Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Why do students not read information about assessments?

There is a point in each semester - always the same point - where I seem to be suddenly hit by a sense of hopelessness.  Ok, that is maybe exaggerating a little - but there are things which tend to happen in the final third of a module which are depressingly predictable, and which seem to happen to many of the lecturers I have talked to.

One thing that happens, is that you suddenly notice that attendance has dropped.  I happens a little subtly at first, but one morning you are completing your registers and suddenly notice a number of students have been missing for the last couple of weeks.  Part of the reason for this might be explained by the increasingly potent fear of assessment: That moment when students realise that the hand-in date is real, and actually going to happen, can often provoke a strange reaction.  Sometimes, the reaction means that they stop coming to class so that they can 'work on their essays'.  Sometimes though, it is almost as if they stop coming to class out of some strange fear which leads them to believe that the deadline might not actually happen if they are not here to witness it's approach.

Of course it might be that they have simply become bored by your subject, or by your teaching - a possibility I am perfectly willing to accept.  However, talking to other lecturers I realise that I am not the only one who experiences this - and we can't all be boring, can we...?

There is a legitimate question about the extent to which attendance should really matter to us.  After all, independent learning is all about students being able to manage their own learning process.  Isn't it?  Hmm.  Yes, but there are other factors to consider - not least our responsibility as teachers and institutions to actually provide the kind of support students are paying a lot of money for.  You can read about this issue more here.

Another problem I tend to encounter at this stage of the semester though, is to do with that very support.

This is the stage in the semester when I seem to be filling every spare moment of each day in tutorials with students.  It is therefore the stage at which, despite all of their initial enthusiasms, many of my dissertation students are realising that they did not do enough work on their thesis during the first term.  It is also the stage at which I meet with students who admit to having done no work on their assignments yet, because they have not understood the task.

Now both of these are serious issues about which I as a lecturer should feel some sense of responsibility.  I know, for example, that stressing the need to structure their research in the first semester is essential for dissertation students.  I know as well, that clarity about assessment is essential to avoid unnecessary anxiety for students.

Trouble is, clearly whatever I do to emphasise these things is simply not working.  It is not possible for me to meet individually with every single student to explain these things, so I have resorted to providing stacks of resources and information instead: My dissertation students have pages of online guides, exercises, videos and resources to help them get started.  My course guides tend to include guidance on the assessment which can stretch to many pages - explaining what they need to do, and how they can do it.

And yet...

...Too often when I meet with a student and they tell me they do not understand the assessment, I ask the same question: "Have you read the guidance in the course guide?"  You can, doubtless, anticipate the common response.


Too often when I meet with a dissertation student and they tell me they do not know how to get started, I ask the same question: "Have you looked at the material on the course page?"


Actually, post-assessment tutorials can follow the same pattern.  Too often, a student tells me that they do not understand why they have failed, and I ask the same question: "Have you read the feedback?"


It would be very easy to say that this is the student's own fault.  The information is there for them, and they have not used it.  It is not a case that the information is confusing, or unclear - just that they have not read it, watched it, participated in it.

The problem is, the very fact that these students have arranged these tutorials with me, demonstrates that they do care.  So the question is, if they do care, why have they not read the information available to them?  I have never really had a clear answer to this question.  When I ask students, they tend to give a rather shifty and embarrassed shrug but seem to have no clear answer at all.  I can sympathise, because it is hard to ask this question without sounding accusatory, and that immediately limits the possibility of an honest answer.  I cannot get over the feeling though, that if I could find the answer to this question I might be able to find a way of providing essential information more effectively.

Why do students not use the information available to them?  Is it because of the way the information is presented?  Is there some mechanism which could help those students to deal with that information at an earlier stage?  Or is this simply something which is the student's own responsibility, and the extent of my own obligations must necessarily end at some point?

If anyone has any ideas, I would really love to know them!