Monday, 1 June 2015

Exams, Exhaustion and Turning Up to Last Week Lectures

So, I recently read an article called, "Facing the Dreaded End-of-Term Question." End of term, by the way, refers to the penultimate week of the semester. The main reason why I read it was to find out what exactly that question was. As it turns out it was, ""So we don’t have a final in this class, right?" But there's also a part ii, "So do we even have to come next week?" In hindsight, I guess, these questions/this question is pretty obvious. It's not like anyone's going to ask, "[lecturer's name here], do you think ritalin or speed is better for exam doping?" Although, frankly, that'd be hilarious (speed would help with cramming, ritalin is, to my knowledge, actually used as it calms nerves or something).

For me, and by extension all of Auckland uni's other students, today* marks the end of the penultimate week of lectures. After 12 weeks of lectures (with a two week holiday in an inconvenient 5/7 split rather than the usual 6/6, due to an unusual Easter) everything's largely winding down. For instance, History 219 (Medieval Mentalities) is having a review week in the surviving lecture* and I believe Marketing 201 is as well (with Friday's being cancelled, we were a bit confused on this point so this may not be the case). I imagine Economics 111 will try and wrap up before Thursday but maybe not (because of two public holiday missed lectures) and Stats 201 is intending to finish on Wednesday but definitely before Friday. I doubt Accounting 101 will do anything so interesting as to vary from its patterns more than the holiday induces it to (ah, accountants). Obviously, one can see something of a parallel with the circumstances in that article.

I do sympathise with the lecturer who wrote that piece. I turn up to everything regardless of whether it is recorded or not... provided it is in my timetable (never went to any stats 10x optional tutorials for instance). To me, the idea of not being there is unthinkable. What is the point of paying for the privilege to go to uni and not acting on it? Nothing. Thus, I turn up. Also, I try to engage with what is going on (I am audible on a few recordings here and there, generally with stats**), but, at the same time, I feel as if I don't turn up I won't end up watching the recordings. In general, these behaviours and ways of thinking lead me to think that people should be turning up regardless. In other words, the default, really, is thinking that there will be a lecture and not asking about it because the answer's probably no. If there is no lecture, we'll be told so don't worry about it. That's really my logic. But, when we look at the article more deeply, we see some quite fundamental differences.
I snap. "Well no one’s going to hold a gun to your head and threaten to pull the trigger if you don’t show up, if that’s what you mean. You don’t have to do anything. You just need to be aware that there are consequences for your actions and inactions. I can’t make you come to class. I can’t make you do anything.
Okay, so that's the same. This is sort of the perspective that a lot of lecturers take. The way Auckland works is that there are lectures and these are usually recorded. However, some lecturers such as Warren from Maths 150 and Andrew from Stats 20x will let you know that people who turn up are doing the Right ThingTM  and Warren goes as far as contriving to write on the white-board which isn't recorded (although it can be using a different system)†. Some lecturers also have different release systems (blocs at the end of the week, have them up for a few days etc. etc.) and some courses just flat out don't record. However, basically no course (certainly none that I have done, aside from a couple of headcounts in Maths 150 under Warren) has ever done the roll or used any attendance measurement system to try and encourage people to turn up. This is important as we hit:
"We do have scheduled class meetings next week. I will be taking attendance. I will be covering material. If you still have absences to burn, sure, go for it, take a day off, why not? Just make sure you get all your work in, because you do have assignments due next week. But if you’ve used up all your absences and you miss next week, it will negatively impact your grade, as will failing to submit the assignments that are due.
Man does that sound like school. One of the big differences, if not the biggest because it is a fundamental conceptual shift, in NZ between school and uni is that no-one is really there to care about what you are doing other than yourself. If you don't turn up or hand something in, tough potatoes that is your problem and your choice. Although, I did once spot one poor soul who was trolled badly by his friends into thinking the hand-in date was an hour after it really was. He was still an idiot, though, because it was pretty clearly pointed out from the first week that this particular assignment was due at 4pm (I was in the same course at the time). Which is cool, because without intending to do so, we haven't actually departed from this paragraph's content.

Really, though, this seems to suggest that absences are tied to grades. That's interesting because, for me, that never happened at school and barely does at uni. It did for "graduation" (a pretty pointless certificate ceremony with some nibbles) but as long as you handed something in and it met the standard's criteria you got the mark based on that pre-determined criteria. Obviously, though, wagging consistently did make doing well harder because you were missing out on a lot of learning, and this is also true of uni. In fact, Stats 20x this semester used a lot of examples about predicting exam marks and, unsurprisingly, a pretty strong relationship between success and attendance was found. Or, at least, it was something like a 15 mark advantage in the exam on average. But, again, at Auckland, you have to internalise this, for the most part, completely... there are no external incentives to turn up to lectures (tutorials are sometimes different with attendance yielding like half a percent of one's final mark).

