Essay writing and the dance of peer review

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 10.53.42Source of image: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) course site

There has been a really interesting discussion this week between ModPo’s leaders, Al Filreis and Julia Bloch, about the progress of this year’s ModPo course. For me the fact that they continually reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in ModPo is a model of good practice in teaching and learning. The added bonus is that they openly share this, so that other educators can learn from it too.

In this discussion they discuss the first ModPo assignment (the 500 word essay on Emily Dickinson), peer reviews, some notable discussions in the forums, what is coming up in Week 5 and what is the value of ‘massive’ participation (30000 +) in ModPo.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about assignment writing and peer review.

Assignment Writing

This is the third time ModPo has run, and over this time Al and Julia have come to see the limitations and risks of the assignment review rubric and how a rubric can dampen the potential for a good assignment. They say that they noted how a rubric wasn’t able to cover some of the fabulous close reading of poetry that was/is being done in ModPo. I can relate to this having in the past marked assignments that are clearly much better than the rubric that is being used to mark them. I can also relate to their discussion because I know from experience that the first time an assignment is given, it is unlikely to be completely ‘fit for purpose’ and will need ‘tweeking’ for the second, if not the third, use. Eventually it becomes a good assignment which both tutors and learners understand and which allows learners to reach their full potential. I always used to worry about the first run of an assignment and whether it would be fair on the students.

Al and Julia also have a wonderful discussion about the meaning of the word essay. Julia points out that the word ‘essay’ comes from the old French word ‘assai’ , or ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to try’, ‘to examine’, ‘to test’ . So an essay is a practice, not the final word. At this point their poetic selves take over and they describe an essay as a finger exercise, an etude, a venture, a fugue, an unfolding dialogue; people riff, expand, post variations, in call and response mode.

Peer Review

Discussion of the word ‘essay’ led naturally into a discussion about what Al called ‘the dance of peer review’. A person ‘assays’ forth, someone pulls back, then comes forward and meets you half way, there’s a bit of a dance, a fugue, a give and take.

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A dancer in virtual space performs with her reflection (Source of image)

‘It’s not that you learn and then I judge whether you learned, but rather you ventured forth and I came to you, and we’re together trying to figure out how this works. You are allowed to change my mind.’ (Al Filreis)

Al pointed out that this type of peer review is possible because the course is ungraded, non-credit bearing, free and open and that through this, improvement of the course is a communal activity. The course gets better as people learn how to respond. Al and Julia have seen better assignments this year as a result of this ongoing, iteratively reflective process.

I think this is all about feeding forward, rather than feeding back.

#FSLT12 Week 3 with Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner

We have had what feels like a bit of a pause over the weekend – many UK participants were maybe taking a break for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Its not often we get two Bank Holidays in a row, Monday and Tuesday. But people are beginning to drift back now.

(Click on the diagram to see it more clearly)

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner

The Open Academic Practice thread of Week 3 features Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner,  who will be presenting in the live session on “Theory, pedagogy, and Identity in Higher-Education Teaching.” Wednesday 06 June, 2012, 1500 BST.  I am really looking forward to this session. I have been following Etienne’s work for quite a few years and now that he has married Bev, I will be following Bev too 🙂

Click here   to enter the Blackboard Collaborate room.

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Feedback

The First Steps Curriculum this week is covering Feedback, i.e. how to give feedback to students. Research has shown that despite teachers best efforts many students are only concerned with the grade and don’t even read the feedback we give them, i.e. they jump through the necessary hoops to get their qualification, but don’t appear to be interested in learning for its own sake. See for example, this paper

Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004-05) Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 1.

An internet search will result in finding a PDF of the paper and it is well worth reading.

Of course there are many students who are passionate about learning (and they are such a privilege to work with) – but also many do just need and want that piece of paper. As a teacher, it can be disappointing when this is the case, but never more so than when the student is a PhD student. A question for teachers is whether feedback can be used to engage students (not just PhD students) and leverage higher quality learning. Apostolos Koutropoulos has initiated a discussion about this in the #fslt12 Week 3 Moodle Forum

I interpret Apostolos’ comments as relating to feed forward. I have long felt that unless the student is ‘bone idle’, or clearly on the wrong course (i.e. their strengths simply do not align with course requirements), then if the student fails, the tutor has to carefully question their own failings. As Apostolos writes – ‘feed forward’, i.e. catching the student before they ‘go wrong’, can raise standards and make the learning experience more satisfactory for learners and teachers. Reading University has done some work on feed forward

Activity 2 Collaborative Bibliography

Finally, Activity 2 is due to be completed this week. This collaborative bibliography wiki activity  is beginning to yield some interesting outcomes. The purpose of the activity is to consider the requirements of a literature review and how to critically review a piece of scholarly literature.  There is a link on Oxford Brookes’ own website which is a helpful starting point, but some other helpful resources  have been posted on the Moodle site and I’m sure there are many more out there. It would be useful to gather some together. For example

I like this blog  and The Thesis Whisperer is another great blog for PhD students or those working with PhD students.

And finally another great source of information for PhD students is #phdchat on Twitter

So there’s never a dull moment in FSLT12 🙂