Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day 15 - Sometimes you just have to let them fall

I have always found it hard to fail students on their work. Sometimes, when it's late and I'm tired and I've been marking the same harmony exercise for hours and they are still unnecessarily doubling the third, I can get a little gleeful in my approach to criteria, but mostly it is horrible when they don't come up to scratch.
And I really do mean horrible. It fills me with horror. Not ineffable horror or anything, but I don't like it.

I was speaking to some of my colleagues about this today, and it seemed very much like largely we were expressing variations on a theme. There were students on whose work we needed a second opinion, in case we were too generous (because we knew how hard they had worked) or in case we were being too harsh (because we knew that they hadn't worked). But mostly, we hated to fail a student. We knew how much it upset them, but also, it's difficult not to see that as a reflection on oneself as the teacher. If the student does not pass, we have failed to transfer our knowledge.

I have heard colleagues new and old bemoaning the way that students expect to be 'spoon fed', and given everything that they need to pass the assessment in the lecture, despite the fact that most institutions make it very clear that a full-time degree programme should include 40 hours of work per week, and when you aren't in lectures, you should be in the library/practice room/writing. I'm not saying that's untrue, and it takes a great deal of effort to disabuse students of this idea, but the problem runs deeper than that. We have become so haunted by our management's interpretation of student satisfaction scores that we have allowed ourselves to become infected, and to be part of the problem.

If we agree to see seven drafts of a single essay before it is submitted, how much of your time as a lecturer is that going to take up? Now multiply that by every student in your class. I've spoken with colleagues who don't believe in looking at any drafts, arguing that they should be using their peers to review their essays, and I think that there's a certain amount of truth to that, but there are sometimes where a lecturer's intervention can improve a student's writing in ways that impact more than just that essay but continue to reverberate throughout their academic career. What I think is important though is to be clear on what you are prepared to do, and when. Say that you will look at drafts for one essay, as long as it is sent to you by a certain date. Only say this if you have time (and, seriously, make time in your working week for it - don't just spend your weekend doing it). If you don't have time, you might need to adopt alternative approaches:
  • like pairing them up to swap essays at a specific point
  • like giving them a checklist to tick off
  • like giving them a task (e.g. highlight in one colour point a, in another point b, etc.
Approaches that don't mean that you spend your weekend looking through endless versions of the same essay, but instead teach the student to become more of a self-reliant learner. Which is, after all, what we're looking for them to become.

Four 'golden rules':
  1. Only promise what you can achieve;
  2. Plan ahead what these reasonable expectations are as far in advance as possible. Don't improvise them. That will only lead you to making promises that you can't keep, or promises the keeping of which will rob you of time, health and happiness;
  3. The more resources you provide for students to help themselves, the less you should have to work on these issues during the term;
  4. Sometimes you just have to let them fall
If we have provided the support that it is reasonable to provide, and if we have provided them with the tools to help themselves, and they still insist on failing to take advantage of these tools or this support, there comes a point where you have to draw a line. You can't take the assessment for them. You have to let them fail. Otherwise, it's not fair on the other students, and it's not fair on this student in particular. If you let them pass, how is that going to help them in the long run? At best, it makes them someone else's problem next year, and, at worst, you're committing yourself to carrying them long-term.

We don't want to hurt their feelings, but we have to be fair.
Failing a student is not letting them down. It is not our fault.
Sometimes you just have to let them fall.

And why do we fall?

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