Helicopter Lecturers

I’m sure you’ve heard of helicopter parents. The possibly semi-mythological, ever-present parents who speak for their kids, show up everywhere and are generally an effective means of ensuring their offspring don’t say that much (nor appear to have opinions of their own).  But what of the helicopter lecturers? The academics who simply do not trust their students to plan their work and effort, and devise complex and elaborate assessment regimes to force/trap/coerce/make the students learn the precious content. What happened to Higher Education having space and time for intellectual development?

If we look at recent trends in curriculum design, we can start with the one with the silly name: constructive alignment. When I did our teaching in higher ed PGCert, we got to watch a video about it. I’m not seriously mocking it for the basic principles are sound: create learning opportunities and assess them so as to ensure learning outcomes are met. Sounds blindingly obvious, and yet in a system laden with old-fashioned exams, less so than we’d like. Ultimately it’s a good thing but only to a point. Learning outcomes, in as much as they can define the scope of a particular course, are very useful things. They can keep us all on track. Taken to an extreme however, and it was ‘sold’ to me as a way of ‘trapping students so they have no way to not learn’, it’s a little infantalising.

More recently, lecture flipping, or the act of asking students to do some preparation before they come to class (video, reading, problems…) in order to make different use of class time compared to ye olde worlde sage on a stage didactic lecturing is worth considering in this context. No problem at all with reasonable expectations for students to do something before coming to class, but when expectations transgress into outrage at students who haven’t done it and sneaky measures are taken to force engagement (such as marks for completing tasks, massive guilt trips from aggrieved lecturers at students who haven’t bothered looking at their carefully prepared notes), then there’s a problem.

We should also consider ‘waterboarding the horse’ assessment regimes. Let me define that. I’m a strong believer in ‘you can take a horse to water but you cannot force them to drink’ in HE. I believe it is my job to provide high quality, useful and relevant learning opportunities, and fair and sensible assessment. It is not and never will be my job to force students to participate them, or to dictate the nature of that participation (an act which is ultimately discriminatory against students with specific needs). However it seems that many who currently teach in HE think it is very much their job to make the horse drink, to the point of using inhumane regimes that look very much like water boarding. No damn it horse, you will learn, and if you don’t we’re going to hold you down and pour the damn learning over your face until you’ve done the bloody learning. And bloody learned it proper.

What does a ‘waterboarding the horse’ assessment regime look like*? One that dices the module credit into small chunks to motivate and coerce learning at a lecturer defined rate. This could be a regime where students get x% of their overall mark every  so many weeks for doing stuff like class tests – congratulations, you’ve tested short term recall. Or a regime where every problem sheet has effort marks attached. Token quantities of marks to promote effort and engagement. Now, the point of participating learning activities needs to be clear. The value of engaging well needs to be made clear.  Then the students have to be trusted to judge for themselves One problem comes with the idea of a lecturer defined rate.  We are very casual in the way we spend our students time. We provide details of assessment at a rate that suits us, perhaps justifying it that the students cant start it until lecture X, or the notion that they all leave it to the last minute anyway so 2 weeks before a deadline is fine. In doing so, we take away a students right to chose and to plan when they do work. Perhaps we have students who like to see what they will be asked to do so that they can signpost things in their lecture notes. Perhaps we have students that need to appraise, for themselves, how long different assessment types will take and plan their lives around them. And we have practically no means to help a student who says they’ve got a lot of stuff going on (that doesn’t qualify for exacting extenuating circumstances) in a particular week who knows they can’t do their best in that test or assignment.

So what should we be doing? I think that where possible, full assessment arrangements should be available as close to the start of a module as possible. It’s hard and I’m still trying to get this sorted for one of my modules. I think we should be looking at these waterboarding the horse regimes with deep scepticism and demanding proof from those who advocate them (nearly wrote avocado there) that they are more effective at deep and long lasting learning than fewer larger assignments. We should be giving serious and urgent consideration to how we are spending our students time and ultimately reflecting very critically on the degree to which we trust our students to spend their own time.


*It’s possibly unfair to write a rant like this without considering what motivates lecturers to resort to these techniques. Metrics such as a requirement to get 70% ‘good degrees’ (e.g. 1st or 2:1) is pretty big incentive for staff to have a very nervous eye on the ‘bottom line’. Disgust at student attitudes and work habits that differ from our own academically motivated past. Institutional drivers such as modules being subject to review and scrutiny if too many students fail or the average mark is too low (and this should happen but not in a metric driven punitive way).  I’m not going to argue that lecturers are not under significant pressures to make their students ‘perform’, but in the interests of setting a good example, more should resist the these pressures and act to avoid passing them onto their students. 


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