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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: Marks for Effort

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I have not posted anything here for a while. This is not due to my unwillingness to comment on Tony Blair's retirement, the climate change bill, the bad science of Panorama's Wi-Fi "investigation," or the hilarious science of the newly opened Creation Museum in Kentucky. Rather, it's got much to do with the large pile of exam papers that have been sitting on my desk for the past couple of weeks. This time last year, I commented on the postgraduate perspective on undergraduate exams, lamenting the communal hush brought by exams upon the lively university activity as well as remembering that they provide for one of the great British moments of the communal moan.

This year, that general moan has felt a little more prosaic, as I have heard it not amongst the students but amongst staff who have to mark the papers. Merrily responding to an email asking if I would like to mark some exams this year, my smile dropped as I was landed with 70 plus scripts. Marking these has been a frustrating experience, time consuming, often repetitive, but - conscious of the responsibility of marking summative as opposed to formative work - I have had to focus closely on the task.

Marking criteria in a subject such as English are notoriously problemmatic. Whilst the rubric has obviously been carefully considered, how is one to judge the difference between "well focused work" (65% to 69%) and "relevant work" (60% to 64%)? The mark schemes can only be taken up to a point, from where intuition takes over, the sense of a First as opposed to Two-One class work; this indefinable difference leaves high Two-One students seeing through a notorious glass barrier between a 69% and 70%. I have some sympathy with the government's plans to standardise degree classifications, which at the moment are not comparable across different universities or subjects, making it very difficult for employers (who may not be aware of the divide between a First and a Two-One, or of the difference between the University of Polytechnic and the University of Redbrick) to compare candidates.

And yet, having covered so many scripts, the glass barrier seems to me to be a valid one, and there is a qualitative difference between top and good work, one which cannot accurately be reflected in the quantitative difference of a single percentage point. Further, marking by a combination of rubric and experience does appear to work, at least according to the systems of double marking, moderation, external examining and the distribution curves against which we are judged. My grades passed their moderation, though with some slight modification in precise percentages in the first category, and the tally chart of grades I have been keeping has turned out to form the tell-tale bell of the normal distribution, centred around the high two-one.

More positively from a personal point of view has been the opportunity to get the sense of a year group, and a year's work (something I can't obtain by teaching a few tutorials a year to a few groups). As script after script pursues similar lines of argument, and presents comparable pieces of evidence, and similar historical, social and philosophical understanding, I realise that teaching does actually work: lectures have been attended, information has been absorbed, knowledge gained. Even when formal teaching comprises the minor part (about six hours) of the undergraduate week, it has a huge impact on a student's cumulative education.

However, the recognition of this leaves me frustrated that a further opportunity to educate students is not being pursued. The greatest frustration of marking has been my inability to follow up those marks with individual advice about how they might be improved. A student (not one of mine) last week remarked that she had never attended any of the one-to-one essay handback consultations with her tutors. I remarked that, regardless of whether they wanted to go or not, it is slightly unfair on the lecturer not to attend, since if they are anything like me, the greatest satisfaction is filling an essay with red pen, but then being able to tell the student precisely which aspects of their work were really positive, and how they can build on them. Seeing their subsequent essays, in which they have adopted this advice, gives a massive boost to the teacher. Teaching the really bright students, those who come with a unique and advanced writing style anyway, is rewarding, but I'm not sure how much "teaching" they actually benefit from; teaching those with potential not yet fulfilled, and bringing it out through contact with them, is by far the best aspect of the job.

Yet it is an aspect for which there is not as yet a replicable system in relation to the end of year exams. How frustrating it is to mark a paper in which one answer attains a good First, whilst the other two answers are solid Two-Ones! I am confident that, because the students don't see the breakdown of their marks, that Two-One candidate might go away from the board on which results are published believing themselves to be sitting comfortably in that latter category, whereas I know that, if they were told that they were capable of the very highest work, and shown the evidence of this on the papers, then the prophetic fallacy might kick in. At the bottom of our marking forms is a reminder that under new data protection laws, students can ask to see the forms, but since I doubt many are pro-active, we should make it available to them from the beginning. Our feedback may only take the form of a couple of sentences, and clearly there are not the resources to have face-to-face meetings with students, but to see that First on the page, nestling there amongst the expected results, would be, one hopes, a significant incentive for the second and third years, when marks count towards their final degree classification.

There is a great danger that the First word is something only whispered to a select few, adding to the mystique of the glass barrier. I know this was something I encountered, and even by the end of my degree I was still unsure precisely what constituted top work, and even whether I deserved it. This really is a culture of (a word often used wrongly) elitism, because every student coming to the top universities with good A-level grades should be capable of striving for the ultimate result, though for a number of reasons they may not reach it (the formal degree is only a part of a university education). So today, with almost every student, I bring the word into public discourse, saying openly which parts are First Class responses, demanding that if they get a Two-One on their early essays they should be aiming to achive the grade above by the end. Inexperienced (and possibly naive), I cannot know what impact this actually has. But it's a shame to put so much effort into marking, only to have students discouraged from making efforts for top marks.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:55 am


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