Monthly Archives: October 2013

Stop! Slow down and read this, marker

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Whilst thinking for a topic for my blog this week, I decided I’d like to talk about something I’m passionate about. In a recent course rep meeting with members of staff, we were discussing the impact and accuracy of grades. This discussion made me realise that grades are a key factor in determining your future life choices. Your grades at school determine if you can pursue your interest at degree level, and your grades at university can determine the likelihood of achieving your dream job. Therefore over the upcoming weeks I will talk about whether grading is the most effective method for assessing students, and how grades impact students in a multitude of ways. However, as suggested by Boud (1995, as cited in Yorke, Bridges & Woolf, 2000), “Students can, with difficulty, escape from the effects of poor teaching, they cannot (by definition, if they want to graduate) escape the effects of poor assessment”. Grading is often a complex process, and the marker will have an impact on the grade before the grade has an impact on the student. Students often assume their grade is solely reflective of their performance, when in reality a number of other factors can influence the grade they are given.  

Lecturers who mark your work can be subjected to influence, just like any other individual. Personality traits, energy, time available, interest and experience of marking and the subject area can all affect a marker’s accuracy (Suto & Nadas, 2008; Yorke, Bridges & Woolf, 2000). In addition to this, another students’ work can influence an individual’s mark. Markers often struggle to treat each piece of work separately, and comparisons are often made to the previous assignment (Crisp, 2010). For example, if the assignment read before yours was outstanding, by comparison your work may not be graded as highly. In this respect, it seems that marking is vulnerable to subjectivity.

Marking assignments at University isn’t the only thing lecturers do, as they are often involved in lecturing, research and pastoral care. As a result, a team of markers, including postgraduate students, are often used for a quicker marking turnover (Bird & Yucel, 2010). This may be time-effective, but the inter-rater reliability between markers is often subsequently questioned (Suto & Nadas, 2008; Bird & Yucel, 2010). It is important for markers to have a mutual understanding of what is expected from an assignment, however self-reports have suggested they often use different judgement processes when marking. Some markers have learnt their assessment techniques from colleagues, others from how they were graded at school, or through training within their educational institution (Yorke, Bridges & Woolf, 2000).

There are methods for tackling this lack of inter-rater reliability. Bird & Yucel (2010) suggested an “integrated model of assessment programme”, which uses marking schemes, moderation sessions and examples of graded work. This particular programme resulted in a decrease of marker variability, and time taken to mark work was reduced. It is often assumed that there is a speed-accuracy trade off with marking, however it has been found that practice effects allow markers to assess the work more automatically, and occasionally more accurately (Nadas & Suto, 2010). Thus practice makes perfect, and inexperienced postgraduates in particular should be provided ample opportunity to practice their assessing ability.

Clear marking schemes will increase reliability amongst markers. However it is important to ensure this focus on reliability isn’t at the expense of validity. A valid assessment tests if students have an in-depth knowledge of the area, and education minister Michael Gove has supported this by suggesting our focus should shift from reliability to validity to truly stretch students’ abilities (Ofqual, 2013). Also, if marking schemes are expected to be followed strictly, what happens when a student produces something novel? Will their creativity be inhibited by the need to follow guidelines? I will discuss the effect grading has on creativity in a later blog.

Research has also investigated the scope of marks given for subjective assignments. In a subject such as Maths, there is a definitive answer, thus the full range of marks are often given. However in a subject such as Psychology where there is often no wrong or right answer, grades are often restricted to the middle quartile. The top marks (e.g. A*) are expected to be used for a ‘perfect’ answer, however due to subjective marking, ‘perfect’ is almost impossible to achieve (Yorke, Bridges & Woolf, 2000).

Some educators believe inaccuracy between markers and subjectivity is such a problem, that alternative methods have been suggested. For example automated assessment programmes have been created, that can be used to assess essay answers (Valenti, Neri & Cucchiarelli, 2003). This method removes the subjective element to human marking, however would a student’s motivation be impacted if the essay they slaved over for days was never read? Inevitably, computers cannot be inspired and entertained by an essay like a marker can (Rosa, 2013). This is a fascinating, controversial method which has sparked some debate amongst educators, and I will explore this issue further in next week’s post.

