Marking Blues

“May is a pious fraud of the almanac.” – James R. Lowell

The rainy weather we’ve been having for the last few days has at least deprived me of distractions from the job at hand: the marking of examinations and other assessments. Examinations started here in Maynooth last Friday (14th May) , a week ago today, and as I write this morning another one has just started. That’s the third in the past week. Yesterday I managed to finish all the assessments for one Module, just in time for today’s batch to arrive. It’s not only examination marking of course, I’ve also had computational physics projects to assess and feedback to write. Suffice to say that it’s a busy time of year.

When I was getting this morning’s examination online timed assessment ready it suddenly struck me that some of the students taking it belong the year group that entered the University in September 2018, and are the first students I will have seen all the way through the degree as they are taking their last set of exams now and will graduate this summer.

Of course when I say “will have seen” I’m not really being honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them since last March. Although I have spoken to them via Teams I haven’t even seen them virtually, as students virtually always have their video on mute during online teaching sessions.

Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, the students on three-year programmes have had most of their teaching online since last Spring, and by the time they finish the current set of examinations half their assessment will have been online.

You’ll have to ask students whether the lack of face-to face interactions has impacted their learning, but speaking for myself as a lecturer it has made life very difficult. Lecturing to a camera is not easy, and the absence of visual cues from the audience makes it difficult to know whether what you’re saying is sinking in. I guess we’ll find out when we look at the examination grades.

Thinking about the group of students who will form the graduating class for this year, though, the saddest thing is that they will shortly finish their exams and complete their degrees. We the staff won’t have the chance to congratulate them properly, nor will they the students be able to celebrate properly with each other (as they are scattered all over the country).

Although we’ve worked very hard to do what we can over the past year and a bit, I can’t rid my mind of the feeling that this group in particular has been let down very badly. I know the circumstances are beyond our control and all that, but they just haven’t had the educational experience they expected and deserve. At least – we hope – other groups can look forward to something like normality, possibly from next year, but for this group that’s it for their third level education. It’s really not fair.

I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed. It seems to me that would be the right thing to do, which is why I don’t think the Government will allow it.

Now, it’s still raining so I’ll try to get some more marking done while the exam goes on.

13 Responses to “Marking Blues”

  1. Much to agree with here, Peter, but I’d quibble strongly with this:

    I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed.

    I would argue that students have, in many cases, got more value for money for their fees, rather than less. Yes, they didn’t have face-to-face teaching but this is not at all the same as being “short-changed”. Many academics have put a great deal more time and effort into their teaching, including the development of a variety of teaching resources, than would have been the case had Covid not struck. I, for one, estimate that it took me of order 400% more effort to deliver a course online than for a traditional “chalk and talk” lecture series. Many colleagues make similar estimates.

    Moreover, I’d argue that there are distinct advantages to online learning and I will certainly be continuing to incorporate the strategies developed during Covid when normality — or some semblance of normality — is restored.

    In what sense, therefore, have students been short-changed?Academics — and, indeed, teachers at all levels — have worked our arses off to teach to the best of our ability and to develop new strategies to help our students.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed we have worked harder. I have put very long hours in myself. But I am painfully aware that, despite our efforts, the student learning experience has not been as good as we would have liked. Putting lots of extra hours in is not the same as delivering good teaching.

      I also that some aspects of online learning can and should be retained. I’ve argue that on here. But here in Maynooth we need greater investment in technology if we are really to reap the benefits.

      Above all, though, the students have been denied the collective study and networking opportunities on which many of them thrive. They have been cooped up at home for over a year with no opportunity to make friends, learn from each other or indeed pursue extra-curricular interests, all of which are an important aspect of university life.

      • This I agree with entirely:

        Above all, though, the students have been denied the collective study and networking opportunities on which many of them thrive. They have been cooped up at home for over a year with no opportunity to make friends, learn from each other or indeed pursue extra-curricular interests, all of which are an important aspect of university life.

        But that’s a separate issue that’s out of academics’, and universities’, control.

        I would argue that my teaching has been improved dramatically by the Covid situation — I’ve had to think much more carefully about how to present material, how to get students actively engaged, how to promote discussion and active learning… instead of just talking at them for 50 minutes. (Granted, it was at a fairly low base before Covid in any case. :-))

    • telescoper Says:

      There may have been nothing more universities and individual academics could have done when the pandemic arrived, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything now.

    • telescoper Says:

      ps. I’d go further. Since students in some experimental subjects will be graduating this year without having done any laboratory work for a year and a half, I think they should *have* to repeat at least that component (especially if they are on an accredited programme that requires laboratory work as a component).

      • I largely agree with you on this, Peter. Despite the very best efforts of staff, it has been next to impossible to ensure that students weren’t short-changed with regard to experimental work. Though, even then, — and as described in a very important series of events led by Helen Vaughan and colleagues at the University of Liverpool throughout the various lockdowns — there have been some very impressive innovations with regard to experimental work. For one, the Open University has led the way (very impressively) in distance learning for experimental work for years.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think the problem is far worse in e.g. chemistry than physics. In the latter much of the equipment is electronic and can be simulated, but wet chemistry is a whole different kettle of fish.

      • Telescoper: I think the problem is far worse in e.g. chemistry than physics. In the latter much of the equipment is electronic and can be simulated, but wet chemistry is a whole different kettle of fish.

        Agreed. Completely. I am also convinced that the sub-divisions within chemistry (i.e. organic, inorganic, and physical) are much deeper than between chemistry and physics per se!

      • telescoper Says:

        Physical chemistry is basically physics.

      • I would also say that learning experimental techniques via simulation could be even more educational than sitting down in front of a black box blindly twiddling knobs for a couple of hours! See the last section of this: https://muircheartblog.wpcomstaging.com/2020/06/03/beyond-the-standard-model-of-physics-education/

        …and I say this as a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist.

  2. Chris_C Says:

    You can’t simulate the things that go wrong – which are the most important learning experiences… Cryostats boiling dry, cables and connectors failing, exploding electronics. An experimentalist (and indeed an engineer, which many physicists become) musty learn to assume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. When I was teaching in the practical lab (many years ago) I was surprised how many undergraduates had never learned how to use spanners – so they leaned that from our course!

    • If it’s green, it’s biology; if it stinks, it’s chemistry; if it doesn’t work, it’s physics.

    • You can’t simulate the things that go wrong – which are the most important learning experiences…

      I agree, but most undergraduate labs don’t incorporate equipment failures as part of the learning experience! If a piece of equipment goes down — a pre-amp blows up, or a cryostat fails — it’s generally not the undergraduate student who fixes this. At postgrad level, yes, but we wouldn’t expect an undergraduate to fix a knackered piece of electronics as part of a three hour lab session.

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