On Tuesday, I started discussing pedagogy in Norway and the ways I had to adjust to a different classroom and educational environment. There, I wrote about face-to-face time and composition within the classroom. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at writing for master’s students and at assessment. In each of these cases, I think there are things that are beneficial for students overall; however, I also find that there are some aspects that hinder students, at least in my view.
Work in Progress Sessions
Like MA students in the states, MA students in Norway write a thesis in order to graduate. This typically takes place the year after their coursework. A student must come up with a list of topics and get a topic approved by his or her advisor. This does not differ from the states. What does differ, at least in my experience, is the way that students engage in workshops throughout the process.
As the student works on the thesis, he or she meets with other students, typically every week or every other week. During these sessions, students read one another’s work and comment on it. Each semester, one faculty member serves as the organizer/mediator. Over the course of the semester, other faculty members typically take two sessions where they comment on student work.
For each session, two students submit their work. The semester organizer, the other faculty member, and a student respondent comment and provide feedback on each paper. After that, the rest of the group has the chance to offer their suggestions. This is, of course, the same way most workshops work. However, what I find different is the fact that students participate in it as they compose their thesis. This is important because once students finish coursework, they can fall away and go into their own shells during the writing process, treating it as a solitary exercise.
Students need to realize, at every stage, that writing is not a solitary experience. It involves communication and collaboration. It involves input and suggestions. In sum, it involves others! Writing is an exchange of knowledge that involves more than just the writer. Thus, it is important for students to realize that others’ input is beneficial to their work.
The two problems with the work in progress seminars, though, stem from issues I mentioned last post. One is that students do not get much, if any, composition instruction during their schooling. As such, this may be the first or only second time they actually compose a longer work, in this case about eighty pages. Along with this, attendance for students is not compulsory. If students attend each session, they will receive tips and insight that may help their own writing, but since they are not required to attend, unless it is their own, then some students do not even come.
Like everything else I have discussed, there are some aspects of assessment that I like and some that I don’t. I’ll begin with the things that I do not necessarily like about assessment in Norway. The only class that had compulsory attendance was the American literature seminar class. Students did not have compulsory attendance for my 200 and 300 level classes. In fact, I had one student who lived out of the area and had to Skype in when meeting about her bachelor’s thesis. I think she was able to attend class, in person, once. For another class, it fell during student teaching, so those students were not able to attend. However, they could still take the final exam.
I am not a stickler for attendance. If a student does not want to attend, that is up to the student. I did have students who did not want to attend. For the students I mention above, they kept in touch with me throughout the semester with questions about the course work and I provided some other things such as PowerPoints and questions on Canvas. However, students miss a lot when they do not meet face-to-face in class. Students cannot get everything from PowerPoints or questions.
Adding to this is that I could not assess students throughout the course of the semester. Typically, I would give quizzes, have weekly assignments on Canvas, or through daily exercises. Here, though, students only have one assessment, at the end of the semester. This assessment usually is a four hour school exam where students must write an essay. For my 200 level course, they had an option to do the school exam or write an essay. Those that wrote the essay had to meet with me to discuss their progress and look over their work, a great way to work in some composition pedagogy during the semester.
While I enjoy the lighter grading load, I find only having one assessment problematic for a few reasons. One, students cannot determine, without some form of assessment throughout the semester, whether or not they are progressing and acquiring knowledge. As such, they do not know whether or not they are prepared when they arrive for the assessment. Second, students may not be good at taking timed tests. Third, the information on the test may not be what they studied. Fourth, since they do not have composition instruction, writing an essay, in a second language, can be difficult.
What I do like about the assessment, though, is that it is anonymous and that every class uses an external examiner. So, when students take the test, I go to the testing center for about 10-20 minutes to see if they have any questions then I leave. The next day, I get a link online to their submitted exams. The anonymous exams only have a candidate number. At this point, I go through and grade them.
Once I am done grading, I schedule a meeting with the external examiner, someone knowledgeable on the area I am teaching who agrees to be an outside grader. We meet, via Skype, and discuss the grades. Thus, students get two eyes on every test. What I like about this is that anonymity of the students and the external examiner provides checks and balances during the grading process. I try to maintain anonymity whenever I grade, but that gets hard when the students’ name is on the paper. I think would all be lying if we think that students’ actions throughout the semester don’t influence our thoughts while grading. This is one of the key strengths of anonymity.
The strength of the external examiner is that the person provides, in a way, a buffer for me when students get the final grade. Students know that two people have graded the school exam and that their identity remains anonymous. Thus, the idea of prejudice against a specific student for past actions and performance becomes very minuscule indeed, especially with the external examiner who does not know the students at all.
Once students get their grades, they have two weeks to ask for an explanation. At this point, I provide a brief explanation of why the student received the grade he or she received. The student then has the choice to appeal the grade, or the student can take the examine over again the next semester. I did not have a student appeal, but I did have some retake it. Any student can retake the exam, and the best grade is the one that sticks. So, if a student gets a B the first time then retakes the test and gets a C, then the student receives a B.
For students who do a bachelors’ thesis (paper), they have to pass the essay then complete an oral exam. The essay counts for two-thirds of the grade and the oral for one-third. If the student does not pass the essay, he or she cannot proceed to the oral. The oral exam takes thirty minutes and the external examiner and I conduct it. We ask the student questions about the essay then questions covering the whole syllabus. I like this process because it provides space for a conversation.
There are other aspects of pedagogy that I could discuss, but these are the ones that stuck out. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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