Adventures in Pedagogy (Part Two)

By Nicky Didicher 

November 26, 2015

In my previous post, I talked about the mindfulness sessions I was doing in my Engl 103 Introduction to Drama class this semester. Today, I’d like to share with you the other new and risky teaching-learning experiment I’m doing this term, which is offering an oral marking option in my Engl 387 Children’s Literature course. This one, like the mindfulness sessions, was also partly inspired by a talk I heard at STHLE (the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference) in Vancouver in June 2015; I had heard the idea a few years ago in another context, but this reminder pushed me toward working out an implementation that I thought could work for my own context.

Engl 387 is already a pretty radical course: students in it choose two-thirds of the reading list during the first four weeks of term, and all students design individual assessment plans, choosing what assignments they will do for me, how much of their grade each will be worth, and when they will hand them in. So I was slightly worried about overwhelming students with another choose-your-own-adventure aspect to the course, and held off on describing the oral marking until weeks two and three.

The central idea of oral marking is that students meet individually with their instructor and the instructor marks their work in front of them, all the while narrating her or his responses to the students’ work. This gives students insight into how at least one of their teachers approaches marking written assignments, which in turn should lead to the students being better able to interpret written comments on future papers and also to their being better able to judge drafts of their assignments against the kinds of criteria we outline for them. When I was in the planning stages of this experiment back in August and early September, I consulted both with Michael Lockett, who is the Educational Consultant for the Faculty of Arts and social Sciences from the SFU Teaching and Learning Centre, and with Sarah Louise Turner, who is the EC for the Faculty of Art, Communication, and Technology (she also coaches on presentation skills and leads SFU’s Teaching and Learning Players, a pedagogical acting troupe). They both gave me very useful help, and I would like to thank Sarah in particular for acting the role of a student being marked, in a dry run for the process with me.

I had a number of worries I needed to deal with before I added oral marking to my Children’s Literature course:

  • First, what was I to do if partway through a session I suspected that the student had plagiarized? I decided that I would read through the paper (or project or report) beforehand to increase the chances I would notice this before the marking session itself, and that if I missed something on my first reading and only noticed it during the oral marking I would stop the session and tell the student I needed to do some research before continuing. Also, I decided I would tell students that the mark I gave during oral marking was an estimate only, and that if afterwards on looking it back over I found something that changed my evaluation I would let them know in the official written copy.  
  • Second, how much time was this going to take? Normally when I’m marking a third-year essay an A paper takes twenty minutes, a B thirty, and a C thirty to forty. Surely having to say aloud all I was thinking would increase the time required! I think it was Michael who suggested that each student should only be allowed to take me up on this once per term, and it was up to them to decide which assignment they wanted to meet with me about.
  • Third, this was going to be a big emotional risk for the students—would they be willing to make themselves vulnerable and open to hearing direct criticism of their work in more detail than they were used to? Sarah’s excellent suggestion was that students would feel less risk and get more immediate benefit if they could choose to have me do this for a draft rather than after they handed something in. I decided that if students brought a complete draft of an assignment to me they could opt for an oral marking session with it, but that if they had an incomplete draft I would do as I normally do in my office hours: ask what one or two issues or concerns they wanted me to read for and focus only on those.
  • Fourth, I was worried that my own lack of tact, especially when I’m feeling tired or nervous, would lead me to being overly blunt or unkind during the sessions. This was the main reason I asked Sarah to work on a dry run with me, so she could both act the part of a student with a very weak paper and also observe my body language and tone of voice as I did the oral marking. I did consciously tone down my language and think a bit before speaking… I imagine nobody wants to hear “What the fuck is that?” about something in their writing, so I went more for “uh-oh.” But I tried to keep the attitude and approach genuine, and Sarah felt that I had been both considerate and frank.

After the planning and the dry run, here’s how the policy got worded online in Canvas:

  • You have the opportunity to have one submitted written assignment or a complete draft marked in your presence with my oral commentary; if it is a submitted assignment, I have option to go over it again and adjust my mark, but it will be close to my oral assessment (unless I discover plagiarism, etc.).
  • I expect this to be time-intensive, so am going to limit students to one assignment each… you can choose something early in the term to gain the advantage of the feedback; you can choose something with a lower grade weight if you would feel better that way.
  • I expect it to be low-risk for students grades-wise—no different from my marking on my own; the risk for you will be emotional—there will likely be some  awkwardness from hearing what the prof is thinking, and having your writing critiqued in detail.
  • I hope that your future/revised assignment(s) will get higher marks as a result of getting insight into what the prof is thinking, what elements count more significantly in her mind, etc.
  • I hope that the oral marking will also help you improve the process with which you write.
  • You’ll set up an appointment with me, preferably outside my office hours: I’m guessing 30 minutes for a project, lesson plan, or bibliography, and 45-60 minutes for an essay.
  • I will still be happy to look at incomplete/early stage drafts with students, asking what you’re most concerned about and concentrating on that alone.
  • I’ll be asking everyone to fill out a questionnaire about the oral marking towards end of term, anonymously and voluntarily, to let me know how it went and what I can do to improve process if I use it again, or why you chose not to take me up on it.

I also told students that they could record and/or take notes during an oral marking session.

And here’s what’s happened so far in the term (we’ve just finished week eleven of thirteen). So far, only three students out of forty-five have taken me up on the oral marking option, two with drafts and one with a finished assignment. I suspect that the student with the finished assignment is confidently an A student and felt no emotional risk, and that I may get no other takers for the official marking in the remainder of term. I hope to get a couple more students with complete drafts. All the students so far have felt the process was useful and not too stressful, and all three took good notes. I discovered that I need to explain at the beginning that I would be asking questions of their papers as I interact with them (“Is this connected to the thesis?” “Why isn’t this part earlier?” etc.) but that I’m not  asking them or expecting them to respond. I found that I can keep the time manageable by not typing as much onto their electronic files as I would normally do and by relying on them to take notes. And, I found that the oral marking process is just as likely as the regular office visit to lead to an impromptu lesson on passive verbs and how to avoid them!

I think I’ll wait for the results of the end-of-term survey before I decide whether to do this again, perhaps with a different introduction to encourage more students to take advantage of the opportunity. I’m convinced it’s a great learning experience for students, but I’ll need to change something to make it more widely viable—suggestions welcome!

Nicky teaches a wide range and large number of courses per year; her areas of expertise and interest include eighteenth-century British literature, children’s literature, Chaucer, poetics, and science fiction. Nicky uses blended learning (in-class and on-line) in most of her courses and learning-centered techniques in teaching, assessment, and syllabus choices. Her commitment to pedagogy has also had outlets in being a member of the Senate Committee for University Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines , helping to plan the Teaching & Learning Symposium, and co-leading the Re-Thinking Teaching Coarse Design Workshop.  In 2010 she received the Lesley B. Cormack Award for excellence in teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.