not seeking a qualification was it appropriate for these courses to be taught within an institution whose raison d'etre - at least in part - was to give out qualifications?

And yet what was the alternative? There was no doubt that the university wanted vocational courses and that our students wanted to attend them. Given that the school does not get funded unless credits are awarded, were we looking at assessment as a necessary evil and nothing more? The prospect was depressing, but we were rescued from staring it in the face by teachers of Welsh and science, who were able to point out why they chose to assess, albeit on an ongoing basis. "Ultimately if someone can't speak Welsh they'll find out as soon as they open their mouth and start to talk," one tutor explained. "But while they're learning I must be assessing continuously so I can correct what they're getting wrong."

It was obvious that the tutors who were happiest with assessment were those building it into courses from the outset. One social scientist explained that he always discusses how the course will be marked with his students. "That way they own the assessment. They may even think they've got some say in it. They haven't really but at least we can work together to find a way for me to give useful feedback during the teaching."

This did strike me as where I was going wrong. My end-of-term assessment had stopped Rhys, Otto and Ms Lupone looking on me as their friend. I had run the course as an ally and then suddenly become a judge when the university needed its quality check. "Deeply insubstantial," as Ms Lupone put it. Mid-term assessment, on the other hand, would have generated useful feedback and helped my students learn better. I am still unconvinced that a pass, fail or "not attempted" would have been much use to my group but I can see how they might have been better taught using assessment as part of the process.

If I am invited to run this course again it will be the first - rather than the last - thing we discuss.

Adrian Mourby is a novelist.

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