Assessment Ruins Everything

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:39 pm

OK, maybe that’s an overstatement: a more measured version might be ‘assessment, when we get the balance wrong, ruins everything’.

I get very frustrated with my students – even if something is hugely valuable for learning to teach, if it’s not assessed, it is simply of no interest to them.

They get very frustrated with me – because I care about their learning much more than the assessment. I don’t want to spend huge amounts of time specifying in increasingly tiny detail exactly what will get them the best marks. Because, as has been discussed here recently, what will get them the best marks is creativity, not compliance, but that’s impossible to pre-specify.

The cheating in the Primary course also comes, presumably, from the attitude that it is the grade that matters, not the learning… and so does the degree to which students do not attend lectures, tutes and labs.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the ‘accountability’ culture means all their school teachers and many of their uni lecturers have been flat out training students to comply by creating unbelievably detailed criteria sheets and spending a heap of time going through them, and rewarding compliance.

Assessment should serve learning, not the reverse… and that’s not the way it’s running at the moment. I have a heap of resonance with this piece: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/aug/24/teaching-web-of-lies-secret-teacher

If it was up to me, I would make the teacher education courses I teach pass-fail in terms of assessment. To pass, all assessment activities would need to be completed at an adequate level, and there would be a minimum attendance requirement. But the endless grade-grubbing would be over… and there might finally be some attention to learning.

I think we a need for a revolution – because at the moment evolution is just making everything worse.


So… I guess I really *am* crazy ;-)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:20 pm

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked:

In the pursuit of individual pleasure, happiness and life satisfaction what are you willing to trade off or sacrifice?

I said I was willing to sacrifice some leisure time and work very hard. Someone else then asked:

David – would you be prepared to work LESS, have more leisure time and not work your butt off? That’d probably be better!

My response – and I have to admit it surprised me a little too – was:

Not really. I have a very enjoyable job (as a university lecturer in teacher education) that I am very good at, and gives me a lot of pleasure. It involves teaching and research, and is busier some times than others, but to do it well involves working hard. I have colleagues who do it less well, and have more leisure time… but given that I’m teaching the teachers of the citizens of the future, I wouldn’t feel able to do that.

Oh, but I’m also doing a Masters degree in physics, as a hobby. If I didn’t do that, I’d have more leisure time… but I enjoy doing that.

And in the end, time spent doing what we enjoy is not sacrificed, is it? So while I might sometimes complain about the work (it’s getting on for 10 pm on Saturday night here and I’m in the office), I wouldn’t swap my life for a less busy but less fulfilling one.

Like It Or Not, Teaching Is *All About* Judgement

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:21 am

Interesting discussion (10 posts) in response to my post about cheating below. A range of views expressed.

Yes, teaching is about collaboration. The Discussion Board posting assessment is about that – and there has been some push back on that as well, with people talking about others ‘taking their knowledge and hard work’. But teaching is also about what the individual teacher knows, and the quizzes are intended to collect evidence about that. If people cheat on that assessment, that evidence is flawed.

A couple of people asked why the quizzes were done in a way that made it easy to cheat. The answer is that, even in the face of evidence, I tend to assume that people are honest in general. And they are! I think it’s important to do so: people in general tend to live up to, or down to, expectations. If we assume everyone is a cheater, more people are likely to cheat.

There’s a middle ground to be found, and the rebalanced quizzes as revised probably work better, I think. If someone really wants to cheat they still could, but it’s made a little less easy and tempting. In the end, though, only a person’s own integrity will stop him or her cheating.

One of the responses (the most recent) bemused me a bit. It said, in part:

So when you state that these ‘cheaters’ have no place in education you are being judgmental and rude, and that in itsself is not something well thought of in this industry.

I didn’t say that cheaters have no place in education, by the way – that was one of the commentators. I did suggest that they needed to take a good hard look at themselves because integrity is… integral to teaching.

