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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

Exam Feedback

Saturday, August 04, 2012

My students on my literature course at the Open University have just received their exam results. As usual, most have done as expected based on their work throughout the year, some have overperformed slightly, and a significant minority have done worse than they would have liked and worse than they perhaps deserved.

I am generally an advocate for exams as a fair assessment of a student's ability - even if they may not seem fair from the point of view of the student, whose year of hard work boils down to their performance in three hours. Although it is always sad to see a good student pulled down by an exam result, exams effectively discriminate between those who genuinely know their subject and who can think and write on the fly, and those who have succeeded through the year by marshalling their research (including from the web) for a prepared essay.

However, there is one key unfairness built into the system, particularly for those students who do not do so well. At present, it is very difficult for students to get feedback on an exam, and to use it as a learning experience. The Open University is better than most, as at least students get a question and marks breakdown which indicates whether aspects such as their "focus on the question" or "use of evidence" was poor, adequate, good etc. Nevertheless, even this is only of limited use. It frustrates me as a teacher that when a student contacts me and pleads to know why they have underperformed and even failed their exam, I can do little but apologise for being as in the dark as they are. Just as the exam is distinct from essay work throughout the year, so it is opposed to my desires as a teacher.

To my mind, students ought to be allowed to request to see a copy of their exam. Of course, this will add a significant administrative burden on universities. It will also risk students appealing their results. This is why markers are discourage from putting notes on scripts, as it would be wrong for students to count up the number of ticks or crosses or comments, and assume that this should correlate with their overall mark. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that most students are mature and clear-headed enough to reflect objectively on their own work. Caught up in the moment of an exam, students can feel like they are writing the most brilliant essay. But with greater critical distance, most students would be able to recognise for themselves that their work under these conditions was not as good as it could or should have been. 

Especially as students are paying up to £9000 a year to study, they will increasingly expect the exam to become an intrinsic part of their learning process, rather than a rite of passage at the end of the year that seems to bear little resemblance to their work throughout it. From the point of view of a teacher, the integration of exams into the cycle of assessment and feedback is something I would certainly welcome.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:57 am


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