When I was in high school, my United States history teacher started the year by playing a short clip from A River Runs Through It, in an attempt, I assume, to inspire us to greatness. Needless to say, a large number of my fellow classmates were greatly disappointed when, after a mere 1:30, he halted the movie and began, believe it or not, to lecture. Yet, some fifteen years later, watching this clip is one of the handful of very distinct and detailed memories I have of that year. He did not, if I remember correctly, elaborate on the point of this cinematic preamble, but its purpose became abundantly clear when he marked our first piece of coursework.
The scene, for those unable or unwilling to follow the link above, is as follows:
Voice Over: I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.
Reverend: [After marking the boy’s essay] Half as long.
[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]
Voice Over: So while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.
Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay] Again, halt as long.
[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]
Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay]: Good. Now throw it away.
Although I attempted to follow his advice, it was not until two years later, in my second year of university, that I understood the cause of my rambling prose. Somehow, the details having now somewhat faded from my recollection, I ended up taking two graduate seminars in my third semester of my undergraduate course. Both, as you would expect, required me to read roughly 200 pages of text a week, primary and secondary, and come prepared to discuss the nuance of the language and argument with the other students. The first day of the seminar, my professor turned to me and asked, quite directly, what I felt was the core message behind Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which we had been asked to read, in its entirety, the previous week. I believe I gave a rather uninspired summary of utilitarianism, which I have now seemingly repressed, and, after several rather embarrassing hmmms and ummms, concluded with ‘I know it, but I can’t explain it.’
After a moment he responded ‘If you can’t explain it, you do not understand it.’ I probably turned scarlet as he, rather compassionately, moved onto one of the graduate students and gave me, I believe, a full five minutes to recover my composure before again enquiring my opinion about the finer points of Bentham’s writing.
I was a keen student and had actually read the text cover to cover, taking what I thought were very appropriate notes, but he had been absolutely right. I didn’t really understand utilitarianism and certainly could not appreciate the nuance of the philosophy evident in Bentham’s writing. It was not that I could not write well (we had also been required to compose a one-page seminar paper); the problem was that I could not read well. Like almost every student I have taught, I was reading for content, not for argument, and had not yet developed an eye for critical analysis.
The Student Becomes the Teacher
Some twelve years on, my eye for argument and my attempts at brevity have certainly improved, but these skills have become largely implicit and therefore not directly relatable to my students. My first instinct, therefore, was to teach them the way I had been taught, unrelenting practice. As an undergraduate, I had taken four modules per semester, two semesters per year, for four years. Each of these required roughly thirty pages (10000 words of writing) in short and long essays, a mid-term and a final examination.
When I began to teach in the UK, I realized that repeating my own experience was simply not an option. My current second-year, semester-long module requires only a single 2000-word essay and a single 2-hour exam, and this level of assessment is roughly similar to what I have set elsewhere in the UK. Why the sharp dichotomy? As you are likely aware, there is an ever-growing pedagogic belief (evidently foreign to my old-school undergraduate instructors) that students are terribly over-assessed.
The difficulty in saying students are over-assessed is not that it is untrue, but that students and pedagogic researchers interpret the statement very differently. The latter are concerned that students are becoming overly strategic in their learning, attempting to beat into submission an ever-increasing number of formulaic if not wholly quantitative assessments of their recall knowledge. The former, who clearly pay attention to education reporting, but seemingly miss the nuance of the complaint, respond to demands that they read two journal articles per week with an indignant clearing of their throat and a forceful reminder that they ‘have other classes, too’.
Pedagogically, the answer is simple: keep summative assessment to a minimum and instead rely on a wide variety of formative exercises to develop analytical skills, encourage deep learning, and prepare them to demonstrate their mastery of key learning outcomes. The difficulty with formative work, so abstractly approved of, is that neither student nor lecturer feels they have the time to undertake work that ‘doesn’t count.’ In order to re-integrate formative assessment into the undergraduate curriculum, it has to be meaningful, not merely on an abstract, humanistic level, but on a practical one as well; it must, in short, save rather than expend time. A student must feel that formative work will make reading faster (by which I mean more efficient), essay writing faster and exam revision faster, all while improving or at least maintaining an expected mark. A lecturer must feel that marking additional writing will reduce rather than increase the amount of time they spend marking summative work.
Learning From Failure
In every university in which I have taught, I have found the same three areas particular difficult for my students: critical reading, thoughtful analysis and basic presentation skills.
- Failure to Read Critically — Wherein the student fails to realise that although an author may be correct, restating their conclusions does not demonstrate critical thinking
- Lack of Thoughtful Analysis — Wherein the student undermines their own argument by couching it in indefinite language or contradictory assertions
- Muddled Presentation Style — Wherein, despite using a powerful word processor, the colour, font and spacing of the essay are all amiss
These three errors are the most troubling because they are the most time consuming. By reading uncritically, or without purpose, students spend far more time reading an article or a chapter than they need to because, rather than understand how argument and evidence support each other, they are, erroneously, attempting to memorise or copy down every detail of content. The problem is compounded when they write, as they have stacks of notes to transform into prose and must spend a significant amount of time removing articles and prepositions in an attempt to stay within the word-count. The result, from our perspective, is an uncritical soup of evidence without analysis, opinion without evidence, and sentences that have become so mangled that they retain no meaning whatsoever. Correcting grammar, syntax and spelling is both tedious and time consuming, as is trying to think of something constructive to feed-forward when the student clearly has no idea that New England is a region rather than a state, or, indeed, a city.
