It’s time to mark your UG student essays. You’ve cleared the decks, set aside some time, found a nice secluded place where you won’t be interrupted and made yourself a nice cup of tea. You open up your computer, navigate your way to the online marking tool, click on the student paper at the top of the list and sit down to read. What happens next?
Do you sit down and read a beautifully reasoned essay, that draws not only on standard texts, but also demonstrates that the author has undertaken their own research and used their extensive reading to formulate an argument that while not entirely novel (this isn’t a PhD after all) , certainly shows that the author has developed an opinion about the essay question and used their research to support their argument? Moreover, (and you breathe a sigh of pleasure) it is properly referenced too, using exactly the right formatting for journal issues, page numbers etc. Everything that should be bold or italic, is in bold or italic and every bracket and fullstop is in precisely the right place. ‘Excellent’ you think to yourself. ‘If they are all like this, marking will be a dream.’
Or do you open up the essay and read an assignment that is not well formulated and that has only engaged with a few sources of information – which are not the most academic in nature? As you read, do you realise that you’ve heard the arguments before, only there is nothing to indicate where the ideas originated from? Are there references in the list that are not mentioned in the text, and vice versa? Would you struggle to locate the references listed – if you could find the time to check them all - simply because the referencing isn’t in the standard format. Do you even, I wonder, mark them down because they haven’t used bold, italics, brackets and full stops as precisely as they should when engaging in academic writing?
I’m coming at this from a position of making decisions on referrals for academic misconduct and seeing the consequent stress on students that results from a realisation that they may have to retake a module which, if they are final year students, may mean that they can’t graduate with the friends they have made over the last 3 years at University. And I’m wondering what more Universities can and should do to help students avoid being in this position by helping them to understand the purpose and function of good academic practice and producing high quality assignments that demonstrate their learning journey, preparing them for what lies ahead?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere the importance of work to prevent students being referred for misconduct. At the University of Northampton, our work on prevention starts early and makes the most of our active blended learning pedagogy to help our students understand why the ethical use of information matters so much. From online sources of help and support, to short, interactive face-to-face sessions that enable discussion around the common pitfalls that students may fall foul of, followed up by a more intensive course initially designed as a ‘speed awareness’ course for those found to have committed misconduct, and policy changes that seek to tighten up our approach to contract-cheating in particular, we arguably have a range of interventions that can be used at all stages of the academic journey.
And all of this is good stuff. But I invite you to take a step back for a minute and consider what it is that we are trying to achieve here. I’m not saying we should throw IP and copyright out of the window. After all, for the academic community, ideas and IP are our currency. And those who are happy to share content freely with others, with or without attribution, can licence this already. But I do wonder whether there is an undue focus on the wrong things at times.
What really matters? We want to see that our students have read widely around the subject and that they can use the results of their reading to formulate a response that shows that they’ve developed an opinion that is supported by the relevant academic or professional community. We want to be able to verify their conclusions, check the accuracy of their sources and engage in a right level of academic rigour – including knowing the precise page they are quoting from at times. We want to see our students developing their prowess in academic scholarship, culminating in that hallmark of UG study – their dissertation or final year project. For students on professional courses, findings of misconduct can leave long-held career aspirations dead in the water. So please don’t misunderstand me: developing your own academic voice, demonstrating academic integrity, the proper use of sources and referencing those sources in a clear and consistent manner are all valuable. But there is a risk that the proliferation of referencing styles and this focus on use of bold, italics, brackets and fullstops is misplaced. Reference management software is not new. I used a package myself over 20 years ago when writing my PhD. Consistency in referencing matters. But we should be assessing scholarship, not being pedantic about formatting skills. Otherwise students devote their time to the wrong thing.
This misplaced focus manifests across other aspects of the assessment process. In an age where we want to have new and different forms of assessment, that make use of digital skills to prepare students more effectively for the workplace, students asked to produce a short ‘piece to camera’ spend more time on the quality of the video production than they do on the content. Or they focus on the format of the document, and not so much on whether the content they submit meets the requirements of the learning outcomes. To tackle this, Northampton now explicitly marks to learning outcomes, but provides feedback on the academic or professional quality of all submissions, where this is not specifically covered in the learning outcomes.
And how many of us, when submitting articles to journals for publication, spend hours formatting the reference list to align with the in-house journal style, only to have to reformat it for another journal when it is rejected? Why not decide if you want my article, before requiring me to format it in a style that I may have to redo in a month or so to comply with someone else’s style?
The University of Northampton’s ABL pedagogy has gone a long way to enabling students to be more active agents in their learning by actively doing things and thinking about what it is that they are doing (Bonwell and Eison, 1991, p. 19). But engagement remains problematic and one way in which these barriers can be overcome is by challenging student conceptions of learning and knowledge construction from the outset (see further Palmer et al (2017). Assuming that students simply know how to learn and will adapt to the differences in learning and teaching faced on arrival at University is dangerous territory. It has taken me years to realise that I have an opinion that has validity (and that’s just in my book club) – our students don’t have that long to reach that realisation. Academic staff need to tackle this head on and demonstrate the value in the pedagogical approaches we’ve chosen. This of course, assumes that we have deliberately thought about our pedagogical approach and made intentional choices about how to teach, rather than simply replicating teaching styles that we experienced, whether or not they worked. We also need to create opportunities for our students to develop their voice and formulate their own opinions. Is this the time to be even more explicit in unpicking pedagogy, epistemological approaches and the construction of knowledge within an HE setting, provide opportunities to practice academic writing and deliberately engage consistently with activities that develop the student’s own voice whilst intentionally exploring the consequences of poor practice?
Bonwell, C. C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf
Palmer, E., Lomer, S. & Bashliyska, I. (2017) Overcoming barriers to student engagement with Active Blended Learning [online]. Northampton: University of Northampton. Retrieved from: https://www.northampton.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/Student-Engagement-with-ABL-Interim-Report-v3-October-2017.pdf
About the Author
Dr Rachel Maxwell (@DrRachLTB) is Head of Learning and Teaching Development at the University of Northampton where she is currently leading a number of projects supporting the student experience. These include improving the first year experience and the development of a framework of graduate attributes embedding employability and Changemaker skills across our curricula. Her work also focusses on developing assessment and feedback practices suitable for the 21st century, promoting academic integrity and supporting staff to introduce innovation into their own pedagogic practice. Rachel previously worked as a Learning Designer, supporting staff to redesign modules and programmes as part of an institutional move to blended learning, building on her work as a lecturer in both HE and FE.
Her PhD is in human rights law, medical ethics and torture prevention, although she normally just tells her students she has a PhD in torture and not to mess!