Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Assessed Discussion for a module on Culture

Here we are again with another assessment to post.  So far I have not had any bad feedback on the various draft things I have been planning to inflict on my students - which either means that they are not so bad after all, or that people are simply too polite to say anything.

This one is for a final year module on Cultural Studies.  The aim of the module is to encourage students to apply the methods of textual and critical analysis used in the study of literature, to a broader range of 'texts' drawn from culture and society.

This element of the assessment is an assessed discussion.  It has always seemed to me that a discussion is a more effective way of measuring a students' capacity to synthesise and evaluate ideas than a mere presentation.  It demands that students engage with a less fixed or planned set of ideas, and means that there is a focus placed on the interactive skills which students are encouraged to practice during normal seminar discussions.

Here it is then - my topics, and my guidelines for students on what an assessed discussion is, and how it will be assessed.

Comments welcome, etc.

Level 6 Culture Module: Assessed Discussion

     The discussion element of your assessment is designed to enable you to explore particular topic through the filter of the various ideas and theories explored in this module.  The discussion form of assessment is one in which your grade is based not only on what you present, but how you facilitate and how you contribute to other topics.
    Your own topic can be anything – provided you explore some of the ways in which you can extract a cultural or textual significance from it, drawing on the theories explored in the module or those of other cultural theorists.
    To give you help in identifying your topic, a set of topic cards are reproduced here from which you can choose your topic.  Each card provides your topic, and gives clues about the theories and theorists you can link to it, and what aspects of the topic might prove fruitful for closer analysis.  Each topic will be discussed during the module.  If you wanted to explore a topic not covered by these cards, then you are welcome to do so – but please speak to your tutor and get approval for your topic as early as possible.

Topic Cards:   

Is a discussion the same as a presentation?

    No.  In presentations you will speak to the class either reading from a prepared paper (i.e. reading an essay aloud) or, more usually, speaking from notes and improvising using a cueing mechanism (like PowerPoint).  Presentations are usually followed by questions from other students and the tutor.  This may, if the topic is interesting or the tutor has structured the module around the presentations, lead to a discussion.  Therefore, with a presentation it is your talk which is assessed, though sometimes the tutor will take account of your response to the questions.  If a discussion follows, this is not usually assessed.

What is an assessed discussion? 

    On this module, the assessed discussions will take the form of a series of student-led discussions.  Each student takes a turn to lead a discussion (around 20mins in duration, depending on the size of the group) with the group.  The tutor does not take part, but simply listens and marks following an agreed system and set of criteria.  If there are 15 students in the group each student will, therefore, lead one discussion and take part in 14 more. 
    There will not be more than three discussion in any given session, because it is hard to concentrate for any longer.

What is your role as a leader?

    Think of yourself as a facilitator or someone who helps the discussion along.  The discussion is like a good seminar class where everyone is contributing and adding to the ideas on the table.  Or you might think of it as an informal meeting that you have arranged to discuss a topic of interest to you all. 
    Your job is to get the discussion going by sharing some information or examining some sources together.  You will need to spend about 5 minutes doing this, or the group will have nothing to talk about, but don’t let these initial few words turn into a presentation.  You will know more about (and may be more interested in) the topic, but you do not have all the answers up your sleeve and the group should not try and question you to elicit those answers.  If they do start to question you, throw the questions back at them and insist they have a go at answering. 
    Remember it is not your ideas which are being discussed and tested, but theirs.  You might ask the questions, but it is the group who will come up with and evaluate the answers.  We want them to exchange their knowledge with each other and, collaboratively, develop their understanding of the subject.
    Once you have started the discussion you will intervene as often as necessary to:
1.    keep the discussion going (e.g. by asking another related question off your list)

2.    deepen and develop the discussion (e.g. by cross-questioning someone, or by asking a supplementary question, or by comparing one student’s point with another to generate another question). 

