Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Creating and preserving an Exam Free State

Creating and preserving an Exam Free State

Scrap our archaic exams, says top academic By Lucy Hood From: Adelaide Now October 26, 2010

“University of Adelaide executive dean, faculty of sciences Professor Bob Hill says mid and final-year written exams should be abolished in the sciences and be reviewed in other disciplines.”

I spent my undergraduate years losing 20-40% of my marks between research essay performance and final results due to exams.

As a new casual tutor in Political Science I watched two of my best contributing first year students in tutorials being bell curved downwards against exam performance. Their internal work was ‘too high’ compared to their exam performance. As I had looked at drafts of all my students work (if they wanted) my students had received an ‘unfair’ advantage against other students whose tutors behaved more sensibly and even handedly.

As a starting law lecturer I watched property law students let the subject drift by because 80% of marks were based on the final exam. In acts of desperation they tried to grasp the intricacies of Torrens, common law and equity in a couple of days by trying to cherry pick topics. A future scholarship student saw me after the property exam pointing out he had read no cases, a bit of text book and used his mates notes to cram to pull off the highest mark in the subject.

In my first years of tutoring administrative law I marked exam after exam seeing barely anything to raise my pulse or to indicate that I had conveyed anything interesting about the subject.

In a 1997 book I outlined my anti-exam feelings and explained why in Administrative Law I had created an exam free zone.

"Not Just Another Brick in the Wall: Rick Snell" Chapter 42 in Ballantyne, Roy et al Reflecting on University Teaching: Academics' Stories DEETYA 1997.

This was a Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development project. Professor Ballantyne asked every Australian University to nominate exemplary teachers. Those nominated then submitted a short profile and outline of their teaching practices and nominated students who could be approached for comment. A final list of 44 academics were chosen to be interviewed. The interview allowed the academics the opportunity to tell their teaching story. The writing team then tried to capture the full story of the teaching practices in a way that could be accessible to other academics (using a variety of theme sections) interested in teaching and learning.

Nomination did wonders for my own self-belief but more importantly the telling, albeit fairly crudely, of my story was my first opportunity to engage in both subjective and objective reflection about my teaching ideas and practices.

In 1999 I took over first year law. I added, over the next decade, more internal assessment but kept 30-40% of assessment based on exams. Despite my anti-exam feelings I kept the exams mostly on the rationale that my students would confront exams throughout their law degree so I might as well prepare them in advance. A little like a war weary gunny Sergeant in a marine boot camp.

This year I finally killed the exam and replaced it with a presentation. As a learning opportunity the majority of students performed exceptionally well. Instead of enduring the trudge and loathing of marking poorly handwritten crammed efforts the teaching staff had the joy of watching prepared, albeit nervous, bright youngsters presenting arguments.

Meanwhile for the last 17 years as my colleagues bemoaned the 70-90% of sub standard performances in exams (sub standard in regards to the student’s potential and the academic’s expectation) at assessment stage I would be celebrating the research, arguments, understanding and often expressed interest in a notoriously ‘dull and boring subject known as administrative law.
This blog entry inspired by the following discussion on Facebook provoked by a discussion about the article “Invasion of aca-zombies” by Joseph Gora and Andrew Whelan From: The Australian November 03, 2010

Student A - Presumably this means that the undergrads are all lifeless goal-pursuing zombies? ;)

Rick Snell
They often give this illusion but deep down we know they have good hearts and intent. A few of us academics might fail a pick the zombie and the undergrad student contest. Although a lot of us have inflicted so much mental angst and tedium we would qualify as true Zombie Masters.

Student A

Abolish exams and the zombies might awaken - seriously, I think they are one of the least effective means of testing a student's overall understanding and engagement with a topic, yet still the most widely utilised!
Rick Snell
You preaching to the converted. I wouldn't have last as long as I had as a uni teacher if the Law School hadn't allowed me the latitude to offer different assessment regimes.

Student A
'Exactly - admin is such a welcome change from the assessment structure used in torts and contract (which I think is a bit too full on for the second years and is more of an examination of their ability to write under pressure than their ability to understand and apply the law)'

Rick Snell

for my thoughts on exams - almost unchanged - there is a chapter on my web site under teaching - teaching style and preferences called "Another Brick in the Wall"
good/great students can do both - and therefore in the eyes of former good/great students this validates the process.

Student A
'exactly but even though I can handle both, assessment structures such as yours really got the best out of me! Some students are so bright but their academic records don't reflect that level of understanding because the exam assessment structure doesn't suit them - why should the assessment structure be designed for the few who are going to do well regardless?'

