Moodle whines and images of teacher

I’ve been whining about Moodle recently, but I’ve also been reading Deborah Britzman’s Practice Makes Practice, which reading makes it difficult to avoid seeing my own responsibilities for my present predicament. One of the many issues Britzman raises is the image or concept of a “good teacher” that teachers bring with them to the job. Of course, other players in the action also bring their concepts to the mix: other teachers, students, parents, administrators, etc. My image of a good teacher is someone who is organized and keeps good records. That’s not all, of course, but I want to limit this post to the topic of handling assignments and grading. In addition to my having my own concept, I am required by the administrations I work for to be able to justify the grades if a student challenges me. For that reason, I feel I need as many objective measurements as possible, and rely on a subjective score for a minor part of the final calculation.

However, a colleague commented about the use of points as coercion (Britzman also mentions this in the context of the concepts teachers have of the vital need to gain and maintain control of the class before transmission of knowledge can occur; Teacher Man McCourt also wrote about his own desperate need to control the class, especially in his early days, a need probably based on his own memories of school and reinforced by his colleagues’ warnings, and he vividly describes classes where he clearly was not in control and where not a lot of learning went on, tho a good time was had by most).

This niggles.

Having experimented with lack of coercion and found it a failure, I feel some coercion is justified: without it, students (accustomed to coercion from their years of previous schooling) assume the teacher doesn’t care, and either sit around doing nothing or stop coming to class. Actually, we didn’t drop coercion – we still gave grades – but we did not coerce or give specific guidance or assign tasks during class; we left it to students to choose what to do from the materials we made available (after an initial orientation period). Many students remained clueless and aimless for the semester, and complained that they never understood what on earth we were expecting them to do.

On the other hand, coercing by using points gained in quizzes or assignments (which points are later “traded in” for grades) seems unsatisfactory: it seems to me to close the door on less extrinsic motivation. It makes it difficult to open students up to what I consider more interesting educational activities, e.g. blogging: accustomed to trading effort for points, students will ask, “how many words must we write in the blog? When’s the deadline? What’s the penalty if we write it late?” etc, etc. This is part of the difficulty I’ve been having calculating my final grades: I assigned some relatively free-form homework, but now I have to decide: do I give them a point just for doing it? Do I give them a point for every correct sentence? What if someone wrote 10 lines, and another student barely wrote three words, do they get the same point for having done it? If not, how do I grade this? What if someone answered the questions correctly, or wrote relatively correct sentences, while someone else made a lot of errors, either factual or grammatical?

Of course, I should have thought all this out before I assigned the homework, foreseen these potential problems, and either abandoned the assignments or tailored them such that it would be easy to give an objective grade for each one without spending too much time. It’s much easier to give points for correct answers to questions.

It’s boring and tedious in the extreme to make these kinds of judgements for 100 students who each did about 15 assignments over the semester. In my present mood, I’m ready to abandon all open-ended-type assignments in favour of easy-to-mark, right-or-wrong-type tasks.

Bob Leamson writes about the conceptual gap between freshmen university students and many of their teachers: the teachers are often teaching procedural knowledge and assume the students understand this, whereas the students are assuming the teacher is giving them declarative knowledge which will be tested in the exam. As Bob Leamson puts it, the problem is quite deep: it’s not just that freshmen students assume that everything a teacher tells them will help them answer questions in the final test, it’s that they assume that what the teacher tells them IS the answers to the final test questions! All they need to do is copy it down, and they’ll be OK on the day.

Perhaps that is part of my difficulty: I’m giving assignments that are intended to help students practice doing something, and students are assuming the activity is simply an end in itself to be traded for points which go towards the final grade.

This discrepancy between teacher expectations and students’ assumptions is not entirely the fault of either teachers or students. Bob Leamson suggests this is a perennial difficulty which must be overcome by teachers a) being aware of it, and b) giving students repeated activities that will give them practice in working in the ways they wish them to become proficient at.

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