Thursday, 2 October 2014

To show or not to show?

Some students like to see examples of work from previous students and some tutors like to provide them. One of the initial pedagogical elements devised in the Ultraversity project in 2003 was to discuss and to model good practice rather than to provide examples of it. 

I am still not keen on sharing complete assignments or even extracts from previous work with students. When I have done this in the past the result has been rather unimaginative reinterpretations of the shared assignment or in some cases students being put off / feeling stressed that they would not be able to attain the standard in the example. I also found I was doing a lot of tutor feedback that had to focus on helping students avoid potential assessment offences rather than encouraging and supporting their independent and original work. Sharing examples of mid level work in the 50% area will by its nature have errors in it that students may pick up on unless the tutor has annotated the example to highlight areas for improvement. Sharing work from the 80-100% range will provide examples with less error but this standard is not attained by many students and can provide a daunting read for students working at lower levels. I accept that for many it will be a good aspirational example, however; when that has been done I have had students contact me and say there is no way I can do that I may as well give up. For some there could well be a temptation to paraphrase bits of the work in their own assignment in an attempt to raise their grade or at the least to follow the structure rather than think out their own structure. 

A few years ago I shared an extract from a previous student's work in a reflective practice module that focuses on double loop learning.  The same double loop diagram was used by a fair proportion of students in their draft work and attributed to Argyris when it had actually been devised by the student who created the example piece I used. It was based on Argyris but was a variation and labelled as "After Argyris". I had to surmise that either none of them had read the original publication or they had done so and assumed that the diagram in the example came from a publication they had not found. Although there are sections in that module that would appear by nature to be unique, in that they are drawn from students workplace experiences where they identify significant events and apply a critical incident analysis to them, it was disappointing to see some close parallels in some student's work where critical incident analysis was remarkably similar​ to the example work in either the approach to using technology or the actual event and reflections on it. Of course in such situations it is difficult to be sure what has happened as similar incidents do occur, particularly in schools, and people do come up with similar ideas for how they can be creative with technologies but that year there was remarkably less variation between student assignments that was usual for that module.

Core literature review narrative is a particularly problematic area. Having read a successful student's lit review a student tasked with reviewing largely similar sources will find it difficult to avoid writing similar patterns of interpretation to the example piece, this may well be something they are not conscious of doing but occasionally it can be a purposeful copy. Analysing which it is can be extremely difficult and time consuming for tutors and other staff whose role it is to scrutinise work for academic offences. Either way there can be a problem when a student has slightly misinterpreted an author and others then follow that example thinking their correct interpretation must be incorrect. There is also the value that students gain from finding literature beyond what is provided in the reading list. Where an extract or complete lit review is shared students then all tend to include the extended reading that is visible i the example work rather than going on their own treasure hunt for literature gems and analysing what they find themselves.

In a final year module when I first provided an example of a flow chart type map of the scope of the impact of a student's major project work on herself and her workplace several students used that as a template for their own maps. The categorisation in the example was not suited to most students workplaces or major projects but nonetheless many attempted to align their map with it and the result was weaker than if they had had to conceptualise their own map from scratch. I would also argue that the learning they gained was also lower. 

I don't travel with my laptop very often but I when I do I am aware that there is a risk of losing it, I was once jostled and felt a hand try to take my bag when getting on a tube train, I actually ended up on the floor still gripping my bag. Since that incident I decided not to retain any student's work after marking has been completed unless there are special circumstances that would provoke me to do so. 

There are study skills resources provided by Anglia Ruskin University that give good ideas for improving work via generic resources and that set out expected standards at each level of study. The generic and module specific assessment criteria for each module are also an indication of what is required. Tutor feedback on draft work will ensure students know what to do to achieve a sufficient standard and tutor involvement in peer review discussions is another way we help students ensure they meet criteria and raise their standards. I have found that students do appreciate overarching advice and I tend to provide hints and tips as to how they need to raise their game as they progress to each new year. For example explaining that at level 5 the work has to move well away from descriptive or imitative narrative and they need to develop the ability to critically deconstruct what they read and develop a narrative that presents logical and persuasive arguments. We expect that over the year students will develop a concise and precise writing style that uses an extended vocabulary appropriate to the field of study. There should be no ambiguity or vagueness unless this is an intentional part of the assignment such as that which might be inherent in interview data they have gathered or in an alternative literacy piece where there is a clear reason to be vague such as in a play transcript with a character who is portrayed to illustrate the problems that vagueness caused during a significant event in the workplace.  Students are also expected to demonstrate the ability to discern when to use an impersonal and when a personal voice. There is an expectation that Harvard referencing will be perfectly in-line with the current version required by the university and that is demonstrated on the library templates. 

The study skills resources on the student part of the Anglia Ruskin University web site provide excellent information about strategies to develop scholarly practice. The pages about good writing strategies are comprehensive and very useful.​​

Students can also look to the literature in peer reviewed journals and academic blogs for good examples of academic writing - not all are well written, some are convoluted and overly complex but that is generally easy to identify. 

Setting Word, PowerPoint etc. to check a formal style of writing will identify more errors, such as; when you have used a passive voice. A passive voice is a sentence where you put the author's name or a key point at the end of a sentence rather than early on. It does get rather repetitive if every reference to a source is placed at the end of sentences and the flow of the narrative tends to be weaker. For example in the screen shot below you can see that I wrote a passive sentence then spell checked it, Word notes that and offers an active construction:

Below is a formulaic example that attempts to model one approach to the construction of critical narrative appropriate for level 5:

A, B and C seem to concur in finding this strategy valuable in that A suggests xxx and B aligns with that where she mentions xxx. Z set out to challenge the concept but was unable to sustain a challenge and did come to conclusions xxxx that all align with both A and B. It could be argued that D's findings xxxxx are a challenge to the concept but, unlike A, B and C, his research was rather limited in scope and in my opinion he does not provide a persuasive counter argument because xxxx. In my workplace we have used a strategy based on the work of B and it does seem effective in that xxxx. My initial feeling at this point is that the concept seems well founded... I now intend to explore this further by applying the strategy to xxx aspect of my own practice.

This has not been refined for writing style / syntax. What I have tried to get across in that formula is the combination of components; explanation, comparison, contrast, critique, link of theory to workplace practice, a tentative statement of stance and an intention to explore further through personal experiential learning. ​

There is a lot that can be done without sharing previous student's work and risking the pitfalls that can lead students into.

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