So, over the past seven years, I have developed a series of formative exercises to teach my students how to read and write efficiently, and, in the process, save myself from crying over a stack of unintelligible accounts of the First World War.
My first effort was pretty basic. Following the example of my predecessors, I assigned my students a series of pre-seminar questions, asking them to write short responses and email them to me prior to the seminar; I could give these brief notes and return them during the seminar. Although many of my students dutifully completed these, I saw no improvement in either their week-to-week submissions or their final essays. Hypothesizing that peer-to-peer collaboration might encourage deeper analysis, and a permanent online record might result in long-term progress, I activated my VLE’s discussion board functionality, with lackluster results. In the end, I decided that my students needed a more structured approach — a greater indication of which parts of the reading were the ‘important bits’ and what types of writing I expected within their essays.
Over the past four years, I have put forth several variants of what eventually became the Historiography Blog. The first was a hard-copy worksheet, requiring students to detail an article’s evidence and argument. Students had to complete one each week and hand it to me as they entered the seminar room. No worksheet, no entry (except on compassionate grounds). Encouraged by the relative success of the historiographical worksheet, in student feedback if not in improved marks, and the relative success of my own online endeavours, I decided to digitize the worksheet by transforming it into a blog. This would allow me to read my students’ entries in advance of the seminar, without overwhelming my inbox, and post immediate, permanent feedback that students could review whenever they wished.
How to Create a Historiography Blog
My current university uses Blackboard as its Virtual Learning Environment, which contains an integrated, if somewhat fiddly, blogging interface. If you do not use Blackboard, or your VLE does not containing blogging functionality, there are an ever-growing number of free, third-party blogging platforms out there. Despite some rather atrocious cut-and-paste errors, which sometimes demolish a student’s careful formatting, I chose to use the Blackboard system because it was private and because it did not require students to have or obtain a third-party account; the ‘I couldn’t figure out how to log in’ excuse was one that I did not want to face.
During the first seminar, I explained, in detail, the requirements of the blog:
- They must write an entry on one piece of reading, each week, for all twelve weeks
- Entries would be private during the first six weeks, and shared anonymously with the class during the final six weeks
- Entries must include all three citations formats (bibliography, long-form footnote and short footnote) for the work
- Entries must list a selection of key details (evidence) used by the author
- Entries must provide a summary of the author’s argument
- Entries must provide a short critical analysis of one aspect of the author’s argument (a sample essay paragraph)
- Finally, entries must be submitted 48 hours before the start of the seminar to allow me sufficient time to read them and provide feedback
I then showed them a sample blog entry, which they could use as a model.
The results were, of course, mixed, but overall I was very pleased with the diligence of my students.
- How Well?Most submissions contained all four sections, to varying degrees of accuracy and depth, and most students learned from their initial mistakes, improving as the weeks went on. Referencing, in particular, became far more consistent in both formative and summative work. There was a similar improvement in their ability to concisely summarise the main argument of an article or chapter. Their critical analyses were far more variable, but, if nothing else, a differentiation between “summary” and “analysis” became increasingly clear for some students.
- How Long?Some entries were a mere 200-300 words, including their notes under ‘key details’. Others were 2000-word discursive nightmares. The majority were in between. As the weeks went on, most settled into the 500-750 word range. To mark the 50-odd entries took approximately 3 hours a week, though this decreased as the year progressed.
- How Often?The first year I assigned the blogs, I spent very little time explaining how completing these (voluntary) assignments would impact their final mark, though I gave some indication that it would help them understand what I was looking for in their writing. I also kept them private throughout the duration of the module. I had a completion rate of approximately 75% for the first six weeks, but after the submission of their essays, the completion rate dropped off to a mere 5% or 10%. In the second year, I made the possible impact of the blogs far more explicit and the completion rate jumped to 85%-90% for the first six weeks. During the second half of the semester, I printed the (anonymised) blogs, and provided packets to all students who had completed their entry on time. By highlighting the usefulness of peer collaboration to exam revision, and with a surprising amount of peer pressure from their fellow students, the completion rate remained about 60% for the remainder of the year.
- How Useful?Despite vocal complaints from students during and at the conclusion of the semester about being overworked, feedback forms overwhelmingly suggested that the historiography blogs be continued in future years. Essay marks did not universally improve but, interestingly, the division between mediocre and excellent papers became noticeably sharper. There were far fewer mid-2:2, most students separating easily into 2:1s and 3:1s. This suggests that it significantly helped some students but did little for others. Understanding why will require further study. Exam marks, conversely, did improve universally, with a far greater number of students including accurate historiographical information in their answers.
Onwards and Upwards
In the end, I must deem the historiography blogs a qualified success. For all the complaints and extra marking they engendered, they did seem to help a significant number of students develop their critical reading skills. I will, no doubt, continue to tinker with the formula in future years, but I cannot help but be proud of my students. They undertook a significant amount of ‘extra’ formative work during the semester; even if there were complaints, the overwhelming majority completed the voluntary blog and attended non-compulsory seminars week after week — indeed, my overall attendance rate almost doubled from previous years!
If any of you are reading this: well done.
**Image courtesy of atphoto.bg