From this research it is clear that markers play a vital role in students’ grades. Regardless of training and strict criteria for markers, some human error is inevitable. Thus it is important education aims to minimise this error, even when they cannot eliminate it. Inevitably, subjectivity is what makes us human, and allows students to take a novel approach on a question. Our markers aren’t machines; therefore it would be illogical and suppressing on both the student and marker to have an idealism of completely objective marking. So after you have read this blog, how are you going to assess it? Will you follow a strict criteria of how an assignment should be structured, or allow novel ideas and subjectivity to suppress the guidelines?

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Applying Nursery Philosophy to Higher Education: Principles in the Foundation Phase

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“I saw as a teacher how, if you take that spark of learning that those children have, and you ignite it, you can take a child from any background to a lifetime of creativity and accomplishment.” (Paul Wellstone)

Creativity allows novel ideas to flourish into achievement. The progression of research, technology, and society requires individuals to be flexible, open-minded and critical in their thinking. As suggested by the quote from Paul Wellstone, learning should promote this. So why are we often passive consumers? Particularly in higher education, is regurgitating facts for an exam really allowing us to explore and enhance our knowledge and creativity? 

In University we are often taught information via lectures. However the effectiveness of this teaching method is continuously criticised within research. As suggested by Bligh (1998), in comparison to other methods, lectures are ineffective at encouraging thought, flexibility, open-mindedness, inspiring interest, and for personal and social adjustment. Therefore through the use of lectures, education loses its ‘spark’. For me personally, my motivation to explore areas of interest is often forgotten under the pages of lecture notes I have to learn for an upcoming exam. When did I lose my motivation to engage in creativity? 

As a child, where everything is novel and exciting, this passive attitude to learning isn’t apparent. This active engagement is encouraged by the Foundation Phase, the education provided for children aged 3-7. This phase follows principles that encourage the child to experience things first-hand, through exploration and curiosity for the world around them. Children are taught to have positive attitudes towards new learning experiences, and write about what is interesting to them. They are expected to reflect on their answers and consider alternative solutions, and the aim is for the child to become an independent, creative learner (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008). These principles are in opposition to the higher education experience, where we are often a passive (rather than an active) learner, rarely given opportunities to explore areas we are interested in. Lectures teach us the ‘right answer’, yet as a child we’re encouraged to question everything.

Therefore I cannot help but question, why not apply these foundation principles to higher education? This could increase creative thinking amongst students, allowing them to discover novel ideas and have an enriched learning experience. An example of how this could be achieved is through blogging. In this module, we are expected to question, critically analyse and provide alternatives to educational practices. Studies have shown blogging is an effective method, increasing reflective analysis to ensure students are achieving deeper learning (Downes, 2004; Xie, Ke, & Sharma, 2008; Yang & Chang, 2012). Self-directed learning from blogs allows the student to become an independent researcher, and collaborative learning is encouraged through commenting on other’s blogs (Robertson 2012; Yang & Chang, 2012). Thus it appears this method of learning fits the foundation principles’ ideals.

It is important to remember that although students do not need too much knowledge so that thinking becomes inflexible, they need enough to have a basic understanding of what has already been achieved (Jusoff et al, 2008). Therefore if lectures are still used to provide this basic understanding, creativity and engagement can also be developed through additional strategies within the lecture. An example of this is the use of ‘interactive windows’ (Huxham, 2005). This is where problem-solving or discussion sessions are provided within the lecture, causing a small positive effect on learning and recall. Inevitably, there are a multitude of methods for enhancing creativity in students, including asking them to find solutions to a difficult question, or to creatively synthesise various information (Jusoff et al, 2008). One must question why these simplistic methods are often not used within university.

As said by the crayon company Crayola (2013), “The seeds of creativity live in everyone”. Regardless of whether an individual is in nursery or higher education, all they need is the provision of nourishing opportunities for creativity to flow. Thus if creative, active learning is considered important in the foundation phase, surely teaching methods should build on this initial principle, to ensure students reach their creative potential at later stages of education. 

