LILAC: Keynote, Aaron Porter.

by Paul Maharg on 07/02/2010

Aaron Porter's keynote was good — very fluent, very political (he's vice-president (HE) with the National U. of Students), nicely balanced and with a great last line.  What he said about induction and feedback (re the NSS) was undeniable — Michael Bromby has summarised some of it over on Directions.  I can’t resist joining the debate, partly because Zeugma is about the research on this & related fields, and what I've written below is a version of some thoughts I've already set down elsewhere. Re feedback on student writing, there's no question we need to improve.  Issues of academic literacy have been the subject of fairly substantial research (see Lea 2004 for a good summary of some of the issues), and I’d suggest that in relation to these issues we need to do what we would normally do in relation to our own substantive legal research fields, namely, research the matter and its context and investigate solutions, and apply solutions that will work.  

For instance the research tells us that feedback that informs students about their errors in general terms via lists or lectures doesn’t work to improve student performance; nor does deterrence (ie if you don't do X, you will suffer the consequences).  It doesn’t work for precisely the same reasons that forcing students to adopt certain ethical viewpoints in professional ethics doesn’t work.  What we need to do is to help the students to commit to a way of thinking about writing (personal, academic and professional) that will enable them to question their own compositional practices and their own responsibilities in writing.  How do we do that?  Here are some approaches, based on some ideas from the research literature, set down chronologically throughout the LLB programme:

1.       We should understand and adopt a transitional pedagogy, one that moves on from school achievement, counteracts (instead of just complaining about) the effects of massification and one that adopts a pluralist approach to diversity in discourse practices.  We should start day one in induction (and yes, I agree with Aaron in his keynote that induction should be much more than it is — should in fact be an induction into the social and intellectual culture of the university).  We know from research that study habits in a new place are early embedded: what students do in the first week, the first month of year 1 quite powerfully affect study habits for the rest of their time at university.   So we ought to focus on writing activities that are meaningful for first year study, and focus intensive feedback/forward on this so as to set Law School benchmarks early.  We should use extensively the resources that are on the web regarding essay writing, and if they're not in point, redraft; train student mentors (and give them programme credit for this — more below) to address the issues with first year students in writing surgeries throughout first year.  And we should embed this literacy work in tutorials in first year and beyond. We also need to recognize the diversity of literacies that students use: different academic literacies, email, text, IM, and the splicing of these with oral channels, eg mobile phones.  I'm writing a working paper on discussion forum literacy at the moment that tries to do just that. (This is also why, when short of time at the end of an exam, some students resort to textspeak: it's easy because personal, fluent, quick, in comparison to the task of producing formal register under psychological pressure.)

2.       Students have so many varied demands made of them in different programmes and modules and by different tutors that they often have difficulty in ‘reading off’ the specific academic writing requirements of any particular context — the research has been telling us this for years now (eg Lea & Street, 1998).  They adopt levels of ‘literacy switching’ akin to linguistic code switching (Gumperz, 1982) – literacy that’s accepted in some quarters, but not others.  As regards essays, the problem for students is in reading the levels correctly: what precisely is meant by that phrase, 'formal register'?  We can make it easier for students if we adopt a cross-School or departmental approach to this, by standardizing our expectations across modules and year groups, and by avoiding a skills-based, deficit approach.

3.       Bring together writing activities and tutorial activities.  Dewey pointed out nearly a century ago how important habit was to learning.  We need to design repeated practice in writing so that students develop good habits; and a good place to start is to integrate writing with tutorial activities, which may mean re-designing what we mean by tutorial activities.  The setting of one essay per subject is probably not sufficient to develop habits in anything except getting things wrong. There are many alternatives.  We can for instance use the excellent model of the ‘inheritance principle’, developed by Hasok Chang and others (see, eg,’Turning an undergraduate class into a professional research community’, a principle that is sometimes put into practice in clinical work where a case can extend beyond one cohort of student involvement in a case to the next cohort of students as they come forward the following year, but which is rarely used, if at all, in more conventional curricula.

4.       Improve feedback and feedforward on student work.  Flawed as it is (see, eg, Lee Harvey’s work, and here), we know the recent National Student Survey results are telling us that we need to work much harder on this. In the context of NSS feedback, if I were a student I wouldn’t want general error warnings, for instance: I would want to know what I had to work on, and be given consistent and frequent opportunities to improve.

5.       Set high standards for extended writing activities — for example, legal argument, academic literacy and comms in dissertations.  Are we doing enough to support student understanding of the task?  Can we raise the quality of feedback and consequently raise the bar for them?  If we can’t, why are we allowing students in such numbers to do dissertations?  Isn’t this a case where as a discipline we need to radically rethink curriculum design, and recognise alternatives to the dissertation? Why, for example, are we not educating our Hons students as mentors so that they can bring on first year students, and for this education and work in the law school to be given credit?  Shouldn’t this be part of our drive to increase significantly the level of academic and professional literacy in our law schools?  As to how to support this, we need much more detailed feedforward given to students, and an awareness too of the striking differences between feedforward on formative assessment, and feedback on summative assessment.  


6.  Quality of feedback.  We also need to be perceptive about the quality of the feedback we give students.  Orrell (2006) put this very well, describing at one point the activities of the academic assessors in his study:

Participants in this study suggested that one of the most valuable purposes of assessment was to give students feedback on their achievements. In practice, academics were observed to substitute reading and thinking about students’ texts with writing on and editing students’ texts. At the end of the assessment process, once assessors had decided on a grade, it was common practice for them to provide a summary explanation, in writing, regarding the reason for the grade assigned. This is what the academics probably referred to as ‘giving feedback’. There were two significant disjunctions between the summary grade justification and the espoused beliefs [of academics]. The orientation of written responses did not fit their espoused beliefs. They had largely defined feedback as: (1) giving students an insight into the appropriateness of their written product and their efforts to produce it so as to facilitate students’ own capacity for self-evaluation and improvement; and (2) to engage in a co-learning discussion of the actual ideas in the students’ texts. The actual feedback given was more defensive and summative in orientation than aiming to facilitate learning. What was particularly notable was that for the most part this explanation for the grade did not accurately reflect their thinking during the interpretive process. (my emphases)


Studies such as Orell's call us back to our own practices as teachers — do I do what's described above?  How do I develop a shared version of knowledge with my students?  How could I improve?  Orell's findings are not radically new. Mercer (eg 1995) and others in other educational approaches (eg Metcalfe & Game 2008) have been saying similar things.  Aaron's keynote was a reminder that we have a duty to help students to transform their practices.  It's an essential part of our job.  We can do it if we give more attention to researching the issues seriously, to altering curriculum infrastructure and to changing our practices in the sort of ways I've outlined above.

_____________________________________________________

Gumperz, J.J. (1982) Discourse Strategies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Lea, M.R. (2004) Academic literacies: a pedagogy for course design, Studies in Higher Education, 29, 6, 739-56

Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23, 2, 157–172

Metcalfe, A., Game, A. (2008) Significance and dialogue in learning and teaching, Educational Theory, 58, 3, 343-56.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge.  Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners.  

Orrell, J. (2006) Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality, Teaching in Higher Education, 11, 4, 441-56, 453

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