Not sure about ‘rude’1, but the notion that being judgmental is a problem in education… Well, I guess there might be a distinction between ‘showing judgement’ and ‘being judgmental’. The latter is more often associated with stereotyping and prejudice – making judgements without evidence. But does that apply in this case? These people did something, and it was that action that was being judged… and, I guess, questions being raised about what those actions said about their characters.

As the title of this piece says, education is all about making (professional) judgements.

I love what Aristotle said in Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics:

What is called judgement, in virtue of which men are said to ‘be sympathetic judges’ and to ‘have judgement’, is the right discrimination of the equitable.

This obviously also reflects back onto Thursday’s ‘Procrustean‘ post – are our assessments in schools (and at university) equitable? How can they be more so? But more than just assessments, how can all the judgement calls we make – about what learning activities to offer our students, what to include in the syllabus, how to fund education, all of it – be more equitable? Australia’s education system, as I have mentioned before, is ‘high quality, low equity’. How do we fix that?

But if I’m teaching teachers anything, I hope it’s to understand that making informed, professional judgement calls is the very beating heart of education. A teacher who avoids making judgements avoids teaching. The judgements must be based on evidence, not prejudice… but they must be made.

  1. the comment could maybe have been phrased more diplomatically, but a certain amount of anger on the part of those who have done the right thing and had their grades devalued might be understandable…



Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:34 pm

Thanks to Rosie Scholl, who mentioned Procrustes on Facebook a couple of days ago. If you don’t know the story, he was a character in Greek legends who would let you stay at his house… but if any bits of you hung over the edge of the bed he’d whip out his trusty sword and relieve you of those bits!

I feel that, in the desire to standardise assessment and make it ‘fair’ by making it the same for everyone, we end up making it procrustean: we lop off the bits of human individuality that make each person exceptional. In standardising assessment – and making its stakes so high – we actually end up standardising people… or at least attempting to.

It doesn’t work, but what it does do, quite effectively, is further advantage those already advantaged – because they already fit the bed pretty well – and further disadvantage those already disadvantaged.

Finding assessments that fit the students, rather than trying to carve up the students to fit allegedly ‘one size fits all’ assessments is tougher, but it’s actually fairer… and more likely to lead to a diverse, creative, successful society.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:02 pm

If so, good – it’s making you think! It did both to me – made me uncomfortable and made me think.



What Should A 21st Century Science Classroom Look Like?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:49 pm

Tim Magner has one view:


I’m not so sure. I like the fact that he notes that the new Standards (in the US) need more focus on creativity and innovation, but am uncomfortable with his excitement about Standards in themselves. These externally mandated frameworks tend to accord poorly with local needs and interests and the needs of students. They take up a lot of teacher time and tend to come with a lot of paperwork, but often don’t dramatically change or improve teaching and learning.

Similarly, I remain extremely skeptical of the ‘flipped classroom’ concept. Content delivered at home by video lecture is, IMO, content delivered only to the most diligent as well as the most advantaged (in terms of the physical resources of computer and internet connection, space to study and so on and the social resources of a family that supports study and allows time… and doesn’t require long work hours on the part of students). In short, it seems like a recipe for increasing rather than decreasing inequities in education.

In Australia, in particular, where our system is, according to the PISA testing program run by the OECD ‘high quality and low equity’, the things that are dragging down our success are the things that hamper the less advantaged students. The approaches advocated in Tim Magner’s article seem to me to be more likely to further increase the gaps… and in the process, to pull down the average, as well as to nobble the life prospects of many of our students.

Whatever is done with educational ‘reform’ for the 21st century, finding ways to teach and serve all students needs to be at the heart of it.


