Sunday, 2 September 2007

Dumbing Down?

I spent quite a bit of time over the past few days making plans for the statistics course I'll be teaching next semester. There's been a great deal of debate over the past few years on whether education is 'dumbing down', i.e., making increasingly lower demands of students, with the implication being that students today have it easier than they did in the past - an idea that is admittedly seductive for those of us whose days of assessment are safely and successfully behind us.

Now a great deal of ink has been spilled already on this topic, so I won't get into the whole issue of whether A-levels and degrees have got easier since I got mine (although for what it's worth, my suspicion is that A-levels generally haven't got much easier, but schools and students have got vastly more savvy about how to tackle them: there was no coaching on how to phrase your answers best to meet the markers' criteria when I was at school, let me tell you...).

Instead I'll comment on the assessment for my statistics course. For the past few years, the final assessment for my second-year statistics module has involved analysing three data sets and for each, writing a short results section, just like those found in research papers, to describe the findings.

I've used this form of assessment because the main point of teaching statistics to psychology students is so they can analyse data sets and write up the results when they carry out research projects (as well as to interpret the research findings of others). As such, the assessment I have been using directly measures the students' ability to use their new skills in the appropriate real-world context, and so makes a great deal of sense from a pedagogical point of view.

But this year I have decided there is no option but to give the students a simpler task in which they do not write up a results section like those found in research papers, but instead just report the outcomes of their analyses in as straightforward a form as I can devise. This is because for the past two or three years I have endured such a barrage of complaints from undergraduates about finding the assessment too difficult that it has clearly become unsustainable (although students managed to understand it perfectly well five years ago, I might note). This is despite my last year explaining the requirements repeatedly in lessons and putting half a dozen sample questions - with model answers, showing exactly what sort of responses I wanted - on my website to clarify what was expected. I really don't know how much more I could have done last year to support the assessment and show people what they needed to do short of saying, "These are the exact answers I want you to write. Copy and paste them into a document and hand them in."

Now you might argue that as this is a top university I should continue to push students into unfamiliar territory and make them go beyond what they are comfortable with in their assessments. And you would be correct. But we are under great pressure to respond to feedback from students these days - in part because of league tables and the spleen-venting exercise that is the National Student Survey - and if enough of them make a request for a change in the degree we do generally respond, which raises interesting questions of who best knows what students need for their development: them or us. (In case you are wondering, students have become a great deal more demanding since they started paying tuition fees and my feeling is that we listen to their demands more than we used to as well (despite the fact we don't see a penny of these fees! Our budgets and salaries are just the same as before the fees came in, dear undergrads. We don't know where your money goes - ask Gordon Brown, who insisted you pay, or your own MP).)

So in summary, from this year the assessment in my statistics unit will be easier than it has been for the past few years. This is in response to repeated demands from students that it be made so. Dumbing down? Call it what you will, but I can't help feeling uneasy, especially given that the previous system unarguably worked: the good students got good marks and the bad ones did not.

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