“Guess what I want!”

Posted by Ruth Moeller.

Just like that, I was taken back to my first year of university –  when I thought you had to be very clever to be at university (and not sure that I was) and I had no idea what was expected and how I would give the lecturer what she wanted in my essay. 

Quite a chilling moment really – what brought about this flashback I hear you ask?

I was working with an academic on the subject she teaches to first semester, first year students.  Reading the assessments she was setting her students, I was confused and didn’t understand what was wanted, in fact I felt stupid. I could guess what was required but I really wasn’t sure and I have many years of academic study behind me.

I asked about assessment criteria, was there a rubric, were the students given samples of what was expected?  The answer was “No”. She agreed that these could be helpful but didn’t really know how to go about setting this up. Also as an aside, she did mention that there were several tutors who marked this subject, 10 in fact, and they all had their own ideas – imagine the students in the tutor/assessment/marking lottery!

I was struck by the fact that here was a dedicated teacher, looking at her subject, and particularly assessment, through the lens of many years of academic experience and a high level of academic literacy. Her student cohort, on the other hand, first semester, first year students, most of whom would find being at university daunting, let alone assessments that were framed with the underpinning premise of “guess what I want”. 

I need to say that this academic wasn’t ‘bad’, in fact she was concerned about the struggles of her students, without realising she was contributing significantly to them.

A starting point was to think about these students as transitioning into the university coming from school, work and range of experiences and backgrounds, all converging at the one point. Here is an opportunity to establish good academic practice and help develop their confidence.

So, what do students need when they move into tertiary study? When I think about me as a school leaver and even as a mature age student, I wanted to know what was expected of me, how to pass and how to fit in. Surprisingly, or not, I am not alone, these expectations are common for students transitioning to all aspects of tertiary life. (For more about student transition see the work of Sally Kift.)

With this in mind, the first thing I encourage teaching staff to do is make students feel welcome, learn names (use labels or name plates), give a clear overview of what they will be learning and why, and also how you will be teaching and the best ways to be ‘successful’.  With regards to knowing students names, others may have different opinions: in discussion, with a colleague, I was surprised, if not horrified, to hear that he deliberately doesn’t learn names, believing students prefer to be anonymous!

As you know universities have a range of student services available – they usually have a high profile for students during campus orientation but to be effective, transition should go beyond the sausage sizzle, show bags and information session and be integrated into your semester’s teaching. I have involved the academic support services in my classes to give a presentation on how they could assist students in the first assessment task. Another colleague cunningly incorporates a library session and annotated bibliography into the first assessment task to ensure students engage with services that can support them in their further tertiary education.

On the matter of assessment, (the prime focus of students), they want to know what, how and whyWhat is required, how it will be judged (ie. assessment criteria) and why this assessment (ie. its relationship to their learning). With regards to the what, not just from a content perspective, but also in the presentation of that content – the academic literacy. Once completed, they want to know a further how – how they did and how they can improve. This is why feedback is so important.

To help students, something I have been using in my own teaching for a wiki based assessment is an example of what ‘good’ looks like; a sample of the product and standard required for a task at the level they are studying. I have to say that this has reduced many of the questions and anxiety around the task as the students don’t have to guess what good looks like.

Back to my starting point, if you put students into the position of “guess what I want”, they will, with differing levels of success, high levels of frustration and the odd bit of ambivalence. Perhaps then, it’s better to not put them in this situation at all by providing some clarity around what we do want and how they could provide it.

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