Respect The Skills

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:24 pm

A student (whom I like and have enjoyed teaching) opined that s/he didn’t see how one of the required activities – presenting a lesson to peers – helped to prepare them as beginning teachers. I said a number of other things, but also said this:

Last thing for now: to some extent, it’s necessary for you to trust that we know what we’re doing. You’re smart, thoughtful and well read, but this is your first year in teacher education. It’s my 20th, and I’ve taught hundreds of students in four universities in three countries. If I judge that something will help to develop a beginning teacher, that judgement is informed by extensive reading, study and knowledge in the field and extensive experience… sometimes you have to just recognise the knowledge and skills. This is by no means an ‘STFU n00b’ message. 😉 Just something to think about. And you do have the right to ask me to explain the reasons for my judgement – and I will.


This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:03 pm

In one of my courses there are 5 weekly quizzes in Weeks 2-6 of the semester. Together these quizzes account for 50% of the assessment in the course, so we need to take them seriously if a grade in this course is to mean anything.

At the beginning of the course I appealed to the integrity of the students to do the quizzes alone, based on their own knowledge. I hoped that would be enough.

It clearly hasn’t been – the grapevine says some are doing the quizzes in groups, getting the first person to do the quiz, then getting and sharing the correct answers.

It worries me deeply that people in teacher education programs would cheat. One of my ‘three themes’ around education is that ‘we teach out of who we are’. What matters in teaching, more than knowledge, more than technique, is character. How are teachers going to help students develop into moral citizens and fully-rounded human beings if they think nothing of cheating?

I’ll be sharing this post with the class: and the cheats need to take a good hard look at themselves.

(A side thought is that it’s one more manifestation of ‘assessment ruins everything’ – I’d prefer it if we could just mark everything pass/fail and be done with it. But in the world in which we find ourselves, character counts.)

I had set up the quizzes so that students received their scores and the correct answer immediately on completion, because that’s the best and most educational way to do it. If someone gets a question wrong, being corrected immediately is the way that is most likely to make the correct answer stick.

I’ve made a technological fix for the moment: no information on answers and scores until after a quiz closes, a week later. It won’t stop people doing the quizzes in groups, either: but I hope there will come to be a culture of challenging people who are seen to be cheating in the computer rooms at uni. They’re making your grade less valuable.

It’s a worse educational outcome to not present the answers immediately… but see the title of this post. A few cheats have damaged it for the large majority of honest, hardworking students.


Sacrifices to the Bloodgod

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:26 pm

I seem to be seeing it more and more around the web – a certain hunger on the part of Americans, both left and right, for a revolution/civil war. It’s horrifying.

As though the wars in which America has been pretty much continually involved since WW 2 – and the fact that more Americans have died domestically due to gun violence and gun accidents than in all those wars – have not provided enough sacrifices to please the dark god who seems to be the nation’s true deity.

Some now seem terribly eager to start offering up their fellow Americans’ blood in earnest.

This kind of god is never sated… only repudiated.

High Anxiety

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:21 pm

Suzie is studying a paper on anxiety for a research methods course, and it’s (to steal Cassie’s fave word) fascinating!

It’s partly about the difference between trait and state anxiety. A trait is long term, so people with trait anxiety tend to be more anxious than others all the time. A state is brief, and usually associated with some external stress. The interaction of these two kinds of anxiety is not simple. The study, naturally, builds on a range of prior work, and the findings of those earlier studies have been hard to interpret and even seemingly contradictory.

The authors believe that this may be in part be because the earlier studies were usually conducted with people who were undergoing clinical treatment for anxiety – so not a random sample from the general population… and as it turns out, people with different responses to stress than ‘normals’.

So the study took place with about 50 university students1. The group completed a test of anxiety and was divided into ‘low’ and ‘high’ anxiety halves. These groups were significantly different (in the statistical sense) in their trait anxiety scores.

The researchers wanted to find out how state anxiety – immediate stress caused by contextual factors – influenced mental activity. So they chose to manipulate a variable that works to stress students – exam time! So the two groups, low and high trait anxiety, were tested early in the semester (low state anxiety) and just before exams (high state anxiety).