Structuring your discussion

    To do this you will need to structure in your mind and in your notes the path that the discussion might take. 
•    Imagine you were writing an essay on the topic and do all the usual research.  Write yourself a plan of that essay, complete with developing argument.  This will provide you with both a list of the pertinent issues and a logical order that gradually deals with the topic in more and more depth. 
•    Now make notes on how you will introduce the topic.  When it comes to the discussion day, don’t jump straight to question one at the start of your discussion, because we will be listening and giving marks for this introduction and scene setting!  It should last 5 minutes, not a lot more or less.
•    Next make a list of the main questions that you feel you really ought to ask because they represent the important issues.  There will be about as many as you have paragraphs in a short essay (7-10?).   Make sure you ask these in some form or another.  They will provide the back-bone of the discussion.  Think, how long to spend on each (3-5 mins?).  Perhaps underline, embolden or use a different colour for these questions, because underneath each you should have some supplementary points/questions.  If the group does not pick up and run with your question, you will need these to encourage them to take the bait and explore the issue in depth.  These should not just repeat the first question in different words, but should look at the topic from different perspectives, or apply it in different contexts, or compare it to other points/questions/texts, anything that gets them grappling with the complexity of the main point.  You will use only as many of these as you think necessary.
•    Your questions will often be supported or based upon references to the subject(s) under discussion or another text (primary or secondary), to other discussions, classes or modules, to the arts, films, television, politics, or any other aspect of culture that is relevant.  Remember: making connections is a good thing. 
    You might have some kind of visual aid:
•    PowerPoint – with quotations on or a structure of your discussion (but beware about giving away the structure too easily because it sometimes encourages people to jump to your later topics);

•    handout – with quotations, or, more likely, an extended textual extract, a picture;

•    a television or film extract – don’t talk about films without showing an extract; practice handling the clips in a smooth, quiet and efficient manner;

•    pre-written flip-chart or white-board – perhaps with two sides of an argument on it, or with some intriguing remark or image.
•    An object related to your topic – something tactile which can be passed around the group is often a good way of ‘sharing’ the focus of attention.

Your role as a facilitator

You might also plan ways in which you are going to ensure everyone joins in with your discussion.  We don’t just want it to be question/answer/question/answer with the usual chatty souls coming up with the answers, do we?  That would be rather tedious and would not help anyone.  Instead, we want it to develop into a lively, interactive, multi-way discussion, in which you as the leader don’t speak all that often.  Instead you will simply intervene occasionally to keep things going. You will act as an: 

•    information and opinion giver
•    information and opinion seeker
•    direction and role definer
•    summarizer
•    energizer
•    comprehension checker
•    encourager of participation
•    communication facilitator
•    tension reliever
•    process observer
•    interpersonal problem solver
•    supporter and praiser

Specifically this means:

•    move the subject on, because things have got stuck on a topic;
•    deepen and focus the point under discussion;
•    develop and broaden the point under discussion;
•    get the quieter individuals to contribute;
•    get any dominant individuals to take a back seat;
•    compare points made in the session;
•    compare with other modules or sources;
•    move the discussion into a new area;
•    signpost where the discussion is going and how the current point fits into the whole;
•    remind people of what has been said and where they should go next.

In other words, a good discussion is much more than reading down a list of questions, though clearly you need to have some questions in mind and on paper in front of you. 

Get everyone joining in

It may not be easy to get everyone chatting and contributing.  Try some of these techniques (not all of them or we will be in a spin!):

•    ask for an opinion/gut reaction/first thought from everyone;

•    go round the room asking for one word from everyone on a given topic;

•    get everyone to write something on the topic on a flipchart and use this to start the discussion; you can then ask people to justify their comment;

•    plant quotations or questions among the group (choose the quieter people)  and warn them that at some point you will ask them to read out the quotation/question and comment on it; others can then follow-up with more remarks;

•    get everyone to write down a definition of something and then have everyone or every other, or every third person to feedback; 

Try to keep the texture of the discussion varied so that it is not always question / answer / question:

•    record answers on a flip-chart or white-board;
•    use a few props (occasionally a student dresses up and gets in role!)
•    distribute objects or pictures for your audience to look at;
•    pass around any interesting books that you have referred to;
•    ask a member of the audience to read something aloud for you;
•    get them to vote;
•    bring some symbolic object or picture that helps people understand the point you are making;
•    share an amusing anecdote or story that supports your point;
•    ask a question and say you will ask for the answer at the ends;
•    say you will do a quiz at the end to check who has been listening;
•    play some appropriate relevant music;
•    or an extract from a film or TV programme;
•    and so on …


Finally, you need to conclude:

•    Summarise and synthesise the discussion (low marks for the former, higher marks if you can bring the points together into a meaningful whole and make the conclusion greater than the sum of the parts).
•    There should be a clear winding down and sense of an ending; don’t just stop abruptly.
•    You might have a final quotation, extract, piece of music, picture or some such that will nicely act as a cap on the proceedings.
•    You might bring the discussion full circle and repeat something said in the introduction.
•    You might show that, actually, the discussion has travelled a long way from your introduction.
•    Tidy up any lose ends.
•    Don’t apologise for the discussion you have just run.
•    Take 3 or 4 minutes on this conclusion.

