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There is a buzz-word in Educational circles called “continous improvement”.  It is the idea that what we teach, the environment we teach in, the learning spaces, the administrative processes, the staff and everything involved can continue to improve.

Now at one level this is unrealistic.  There is a point I expect when someone says I am the best I can and will be and an institution realises it is at its peak.

The other level is that no institution can ever say we have no challenges and nowhere we can improve.

So continuous improvement is a term we will need to live with for a while.

Interestingly it is a reflection of a similar idea in Christian Theology – sanctification, which is both position and process but that is not todays work.


I admit this is overdue but it is the last discussion of Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do.

In chapter 7 Bain discusses how do the best college teachers evaluate their students?  In re-reading this chapter I have been provoked in a number of ways.  To summarise the chapter though Bain recognises two approaches to evaluation “performance-based” and “learning based”.  From this flows the idea of teacher evaluations and how these should be conducted and what should be asked.

Performance-based evaluation is the idea that the points matter.  It is more important that you get something in on time and get the most points.  Learning-based evaluation is demonstrating that you have learned something, particularly what is expected.

I can think of some of my first year classes in my undergraduate degree and remember how we had multiple choice answers and had a right answer and we got the points.  A test scheduled for 3 hours took most of us around 50 minutes to answer in total.  And we were not allowed to leave the room for the first hour.

Then I think about the comments on one of my Master’s papers that I came across last night.  “In the end I think you have got it”.  It reflects that the lecturer thinks I understand the material.  I still battle with some of the material.

I know I need to be more creative about learning-based evaluation of my students and this chapter gives some basic ideas.  I need to think of some debates I know about assessment but also about increasing complexity.

Bain concludes the book by stating that people in the academic teaching world really do care about teaching.  We just need to keep getting better at it.  This to me seems a great place to stop as well.

This week we look again at What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain.  The nature of the material this week seem poignant to me as it brings back some of my best memories and ideas of days gone by.  First to the review.

In this chapter Bain raises the idea that the best, and he  really means best in this chapter, college teachers treat their students differently.  Through stories, first and other hand, he compares those who are good to those who are best by showing how they treat their students makes a difference.  This treatment is small things to make sure that people do not feel like the teacher is arrogant or everything is about their power.

I can think of two different lecturers/tutors I know who if I remember right basically had the same office a few years apart.  One of them hated students and I always thought his opinion was that teaching would be better without students.  The other one I am starting to think of differently.  He was a little difficult to get to and hard to have a chat to but he did share his power in class.  One day I can remember him bringing in a bottle of Liquid Lamington (see here for a brief mention of this 1980s pink alcoholic drink) and some small cups to share around.  Nowadays we would have OH&S concerns.  Other times I remember him giving up his blackboard so we could show the answers to something.  He truly behaved as if his students mattered.  Years later I had him for a series of lectures when he had gone to Oxford and I was working at where he had taught.  He still called me by last name and I still called him Dr Sanders, we were both ribbing each other but it reminds me that as Bain says it is not about dress or manner but how the lecturer treats the students.

For this week I will leave you with a quote in the middle of the chapter (p145).

Instead they tried to take their students seriously as human beings and treated them the way they might treat any colleague, with fairness, compassion and concern.

We are over half way in Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and I have only just noticed that Ken was at NYU.  Ken seems to have skipped across the river to Montclair in New Jersey.

In the fifth chapter Bain considers how college teachers conduct their classes.  The two rules are basically keep the students engaged and let them be committed participants.  This is a very brief summary of a whole chapter and Bain makes each of these two points into half a chapter each.

If I reflect upon this in my own life I am reminded of the worst lecturer I ever had.  The class was co-ordinated by a senior academic and a junior academic was left to fill in a lecture or two and make sure the guests turned up to the correct room for the rest of the time.  I still remember the first day the junior academic lectured.  The class up to that point had all been one and a half hours in a three hour slot.  He knew better we had to go for three and a quarter hours.  I ended up with a parking ticket.  He did not keep us engaged.  From my very faulty  memory we were committed because of threats of failure if we walked out.  We were not participants but tortured.  Eventually a year or so later the junior academic was fired.

These ideas are still the backbone of my teaching but Bain starts the chapter with one other idea some of us can do this while lecturing and lecturing alone, others need exercises and lectures and some use exercises only.  I realise my own position now is in the middle – both work for me but it is because I have seen the abuse of lectures that I know there are other ways to keep students engaged as well.

Ken Bain starts off Chapter 4 of What the Best College Teachers Do with a tale of how you can manipulate the performance of students based on the way you set their expectations and allow them to feel fear.  This does not sound like a positive topic to consider yet Bain’s story set the stage for his discussion not only do  the best college teachers have high expectation of their class, and are able to tell their students they can achieve it (if they want to).

In the end there are ten questions that Bain believes (as reflected in one good teachers ideas) that are negotiables for people.  You see Bain argues that learning is not limited except by our own fears.  We can negotiate how much critical thinking we learn and employ we are not limited by gender, race or age.

For me to reflect on this in my life I have to ask the question not so much where did my own lecturers not show this high expectation but what way did they model limitless ideas on thinking and learning.

One of the oddest occurrences for me on this was asking a friend/pastor about my future and he said something like “You always wanted to go to Fuller Seminary and I figured you’d get their somehow.”  In thinking about this I felt him say you had a dream and would make it happen.  That is he demonstrated a belief that I could meet his and my own expectations.