But, let's talk assessment now. Raymond DiSanza's overall conclusion was that this question is related to assessment. Due to the way that, particularly at school, the US experience is one of constant high-stakes, standardised tests (although there is no problem with the idea of a standardised test), it is difficult for students to feel anything for something that isn't on the exam. Not that DiSanza's course had an exam (because, hey, he's right, exams are sometimes a piss-poor means of assessment). It really follows pretty logically from this that if the last week isn't examined then why should the student turn up? Although, I reckon, his earlier explanation also holds some water. Particularly if he's teaching first years who don't have much/any prior experience so what happens in one course is more or less the sum total of their experience in such manners (take that as a reflection of my second year self on my first year's experiences). As such, he reasons (naturally) that just having an exam ("final") would cause people to turn up... but that doesn't really fix the problem because it just creates some assessment, as opposed to making people value learning for learning's sake.
There’s no joy for many of them in learning just to learn. They fail to see the value in anything not directly related to their chosen profession, whatever it is. Maybe I was the same way when I was a student; I can’t recall. I can, though, recall taking classes that I adored that were not specific to my academic discipline.
It's hard to not have this mindset when user pays systems force one to have to have a very conscious awareness of practical matters. This is much more pronounced in the US than here, though, as uni is more expensive (although community college where this dude teaches tends to be substantially cheaper and, also, there was that proposal to fund more people). I'm pretty tired at this point so we're going to lose some more coherence and make one more quote to try and lead into a discussion of more interest:
We’ll probably never be able to reach all of our students, no matter how enjoyable we make the classroom environment or how much we try to connect what goes on there to their lives outside of it. But if we are going to keep education from becoming little more than a series of corporately designed and administered tests, and if we’re going to save the humanities from being buried by systematic reforms designed to turn out unthinking worker bees, we must reach as many as possible, and rethink our practices to emphasize the importance of connecting education to the world in ways that go beyond simple professional preparation.
The trick? More interesting assessment. Instead of dull essays and tests, have all teachers be somewhat like Irwin and encourage taking edgy stances just to have a look at them, in some capacity. Don't tie these opportunities to anything in particular: have them do it, mark it and use them purely as indicators or feedback moments. But, really, I mean introduce assessments where formal language doesn't have to be as strict (in the sense of allowing contractions not lol, afaik or soz etc.) and a more creative aspect can be taken. For instance, in year thirteen, we had to look at Alexander the Great and ideology. This means the "policy of fusion" an idea that was explored through a dialogue (which meant I, excluding drama, ended up writing five dialogues that were assessed, four in English, three as responses to independently selected texts, in five years‡). This structure allowed one to introduce a sense of personality more obviously into the work, hence:
P: How barbaric? How could you stoop so low?
A: Look, I never wore trousers. 
P: Okay, you’re somewhat redeemed. 
A: That said, I wore “the Persian diadem and dressed [myself] in the white robe and the Persian sash and everything else except the trousers and the long-sleeved upper garment.”[1]
P: What?!
A: Well, again, it’s the same principle at work – stability

[1] Diod. 17.77.5
P was Philip, A's (i.e. Alexander) father. They had been talking about proskynesis. This was an exchange that amused my teacher and while I felt as that particular internal involved little more than pointing out a bunch of things that Alexander did, such more creative avenues can foster a deeper connection with what is being done. With any luck this can foster a sense that there is more to what is being done than sheer practical necessity.

So, I guess, this makes some kind of sense. But, yeah, 3am blogging and I'd rather not come back and do a more extensive draft because those tend to only get worked on months later.

*Technically it is now tomorrow, i,e. Monday, because it has gone twelve. I am only awake because Queen's Birthday, which sucks as it is another lot of missed Monday lectures because of public holidays (the previous one was caused by the despicable Mondayisation of ANZAC day). Also, that holiday killed my work ethic, but not as much as the mid-semester holidays.

**What is the world's largest forest? Ah, Andrew, trying to trick us. Some poor bastard fell into the trap and went Amazon but I knew it's the Taiga and answered soon afterwards. I imagine I am audible on that one. I tend not to answer questions relating to statistics directly though... (although Russell is less into asking questions).

†When I first heard that lectures were recorded I guess I imagined some sort of video camera type setting because that's what tended to be the case with recorded things at school (i.e. anything with a performance element like drama, music or speeches). In general, lecture recordings involve the use of the humble microphone, whether attached to the shirt, belt or, apparently in one case, beard (the infamous beard mic) but the lectern microphone is also an option. It turns out the security-style cameras can be used in the originally imagined fashion. This was mind-blowing for me but my friend had seen it all before.

‡The point is that dialogues were something I enjoy/ed. The first English one was in year ten and we had to do that. The other three were my way of trying to pass something I, to this day, did not understand the point of. How can a personal response ever fail??? The other three were more conventional... I cannot recall which texts got the dialogue treatment. Ozymandias was one of them for sure. I also did Vanity Fair, Death at a Funeral (the original), The House of the Dead, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and another one I cannot recall right now (this was 2011, it may have been another poem). Actually it was Blott on the Landscape, a comedy. 17/07/15, edited.

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