Student B
Yep, they really are just a test of who can regurgitate the most information in as little time. Too bad if you are a slow writer or need more time to actually think through what you are writing.

Moots are my personal favourite. Although they do mean that you may not cover as wide an area of the course as you would in preparing for the mixed bag of an exam they require you to be able to focus on a specific area and then learn, understand and apply it verbally - a vital skill for almost any employment path.

Even if it means you may have slightly less surface knowledge of other areas of the course by virtue of it being so focussed it teaches the vital skills of being able to take on any specific area of the course and being able to master it. A skill far more valuable than being able to mindlessly regurgitate and a skill you won't forget down the track unlike the reams of information you have to cover.

Student A
Exactly. And it's so hit and miss - it's actually a game of chance how well you do in an exam, it all depends upon the questions asked. There is no real life equivalent of the exam situation - so what are we testing?! Plus, it's so easy to resort to mindless regurgitation bordering on plagiarism in an exam, whereas in an essay/oral presentation you actually have to use intelligence!

It always comes down to laziness - it takes energy, dedication and passion to bring out the best in students!!!

Hopefully at some point in my career I will be a lecturer and I will pour all my energy in to it!!!

Well keep fighting the good fight rick and never let them force you to use exams! Students really like the flexible assessment approach!

Rick Snell

Just reread the Another Brick chapter I think it still resonates even though I do things in very different ways now.

See the testimonials on my web site to understand how students like Student A as well as those tarred as poor performers (due to their exam performances)respond to a different learning environment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Running for UTAS University Council 2010

Running for UTAS University Council 2010

Why I am standing for election
The role of an elected council member
Difficulties of being a council member
Sitting Fees

Why I am standing for election
After careful consideration I have decided to contest this year’s UTAS Council Elections.

All the senior positions of the University Executive (Vice-Chancellor, the two Deputy Vice Chancellors and the Executive Director Finance) have only been recently filled. Whilst this new leadership team offers significant opportunities for renewal and invigoration it also requires a University Council with a full range of experience and capabilities.

I was a member of the University of Tasmania Council from 2003-2006. Reflecting upon that four year period I now have a better awareness of what the role of a Council member entails (especially during the initial period of a new Vice Chancellor) and would like the opportunity to contribute to the leadership of UTAS over the next 2 years.

My first period on Council was marked by a willingness to ask critical questions and to ensure that proper procedures and planning had been undertaken before final Council approval.

My academic speciality, the successful completion of the AICD Company Directors Course and interest in transparency and accountability equip me with a set of valuable skills to deal with issues of governance and oversight of the University Executive.

The role of an elected council member

The University of Tasmania Act Section 8 (3) states “A member of the Council is responsible and accountable to the Council rather than to any constituent body by which he or she was appointed or elected.”

This makes it difficult to campaign for election or to offer any particular platform because once elected I cannot represent any particular constituency.

What I did between 2003-2006 and can do even more effectively after that experience, is to play the role of an informed and critical participant. This involves a willingness to ask difficult and hard questions of management and sometimes simply ensuring that proper processes have been followed.

Difficulties of being a council member

Elected members face a degree of difficultly in performing this role.
The non-elected members are appointed for 4 years, and often reappointed, so their insider and corporate knowledge is generally more extensive than elected members.
Elected members don’t tend to be appointed to the major committees so their involvement in council activity is limited to the immediate period before the next Council meeting.

Generally the papers for a Council meeting only arrive 7 days before the meeting. These are a few centimeters thick and there is a tendency to present members with a variety of updates and extra papers (sometimes unimportant but often crucial) at the start of each meeting.

Most of the key members of Council have been involved in the preparation of key matters and decisions leading up to the meeting. This leaves elected members in the difficult position of having to master a wide variety of information quickly and often having their queries met with ‘that was discussed in the last Finance Committee meeting and that Committee was reassured….”

Often interventions or questions raised by elected members are placed in the context of “this decision needs to be made urgently and this …. (your question/concern) will cause (insert appropriate word – delay, terminate, cause unnecessary concern or yes a good point which we will ensure happens next time)….”

Most of the decisions by Council, associated paperwork and information, are confidential (especially prior to the meeting). See This imposes extra difficulties on elected members (and to a lesser degree appointed members) to work out what questions to ask and to determine whether the proposals are the best options or whether more information etc is needed.

During the period 2003-2006 the processes, procedures and information flow of Council improved dramatically. It is my understanding that these have further improved since that time. However the decision about sitting fees for Council Members (discussed below) is an example of why further improvement is needed.

I am ready and keen to once again be an effective member of the UTAS Council.

