Marks for life

January 4, 2017 00:35 AM Shyam Sharma


As the semester system increases the weight of internal assessment, private colleges  can choose to abuse their new-found powers or to greatly improve higher education
“Yes, we’ve already switched to the semester system,” said a dear colleague in Kathmandu last summer, “and that’s no longer a problem in private colleges like ours”.

Since he had received advanced degrees from abroad, I assumed that he was personally involved in helping update classroom teaching and instituting academic services in his college. 

It was only later, when a group of professors were discussing how they used the “internal grading” weighing 40 percent of total marks that my colleague and I both realized that we hadn’t even touched the actual topic. When instructors questioned whether their academic subjects could even “allow” alternatives to the lecture, we started talking about real change in teaching and assessment, student engagement and academic support, and changes demanded by the new academic culture for which the “semester system” is a pathway. 

Technical and logistical changes required by curriculum and accrediting agencies are not the topics educators need to discuss at this time. So, my question of whether the semester system had been implemented was vague and superficial to begin with. As I’ve indicated in this space before, the discussion about how to improve higher education should involve rethinking the very definition of knowledge and learning, as well as our relationship with students and our own roles in response to how they must create and use knowledge, now and in the future. 

The case of private colleges, which occupy a unique space in Nepal’s higher education, whatever our views about them, is particularly important. On the one hand, if they have the leadership and willpower to go beyond the showbiz of high scores and fancy advertisements, they can help greatly improve educational quality—and the first step is making meaningful use of internal assessment, which is also the focus of this piece. On the other, it is easy for them to abuse the grades for marketing/financial successes—and they could just as easily engage in a race to the bottom of educational quality. Let me illustrate the argument with practical solutions and specific examples. 

Instructors can start by rewarding students for actively participating in class discussions, allocating a few percentage points for regularity and punctuality, being able to summarize assigned reading when called upon, pop quizzes (short and spontaneous in-class tests), and written reactions to course material. Requiring and rewarding reading before class can help change the culture of teachers lecturing/summarizing course material and students passively learning. This can help students get higher marks while also developing in them a wide range of academic skills—asking questions, synthesizing information, reacting to others’ ideas, developing their own intellectual positions, communicating ideas in writing (including to write in exams), etc. 

Second, professors must engage students in class discussion, whenever possible. Even students who have read the material find it hard to change their habit from listening to talking/doing things, as much as teachers find it hard to do the opposite. So instructors can take class participation one step forward by asking students to “run the class discussion” for a certain duration, using prepared questions or notes. This variation allows for observation and grading on active engagement and leadership, as do role-playing, debating, and collaborative projects and problem-solving. 

Third, instructors can also reward active reading and annotating of texts, including note-taking and response activities that follow reading. Active reading may mean “pronouncing words” in a first grade language class and “identifying reasons for the downfall of the Roman empire” in tenth grade, but the demand will rise to “finding a research gap and proposing new theory” when the same student reaches the university. 

So instructors should show students how they read themselves—at different speeds and for different purposes—by analyzing written samples and having students discuss/critique texts in class. Students actively read and respond when they know how to connect ideas in the text to self (e.g., personal experience), to the world (their local society or profession), and to other texts and authors (such as when they’re writing a research paper). Similarly, instructors must teach note-taking as an increasingly complex and purpose-driven activity. 

Fourth, assignment papers of a wide variety can also be used for the paradigm shift from teaching-dominated to student-engaged higher education. The simple term “paper” means a variety of genres and types of writing; so instructors should select or adapt genres that fit their disciplines. Is it a paper that must report the process and/or outcomes of a lab experiment, or one that analyzes a literary text? Should it involve research to explain or solve an intellectual or practical issue, or can the paper just narrate personal experience to convey a message? Is a historical background necessary or accepted, or should the student jump right into the theme? Is there a template or expected outline, and must students follow certain stylistic conventions? 

Once again, the strategy of illustrating with samples, and analysis and critiquing with student involvement, can help students learn better and instructors to reward them well. Where teachers don’t have the time or expertise to teach research, writing, or technological skills required by such assignments, colleges must provide academic service through tutors at the writing center, research consultants at the library, tech supporters wherever they can be housed, and so on. Talented students can be trained and employed for these services. 

Many instructors hesitate to let students “use” class time because the sword of external, final exam always hangs over their class. But students can be engaged (and rewarded) while covering the content for external exams. One strategy is to form small groups, let members study different parts of the content, and develop a full summary. If each group member receives the same credit—and students can openly report percentage of work done by members—students will exploit the power of collaboration, while also learning to coordinate and negotiate learning, writing and communication. Workshops and peer reviews of written assignments where students have to attach each other’s feedback and show improvements they made to their writing can achieve similar results, allowing for relatively easy grading. 

Sixth, student engagement can also be rewarded with praise and critique that students value. Because internal assessment tends to lean toward the subjective, to observation of commitment and progress, instructors should find appropriate ways to motivate students.

In some fields, teaching can be used to excite students; in others, students can be asked to contribute objective questions for mid-term exams. In still others, instructors can break down larger assignments, such as case studies, into simpler activities, such as in-person interviews with family members who’ve overcame a trauma or phone-surveys with relatives in the countryside. 

Major writing projects can be similarly broken down: tentative titles, one-sentence arguments, preliminary outlines, introduction paragraph, etc. It’s not necessary to grade everything: general praise and positive vibe can encourage most students, and the point of internal grade is to help adjust teaching to reward both teaching and learning. 

Finally, asking them to keep track of their learning and assess and reflect on their progress can be another powerful method of engaging (and rewarding) students. This can be done with the “learning portfolio,” which involves asking students to select, organize and write about their best achievements, also identifying areas of improvement. When students can judge their own progress, they take greater ownership of learning. Content learning can also be packaged into practical, professionally useful exercises such as writing emails to inform/educate people, suggest/propose solutions, tender complaints, or apply for a job. When teachers stop being “greedy” with “their” class time, they can find time to help students “apply” knowledge, making learning rewarding. 

If learning can happen in the relatively dull context of passively receiving others’ ideas for the sake of getting a numerical score in the exam, it can happen even better when professors create an environment whereby students take ownership of learning, solving problems, helping one another, generating new knowledge and gaining useful skills. When these things happen, final exams will take care of themselves. 

Especially in private colleges, the 40 percent is like a bag of diamonds—if they’re smart enough not to dump the whole container into the lake of “high marks.” 

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)

ghanashyam.sharma@stonybrook.edu


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