Slow and study wins the race..

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“The original idea of blog publishing was that writer and reader would be on the same level. That it would be a conversation – not a lecture.” (Nick Denton)

This quote highlights the reciprocal and interactive nature of blogging, and how reading someone else’s work can inspire you to write your next blog. As a result, Zachery’s talk on ‘The effects of physical exercise on learning’ and James’ blog on ‘The power of college football’, have inspired my topic for my second post. Too often we like to focus on the positives of the current education system, however recognising its flaws can help progress pedagogy. Thus, my post this week will be on improvements to Physical Education in schools.

It would be naive to argue against the importance of physical education classes. There are numerous psychological and academic benefits to playing sport, including increased self-esteem and confidence (Ofsted, 2013; Bailey, 2006), and improved social skills such as teamwork (Bailey, 2006). If taught properly, engaging in physical education will encourage children to participate in an active lifestyle beyond their education (Ofsted, 2013).

However, the current system does not benefit all students. If an individual struggles at maths, they are often provided additional learning support so they can reach their potential within this area. However, if a student struggles at P.E., they are buried under the competitive nature of the subject, which will reinforce their dislike. The students’ lack of motivation towards P.E. may cause them to think their sporting ability is unchangeable (Wang et al., 2002). This could potentially alienate them from participating in sport from a young age (Kirk & Kinchin, 2003), which may contribute to the increasing number of overweight individuals in society. It is therefore important that the education system ensures that children can gain control of their ability and be motivated to do so, in order to increase activity levels.

It is clear that children with limited physical abilities are often left unconsidered in physical education while at school. Prior to GCSEs, there is more focus on a student’s physical performance and less on their academic ability in this subject. Therefore, how can a student who is not talented at playing sports, but could excel in sporting research or theory, be motivated to pursue this direction at GCSE level if schools have not previously allowed them to explore their academic ability?

Pupils should always be given a choice. Alternative, non-competitive exercise such as aerobics should be provided to increase participation (Ofsted, 2013), and theory lessons before Key Stage 4 for those interested in sports research. These theory lessons may also help tackle the obesity problem, teaching students about the risks associated with obesity. A review by Kahn et al (2002) found that classroom-based health education can increase students’ self-efficacy about sport, so long as the programme is effective. Ideally, this would help them recognise the importance of sport and exercise, and become more motivated to take part in both. 71% of boys and 84% of girls in the obese category wanted to do more physical exercise (NHS, 2013), and increasing their self-efficacy may help them reach their goals.

Physical education before Key Stage 4 often involves situated learning, with the majority of adults unlikely to still pursue the sports they played at school (Kirk & Kinchin, 2003). Siedentop’s Sport Education Model provides a more transferable system. Real sporting procedures are used, for example pupils sticking to one team for the duration of the ‘season’.  The teams will have practice sessions and take part in competition, with the teams’ points recorded. This increases the sense of teamwork for both high and low-ability players. Alternative opportunities such as scorekeeper, team manager and equipment officer are provided, allowing low ability pupils to feel more involved, and knowledgeable about the games (Kirk & Kinchin, 2003).

Conversely, following on from my blog last week about ensuring gifted and talented pupils are not held back in education, it is important to ensure that any changes increasing participation within the sport curriculum does not detriment the effort put into students excelling at sport. An alternative solution to this is to create ‘game afternoons’, where students are grouped by ability. This allows the pupils who excel to focus on performance, whilst those who struggle can focus on enjoyment and engagement, with tasks broken down into smaller, more achievable steps (Ofsted, 2013).  It is debatable as to whether the sports education model of entire class involvement, or grouped ability classes would benefit the entire student cohort best.

Education is about balance, and personalising physical education to individuals’ abilities is a successful method in ensuring all pupils are engaged with the subject. However, in my opinion this isn’t enough. Students who have limited talent in playing sport should be given opportunities to learn the theory of sport, research areas of interest and gain an enjoyment for the subject prior to GCSE, so that they are more likely to pursue it at higher education. The fact that a student, passionate about the benefits of physical activity on health cannot catch a ball or win a race, should not prevent them from reaching their potential.

