Marks for Life — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Jan. 4, 2017

As the semester system increases the proportion of internal assessment, private colleges can choose to abuse the marks on their hands—or they can use it 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” of 40% that my colleague and I both realized that we hadn’t even touched actual topic. When instructors questioned whether their subject would even “allow” any alternatives to the lecture, we started talking about real change in teaching and assessment, student engagement and academic support, changes demanded by the new academic culture for which the “semester system” is a pathway.

Technical and logistical changes as required by curriculum and accrediting agencies are not really the topic educators need to discuss at this time. So, my question (if 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 the focus in this piece. On the other, it is extremely easy for them to abuse the grades toward marketing/financial successes—and they could very 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 each 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 submitted in or after class. Requiring and rewarding reading for class before class meeting can help make the paradigm shift away from teachers always lecturing/summarizing course material and students always passively learning. This can help students get higher marks while also preparing to engage/learn a wide range of academic skills in class—asking questions, synthesizing information, reacting to others’ ideas, developing their own intellectual positions, practicing to communicate ideas in writing (including practicing to write in the exam), etc.

Second, professors must stop seeing class time as their own and 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 of class presentation allows observation and grading as active engagement and leadership, as do role-playing, debating, and collaborative projects and problem-solving.

Third, instructors can also reward active reading and annotating 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—especially 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 also teach note-taking as an increasingly complex and purpose-driven set of activities.

Fourth, assignment papers of a wide variety can also be used for making the paradigm shift from teach-dominated to student-engaged higher education. The simple term “paper” means a wide variety of genres and types of writing; so, instructors should select or adapt genres that fit their disciplines and purposes. 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 or critique by involving students can help students perform well and instructors to reward them well. Where teachers don’t have the time or expertise to teach research, writing, 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/resist 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 simple 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 below/above equal portion by members—students will exploit the power of collaboration, 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 effects, allowing 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 ways that fit their subjects/purposes of motivating students. In some fields, teaching practice can be used for exciting students; in others, students can be asked to contribute objective questions for mid-term exams. In yet 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 any trauma or phone-surveys with relatives living in the countryside. Major writing projects can be similarly broken down into writing: 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 and to reward both learning and learning.

Finally, asking students to keep track of their learning and to assess and reflect on their progress can be another powerful method of engaging students—and rewarding them. This can be done with the “learning portfolio,” which involves asking students to select, organize, and write about their best achievements, also identifying areas for further improvement. When students are able to 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 itself rewarding.

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

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

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