The test was a variant of the ‘Stroop colour naming’ test: a word is flashed up on the screen, printed in a particular colour. The word can be anything at all, but the participant is asked to name the colour in which it is written. Both neutral and ‘threat’ words are used, and the time (in milliseconds) taken for the participant to name the colour is recorded. The longer the time taken, the more distracted the participant is by the meaning of the word from being able to recognise the colour. Typically, threat words take longer.

There are two more pieces of the puzzle:

  1. The researchers wanted to know whether conscious or unconscious factors are more relevant – is this something we think through strategically, or something that happens unconsciously? To determine this, they used ‘backward masking’2: the target word was flashed up for only 0.02 s, then replaced with a nonsense ‘mask’ of jumbled and reversed letter fragments the same length in the same colour. Half the trials were masked and half unmasked. The researchers checked and the students didn’t consciously know what the words were, but the scores differed significantly, suggesting that they went straight into the un/subconscious and influenced attention3.
  2. It was also interesting to think about whether threat words that were specific to the cause of state anxiety – exams – might be ‘more of a threat’ – lead to longer response times.

The study is reported in two halves, the unconscious (masked) and conscious (unmasked) sections.

For the masked trials, the result was that, compared with the low state anxiety (non-exam) period, in the high state anxiety exam period:

  • Participants with low trait anxiety – the mellow folk 😉 – became even more mellow. That is, the time they took to identify the colours of ‘threat’ words dropped by quite a bit. They seemed to response to high anxiety by selectively filtering out and ignoring threats. This meant that these people have a kind of ‘feedback’ scheme – as stress ramps up, they respond by simply not recognising and processing the threat. They end up perceiving the world as less threatening, the more stressed they are.
  • High trait anxiety participants, on the other hand, slowed down considerably more in the high stress situation. This seems to suggest that, as the level of stress rises, they selectively attend more strongly to threat words, compared to non-threat words. They become hyperalert to threat, and perceive it to a greater degree.

Both of those outcomes are for the unconscious (masked) trials – these are not conscious thinking processes but unconscious reactions to stress. It makes sense that, over time, low anxiety individuals, perceiving fewer threats, would be likely to become even less anxious, and high anxiety individuals to become more so…

For the masked situation, specificity – whether or not the threat words pertained to exams – turned out to be non-significant. For unconscious processing, this salience to the source of stress seems not to matter (or perhaps not even to be processed).

For the conscious (unmasked) situation, trait anxiety – long term pattern – ended up not being significant. Both the low and high trait anxiety groups responded in the same way. For this trial, specificity was important.

Both groups, in moving from the low stress (non-exam) to high stress (exam) periods showed an increase in time-to-naming for non-exam-related threat words. This seems to make sense: in a higher stress environment, threatening words are more distracting from the task of naming the colour in which the word is printed.

The finding for exam-related stress words, though, seems counter-intuitive – times dropped significantly (on average) for participants. This seems odd: short times mean little distraction, where, in people stressed about exams, we might expect lots of distraction in relation to exam-related words.

This is the conscious (unmasked) trial, however, when participants are consciously reading and understanding the words. It seems plausible that participants have developed conscious strategies for ignoring words like ‘failure’ and ‘disgraced’ in relation to exams, as a coping strategy, and that in a time of high exam stress, this coping mechanism explains why participants in general were able to selectively ignore these threats and perform better.

Pretty intriguing stuff – as much for the methods used to explore it as for the findings. But the findings are also likely to be helpful in understanding differences in the ways in which individuals respond to stress.

