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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

Marks, Please

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In teaching students in a subject like English Literature at university level, one of the hardest challenges is to encourage them not to fixate on marks. At A-Level, students get given a fairly tick-the-boxes marks schema; if they do certain things right, they will get awarded a certain number of marks. This is why marks of 90% at A-Level English are not uncommon, whereas they would be once-in-a-lifetime beasts at university.
Understandably, such students arrive at university with uncertain expectations, and often struggle to know what is required of them to produce a good university-standard essay. They will almost certainly be aware of our marks schemes, but as I commented before on this blog, it is sometimes inevitable that the marker resorts to intuition rather than exact standards:
Marking criteria in a subject such as English are notoriously problematic. Whilst the rubric has obviously to be 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%.
Especially at the high Two-One end, students new to university think that there must be a certain additional number of boxes they can tick to get those extra percentage points to tip them over the 70%. And even beyond this level, I have heard students want to know the qualitative difference between a 72% and a 74% on two consecutive essays.

In this environment, giving effective and workable feedback to students is sometimes difficult. Students are used to thinking about marks in a rationalistic, even computational, way: input x and get a grade of y. At university, we want them to work on the principle of the writer, to be able independently to reflect on the quality of their own work and thought, and to be able to work according to an academic standard whilst retaining a sense of individuality in their responses to literary texts. Thus I can never say to students that if they do a particular something next time, this will guarantee a specific grade of improvement, though it may help towards it. Nor can I say that the difference between a 72% and a 74% is definable according to certain criteria; different essays may vary by two percentage points for a host of unspecifiable reasons.

To my mind, what should matter most to a university student is not their quantitative mark, but my qualitative assessment of how they could improve. One of the benefits of the traditional university at which I do some of my teaching is that we still also have one-on-one consultations with our students, to explain the finer points of their essays (though I have little doubt that in the brave new Higher Education world of market efficiency, these will soon be scrapped).

In these sessions, my marking strategy is always to conceal the actual mark from the student until towards the end, after I’ve had a chance to discuss their work in a general sense. Some get agitated, and if they start to tip over into anxious (or even floods of tears: not unknown) I do end up telling them their mark to settle them down. I’ve generally found this approach works well, allowing me to focus on areas that could be developed, without inviting the potential apathy that the essay was still a decent grade. Some students are perfectly satisfied with a 2:1, and I fear that the moment they are told they can get this, they would be less interested in the things I can tell them to do to aspire - with a bit more effort and directedness - to a First.

However, in my latest round of essay returns one student confronted me outright on this policy, having seen right through it. "What I really hate about your marking sessions," he said (tongue slightly in cheek) "is that you always tell me lots of things I could have done differently, but then end up saying it was actually all right." This is, in essence, absolutely true. But the comment has caused me to reflect on my own practice. My principle has been to avoid marks fixation by stating the grade only at the end. But maybe, once my strategy becomes transparent to students, this has the opposite effect: they know that I will get to their mark eventually, so they simply wait patiently but disconnectedly until I finally get around to what they have come along to hear.

I would be interested to hear what other teachers do, if they have similar one-to-one feedback sessions. Do you announce the mark at the beginning? Or do you wait until the end of a session to get most out of it? Which elicits the best response from students in the immediate setting of the teaching session, and which do you think will elicit the best response over the longer-term in encouraging development?

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Posted by Alistair at 6:27 pm


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