Attention gifted and talented pupils! Did you reach your educational potential?

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Imagine asking Usain Bolt to slow down and wait for his competitors to catch him up in an Olympic race. This would be considered unfair, as it prevents Bolt from reaching his full potential. Yet I’m sure many of us could think of a child at school who knew all the answers, and were asked to slow down to ‘let others have a chance’. This may improve the learning environment for the less competent classmates; however it is often goes unquestioned what impact this has on the high-achiever. We wouldn’t expect Bolt to wait for others to catch up, so why should gifted students be asked to do the same?

According to the Department for Education and Skills (Mouchel, 2005), a gifted student is someone who has intellectual abilities significantly higher than peers of the same age. A student is ‘gifted’ if their abilities are in traditional academic subjects, and ‘talented’ if their abilities are within creative arts or sports.

These children, if given appropriate academic nourishment, will likely become an invaluable resource to the development of society. Therefore it seems logical that schools should focus on allowing these children to reach their potential. However, focus in schools is often on obtaining the highest percentage of A*-C grades, allowing schools to climb the league tables. The different grades within the A*-C range are usually of less concern. This potentially causes education systems to put less effort into students achieving the top grades where possible (i.e. A*). Furthermore, an article from The Guardian suggested our society is a victim of the ‘C-grade culture’. This is where the focus on boosting C/D grade students to increase the school’s overall percentage, may reduce the efforts towards gifted pupils’ success. An investigation by Ofsted (2013) highlights this, where 65% of children who were high achievers at primary school, did not achieve an A or A* in their English or Maths GCSE.

Gifted children are often not prioritised within education, leading to disengagement and underperformance if they are not challenged adequately.  An example of this is imposter syndrome, where the child perceives themselves as less able than others recognise them to be. Imposter syndrome is seen in high achieving students, when they are not intellectually challenged (Brems, 1994; Gross, 2006). Despite previous initiatives to improve provisions for gifted and talented students, Ofsted reports (2009) still found that many schools, despite their efforts, were not doing enough to benefit the high achieving pupils.

When there are several high achieving students at a school, a commonly used solution is the use of ability-based sets in core subjects. This homogenous grouping style is advantageous in preventing higher-achieving pupils being held back by peers, and allows student who are struggling to get the specific support they need. However, there are those against grouping pupils, believing it causes unfair elitism for those who are gifted (Gottfredson, 1998). One must also consider talented students in non-core subjects, which are often not grouped by ability.

A more controversial solution is acceleration. This is when a child is advanced throughout the curriculum at a faster pace than their peers, by skipping years of education. According to the support organisation PEGY (2013), this method is rarely used. This is despite evidence highlighting its success, because of concern for the psychological well-being of the child. In contrast, some research suggests acceleration is the most efficient way to satisfy and challenge gifted students (Gross, 2006; APA, 2003).

Acceleration can also occur without the child having to advance an academic year group.  This involves the school developing a school-specific gifted and talented programme. The students’ needs are identified and acted upon by teachers, in order to successfully challenge the group of gifted children (Ofsted, 2009). However for optimal results, perhaps these specialised programmes should be specific to the individual, not the school. Individualised education programmes are primarily used with children who have intellectual disabilities (Frontczak & Bricker, 2000), outlining their specific academic needs so they can reach their potential. Should this specialist programme not also be provided for gifted and talented children? A child with a gift for maths should be accelerated differently from a child with a talent for art, and this individualistic approach helps recognise and maximise the child’s particular strengths.

It is clear that finding an appropriate solution to suit gifted and talented pupils is a perplexing and challenging task, due to ethical issues of elitism, in addition to individual differences between students. However I personally believe these students deserve individualist support from relevant professionals in order to achieve their true potential.  Therefore trying to find an equilibrium, where high-achieving students benefit without any detriment to other pupils, is something that needs to be established within the education system. As psychologists we are aware of the impact individual differences can have on academic performance. Each student is their own person, and should be able to cross the finish line at their own pace.