  1. Psych students are perpetual guinea pigs, and so much of the world’s psych research is based on them that it’s a systematic bias in our understanding of human psychology, but that’s another rant for another day
  2. Made me chuckle every time the term came up in the paper, but no, this is nothing to do with spinning the vinyl of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backward and hearing satanic messages. I assume the term was appropriated from this kind of procedure in psych, though.
  3. Which also suggests that ‘subliminal advertising’ just might work…


Smash Those Boxes (And Maybe Pee On Them A Little)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:52 pm

Reading, and absolutely loving, Harlan Coben’s novel ‘Six Years’. It’s a mystery story that feels genuinely new. But there was one passage, on page 44, that made me feel like shouting ‘hallelujah!’. See, the protagonist is a uni lecturer… and this is what he says:

I focused on the student essays. Most were numbingly tedious and expected, written as though to fit a high school teacher’s rote expectations. These were top-level students who knew how to write ‘A+’ high school papers, what with their opening paragraph, introductory sentences, supportive body, all that stuff that makes an essay solid and ridiculously boring. As I mentioned earlier, my job is to get them to think critically. That was always more important to me than having them remember the specific philosophies of, say, Hobbes or Locke. You could always look those up and be reminded of what they were. Rather, what I really hoped was my students would learn to both respect and piss all over Hobbes and Locke. I wanted them to not only think outside the box, but to get to that outside by smashing the box into little pieces.

How I feel and what I think, captured perfectly! University should be beyond ticking boxes. Maybe those things are necessary in high school: gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em. But once you know them, you ought to be able to break them good and hard. To be creative and critical and thoughtful, and to let yourself and the way you feel and think come through… rather than making the essay fit the same cookie cutter as the other couple of dozen on my desk.

When I’m marking, I’ll do all I can to recognise that. I can tell the difference between breaking the rules because you’re utterly familiar with them, and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them. I try really, really hard to make sure that when tutors mark work in courses I teach, they have the same view, and make the same judgements. Very occasionally, that doesn’t quite work – a tutor ends up wanting to mark which boxes have been ticked off. As I said, I try really hard to train and support and moderate and help them to think outside that frame…

But you know what? Not getting an A+ is not a tragedy either. The work has value in itself. If you wrote something that was amazing, and felt good while you were writing it, and stretched you to the edge of your powers and beyond, and that you know is good… then you’re confident enough to (a) query the mark it gets if you feel it doesn’t reflect the work done and (b) even if that doesn’t work, know in your heart that you did great work, and are capable of great work.

I’ve been on selection panels. And, believe it or not, that confidence that you are capable of great, creative, box-smashing work shines through in an interview, and is more likely to get you a job – at least, in a place discerning enough that you’d want to work there – than a pristine GPA.


An (Un)Intentional Rat

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:46 pm

A ‘rat bike’ is a motorbike that has been intentionally rendered scuzzy-looking. Google image search ‘rat bike’ to get an idea of the concept.

Mine is not that kind of project, but it’s kind of turning into one all by itself. Here’s a Photo Stream of photos that explain this post: https://www.icloud.com/photostream/#AFJtdOXmk8XR

The tank is rusting on the surface a bit, under the tank guard that was meant to protect it. I also think birds have been landing on it – only way I can explain some of the scratches on top of the tank.

Now, I love my bike, but it’s probably only worth a couple of grand, max. I’m not going to spend several hundred getting the tank re-sprayed.

The pipes also look a bit rat bike-like, just due to lots of road and heat and infrequent washing.

So what the heck… let’s embrace the rattiness.

In that spirit, a couple of vents fell off my helmet. Should have gone for the more expensive one I looked at at the same time. I’ll definitely need a new one at some point, but with the missing vents it’s way too noisy on the freeway.

So, in best rat bike spirit, I just gaffer taped them…

Transforming The Meaning

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:37 pm

I’ve said it about two things: motorcycles and hot tubs.

A motorcycle transforms the meaning of a commute, from drudgery in the service of something else to a recreational activity in its own right.

And a hot tub transforms the meaning of a cold, grey, miserable day from a cause for depression to a prelude and expander of later bliss.

Made me realise (for far from the first time) just how malleable meaning is, and how it doesn’t inhere in the material details of our lives so much as in the meaning we make of them.

OK, for my examples you need the material details of a motorcycle and a hot tub. But those are far more choices than anything else… one *decides* what to do with money…