So what expectations do you have of your students learning?

This weekend I went to Deakin University‘s Open Day.  See my previous post for details fo some of the mess this was.  One reason I did this was the intention of looking in the library and seeing what books were available for a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education as I am thinking of completing one and the Deakin one is looking good.  Deakin’s library had a copy of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do on the shelf.  I would not have recognised it, or borrowed it as it had the dust jacket removed and it somehow looked older than some of the 1990s books that were on the shelf around it.

Anyway to review Chapter 3 this week Bain considers good college teachers help students learn, the process is about the learning and not the teaching.  Bain actually raises in the preparing to teach a number of questions that good teachers raise to help people learn.  These are (courtesy of Scott McKnight here and here):

1. Good teachers plan backwards: from what they want students to be able to do. How do we encourage students to answer big questions and develop skills to do that?

2. What reasoning abilities do students need to answer this in this course?

3. What mental models do our students bring to the table and how can we help them in our challenge to those mental models?

4. What information is needed and what is the best way to gain that information?

5. How can we help students who will struggle with the questions of the course and with the methods needed to answer those questions?

6. How do we help students comprehend various views of the subject and grapple with the issues

7. How do we discover what our students know already and expect and how do we reconcile our differences?

8. How do we help students “learn to learn”? To assess themselves?

9. How can we learn what they are learning, give feedback, before we assess/grade our students?

10. How do we communicate with students in a way that will keep them learning and thinking?

11. How do we spell out our discipline’s professional standards? Why do we use these standards? How do we help students assess their own work in light of these standards?

12. How will we and the students best understand the nature, progress, and quality of their learning?

13. How can we create a natural critical learning environment?

These are non trivial questions that I still need to go back to and consider.  Some of these address issues I am wrestling with in units I teach this semester.

For me to reflect on this I think of some of by bad experiences and good one.  The one story I will give is a mixed one.  Years ago I was given and assignment to mimic how computers communicate.  The formulae were all given out and we were to have the system working for a certain date.  Somehow I realised that mine did not work as one of the formula meant that the system could crash if you did what it said all the time.  Later on the lecturer remarked that you may find that the system will crash … it is up to you to fix it.  I did.  I received reasonable marks for the exercise from memory and remember it to this day.

I was not happy about receiving incorrect information and so felt betrayed by the lecturer.  While it is quite obvious I learnt something about how to reason and solve problems in this field it was not a good experience.  This put me off this field of computing quite a bit.  The learning happened but it did so at a cost not worth it to me.

So are you teaching for others to learn or teaching for the sake of teaching?

The second chapter of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, ends with a great statement

The best college and university teachers create what we might call a natural critical learning environment in which they embed the skills and information they wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) students  will find fascinating – authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenging students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality.

This is a great challenge to us as academics.  Do we produce assignments that our students find fascinating?  I think for one of my classes this semester I have, though I am guilty of not doing so in the past.

To reflect on this for my own experiences is a different issue.  The hardest papers I ever wrote for Fuller Seminary were short, 5 pages or so, theological reflections on specific issues.  I did not always do well but they did keep my love for the unit alive.  Similarly where I have had options to consider different areas I have enjoyed the material more.  Choice however is not always a good thing.  I have had one student this semester come to me and say “please choose my topic for me.”  This surprised me and while possibly a reflection on the student it may reflect other issues going on.

The reality is our mental models change slowly and those who I have enjoyed most have led us through this change process, or put up the warning signs, “Here be dragons, enter at your own risk” but let us know it was an issue.

So how have good teachers challenged you to learn?

I am supposed to be reviewing Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

One thing he does not mention is stay home when they are sick to make sure they do not infect fellow faculty.  I am doing that today.

More next week on this book.

This is a review of the last chapter of Creating Significant Learning Experiences.  The chapter serves multiple purposes, first it reminds us of why we teach, second what does it mean to learn and how people learn and finally the issue of changes in teaching to help learning.

Here Fink returns to some classic thinking of Parker Palmer from To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  The second of these is still on my list to read.    And looking at some more of Parker Palmer’s work there will be others.

Back to Fink however.  Fink’s desire is to find a new metaphor for teaching and uses the idea of a helmsperson who directs the ship based on the level of the crew.  Sometimes the sailing might be slow other times it may be quick.  This depends on the crew and the terrain.

I think this relates well back to the issue of teaching and discipleship.  I do not believe there should be a difference philosophically between the two.  The process of significant discipleship means that a discipler needs to understand where a disciple is at and steer them forward, similarly for education.  The role of helmsperson does seem appropriate for both.

In the end I heartily recommend this book and will start next week to digest Bain’s What the Best College Teacher’s Do.

L Dee Finks, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, takes a different turn in the last two chapters.  Here he moves to consider what support is needed in teaching environments to  ensure that significant learning experiences happen.

This is an interesting chapter as it has some numbers to it.  These things should take this long – in the way of thinking of Finks.  He gives rules of how much time should be allocated to certain work such as teaching and then the rest should be divided up in other activities such as research, service and improving teaching.

I am not in a position to agree or disagree with Fink at this point other than to say I think he is right.  If I am in charge of a department in a college then I will want to take these ideas and apply them further.  Regardless though the workload issues that he suggests are something all colleges need to consider.


David Morgan, lecturer, theologian, husband, father and blogger.
July 2018
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