What is your role as a contributor?

    You need to contribute regular, relevant comments to the discussion and you will be assessed on both the quantity and quality of your remarks. 

How often must I speak?

    Quite often!  It is difficult and dangerous to speculate, but I would hope that you would make at least half a dozen comments in a 20 minute discussion.  But this is a rough estimate.  You will have more to say in some discussions than others and that’s fine.  If you only say one or two things, one week, try and be chattier next time. The marking tutor will take an overview.  Usually the only people who fail are those who say very little (nothing some weeks and only one or two comments at other times).
    However, there can be too much of a good thing and you must not dominate.  For the higher marks, you will need to show that you can help the discussion along, support and encourage quieter members of the group and use a range of discussion skills.

Does it matter what I say?

    Yes!  We will assess the quality of your comments and you will not be rewarded for remarking on the weather or the fact that you are hungry.  We are looking for you to show as good a level of understanding as you do in an essay, so make sure you try and make thoughtful, intelligent comments.  However, remember that there are a number of straightforward things which need to be said to help a discussion along, so don’t worry if not every remark is insightful.   If, for example, you summarise a plot that someone has forgotten, or remind someone of a point that was made earlier, or remember a date or name, or intelligently support someone’s remark, you will be rewarded because all these comments help a discussion on its way.  It is also often the case that you do not know quite what point you are making until it comes out, so do have a go.
    You might:
•    reply to the question directly;
•    connect the question to an earlier point;
•    refer to a source to support your comment;
•    refer to another module  to support your point;
•    compare;
•    contrast;
•    speculate;
•    be provocative;
•    be supportive;
•    cross-question the leader or a group member;
•    play devil’s advocate;
•    encourage someone to speak;
•    generalise from a specific point;
•    make a specific point from a general one;
•    make a short answer;
•    or a longer one;
•    ask a question in response to a question;
•    share an idea;
•    test an idea.


You should treat the discussions exactly like a drawn out examination.  If you have a very good reason for being absent (illness with supporting doctor’s note is the most common), your contribution mark can be adjusted for your absence and your ‘leading’ session moved to another day.  If you simply fail to arrive, you will be marked as if you have sat in silence and your average number of remarks will be proportionately reduced.    


If at the end of the process, anyone has failed and wishes to re-take, we would expect to negotiate an appropriate alternative assignment.  We would probably ask for a written essay.


For some discussions another tutor will sit in order to provide moderation on the grading.  Our choice of what to moderate depends largely on the time-table and the logistics – it doesn’t mean you are particularly good or bad or anything like that!

In addition, discussions will be recorded.  This is for several reasons, but primarily to ensure that the marking of discussions is fair and consistent.  You will get used to this in time.  Just ignore the camera once you are under way.

The External Examiner will be sent recordings of the discussions so that they can check that our standards are correct, and the External Examiner also has the right to attend the discussions in person.

Marking Criteria

When we mark your discussions we are looking for specific things.  These are the ‘criteria’ by which we will judge the discussion.  To be sure that we, staff and students alike, know what the standards are we describe them in detailed criteria tables.  The one for discussions is attached to this leaflet.   Read the table carefully in conjunction with this leaflet. 

The criteria headings are as follows:

Leading a discussion:

•    content i.e. the leader’s personal knowledge and understanding, their choice of focus and the resources they use;
•    communication skills i.e. the leader’s ability to structure and facilitate a discussion and the pace and timing of questions.

Oral contributions:

•    content i.e. the contributor’s knowledge and understanding and use of sources;
•    communication skills i.e. the frequency and deployment of contributions and the discussion skills used (such as supporting, debating, arguing, encouraging, cross-questioning, asking for clarification, playing devil’s advocate, adding details, relating points).

You can see an example of a discussion feedback sheet here.

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