Expectations, Effort and Entitlement

I’m thinking about marking again despite it being end of the academic year. Much of the marking is ‘terminal assessment’ and the culmination of weeks/months/years of effort, feedback and education. I have some thoughts that are mostly random and unstructured but feel like something that’s beginning to coalesce.

  1. The reluctance of many markers to use the full grading scale. It’s 0 – 100 people, not 37 – 72. I find it genuinely perplexing that there is some reluctance (bias?) to award high marks and there seems to be a sentiment that 1st class is sufficient. Well 70 – 100 is as broad as 40 -70, and they have as much a range in quality and expectations of each other. I’d challenge all of my readers to sit down and seriously consider what 80% and 90% REALISTICALLY look like for student work and adapt their practices. If it is ‘not possible for anyone to get above 75%’ then for the love of all that is good in the universe, check your prejudice because that is simply wrong. You are wrong, your assessment setting and marking practices are wrong.
  2. The converse of the above however, is that realistically for marks above 75, we’re looking for something a bit special. Yes, 100% in an exam is answering all the questions right (and I’m analogising with ‘doing what is asked’). But 100% in an essay, report, or whatever requires strategically and methodologically doing what is asked in the best possible way. It’s not possible to get over 80% in coursework with out serious engagement with the course and the subject at a more expansive level, teaching sessions, and with independent study to support it. Our assessment guidelines actually cover this fairly well (from an academic standpoint) but there’s a discussion to be had about how well the phrasing is understood (and a lot of literature on the subject). An example: I used to set a 1st year assignment that required producing a presentation on a topic of interest. It was possible to get marks around 72% with clear visual aids, good sources, and clear verbal communication. It was necessary to have exceptional visual aids, outstanding sources (i.e. ALL peer reviewed scientific journal articles, ALL figures created by the student), and exceptional verbal communication, to have marks over 85%. But it was also necessary to pick a great topic, not one that was part of A-level, or so broad that no depth of understanding needed to be conveyed. So when I write ‘with at least 5 sources, of which at least 3 should be peer reviewed scientific journal articles’, 5 sources of which 3 are strong journal articles, probably gets that component to 1st class. The key word there is ‘at least’. I have to leave room to excel, but also room to acknowledge the fact that some topics will need more sources than others. And also to acknowledge that not all peer reviewed scientific journal articles are created equally (and to temper that with what is reasonable). It’s not always possible to articulate what it takes to get the highest marks because it takes insight, inspiration, and excellence: most of us know it when we see it. That’s why the 1st class category is so broad.
  3. Spending a lot of time on something does not equate to high success. It is more likely, but the time must be used efficiently and effectively, and in consultation with the task guidelines. And there’s such a thing as spending too much time, just as much as there is spending too little. time. It’s a difficult thing to balance: the right kind of effort, and the right amount of time. It takes practice. But just throwing more time at any task, without thinking critically about how that time is being spent, isn’t a good use of time or effort. And this isn’t just in learning and education, this is in everything. I can spend 20 hours polishing a lab script for an outreach activity, or I can spend 2. In the broader context of the event I’m running, it’s likely that the bells and whistles that come with the 20 hours of polish are generally lost due to factors I can’t control when the session is actually running. And let’s face it, that factor is most likely a function of the humans in the room on the day. So I learn to set aside the urge to change, tweak, re-test, remake figures, reword, and get it done in a reasonable amount of effort, proportionate to the task. *
  4. Everything is a function of clarity, circumstances, and ability. That’s not about being ‘smart’, ability is wide ranging and includes time management, making good decisions about where to focus effort, being methodical in approaching tasks, being able to focus in less than perfect circumstances…and I see that a lot in outreach activities. Academic success is only one dimension in solving a particularly tricky challenge; negotiating with a team, negotiating for help, working out when to ask for help, can all play a bigger role. Academic productivity is similar: there are times of year when all I do is teach and tend student matters. I can’t carve out a space of time long enough to get my head back into a research matter. The converse is that I struggle in the summer to carve out time to address teaching matters because my brain has switched over. Being able to set one thing aside for a time to tend another aspect is an absolute privilege, and not one that is universally available. Life doesn’t go on hold for studies, and university is likely not the protected space that the most privileged amongst us experienced it as, all those years ago. (I am one of those privileged people).

*Sitting with documents open on the computer while playing around on a phone is not time on task. Doesn’t matter if you’re completing coursework, trying to revise, marking, trying to write a funding application…procrastination is the thief of time regardless of stage in academia. So ask yourself: how long do you ACTUALLY spend on a task when the distractions are stripped away? It’s less than you think.

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