Sitting Fees

If elected my Dean has offered to direct any sitting fees to the University Foundation to support bursaries and/or scholarships.

I recently asked UTAS Legal and Governance about sitting fees for Council. The reply was:

“Yes there are payments to Council members now - but for the elected staff Council members the amount (2010 amounts are $12000 for members who are not on any committees, $18K if on a committee, cpi'd for 2011 onwards) is directed back to the budget centre from which the member comes, the idea being that it is compensation for the time for which Council duties take the staff member away from normal duties within the budget centre.

I understand that some staff members have managed to do deals with their budget centre as to where the money will be directed (eg Foundation) but that is up to the individuals.”

I asked the question because a NTEU FOI request, during the EBA process, revealed that in it’s December 2009 meeting the UTAS Council, after receiving a report from its Remuneration Committee, approved the payment of sitting fees. The existence and level of these fees (nor the accompanying report) has not been made public by the Council or by UTAS.

In my view it would have been better for the Council to ask for its legislation to be amended to allow the payment, and determine the level, of sitting fees.

The Remuneration Committee report (or discussion paper) and the decision of Council (and the level of fees) should have been made public.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Once we were sloths – a tale of slow conversion

Once we were sloths – a tale of slow conversion

“You once had a body of an athlete” said Serge from Uni Massage.

He had hit the nail on the head.


Once being several decades ago. I now had a body and fitness system that had slowly deteriorated like Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps”. I went from a non-stop stream of activity (sports, walking/running as my main transportation means and long nights living on coffee but little food) in my mid 20s to a largely sedentary work environment and sitting at the computer at home for long stretches.

All the time I thought I was simply a few steps away from complete fitness recovery.

Each decade saw the return of some activity (indoor cricket for a while, badminton on and off, a couple of seasons of heavy duty gardening) but each time less vigorous and for shorter periods.

Since 1999 there has been the travelling for work (averaging 2-3 months a year) and where most of my time (outside of the family) was largely about work.

In late December 2006 that world spun out of control. All my life I have been healthy (in the last 3 decades I have been ill for less than a handful of days – usually just 1 day at a time) and rarely saw doctors and cuts/bruises would heal quickly. In late 2006 I had an infection that I couldn’t dislodge. Finally (after several weeks) went to a GP, Dr Susan Hodgman (one of the best decisions in my life) she ordered blood tests.

All the warning signs were there.

· Late 40s.

· Weight over 100 (110+) kg

· Body Mass Index in the obese/morbid obese range

· Big spare tire.

· All my photos showed a big guy.

· I had started talking about myself as a big guy.

· Diminished healing capacity.

· Thirsty all the time.

· Avoided gyms – as being places only for the fit and slim.

· High stress both at home and at work (heavy teaching load, on University Council, lots of travelling, pressure to publish).

On Christmas Eve 2006 got a phone call could I urgently return and see Dr Hodgman.

Prognosis – diabetes Type 2.

Blood sugars in the 14-17 range. Cholesterol through the roof. Very high Triglycerides.

When asked “How are you feeling” and my response was “good” Dr Hodgman simply replied “That is surprising”.

Needed to start on medication. Needed to lose weight.

Next day, Christmas Day, was spent trying to minimise intake of sweets (a very primitive understanding of diabetes at that point).

The next few months were a whir of information overload about diabetes Type 2, weekly visits to the GP, frequent blood tests and a constant increasing list of medications and ailments – high blood pressure, kidney and gall stone problems. I started to rake up frequent buyer points at my pharmacy (I now had a ‘pharmacy’ for the first time in my life). It was like my little lifeboat had sprung several major leaks and several storms had appeared. Every visit to the GP seemed to result in a new additional medication and upping of the dosage of existing medication.

The increasing long line of medical professionals all had the same story – it was a question of when rather than if I would encounter major problems. Extremely dark period for me.

Then I discovered that I wasn’t a few steps away from fitness recovery I was light years away.

Months of trying to increase physical activity (while still focussing on work and travelling), changing eating habits etc saw small gains. I dropped a few kgs and with medication got my blood sugars below double figures (but still in the 9s and with a blood pressure often above 150/90+). Then a temporary breakthrough. 8 weeks working in Cambodia saw the +ve impact of minimising processed foods and my blood sugars dropped to the 7-8 range..

By early 2008 I had plugged most of the holes in my little lifeboat. I was managing my diabetes (just), struggling with losing weight but still getting it down (if you can call 108-110 kg down) and had dealt with the kidney problem. So for a year or so I kept a very tenuous balance.

I then learned a painful lesson. You don’t get cured and it is all about constant vigilance. The weight started to pour back on and long term blood sugar levels started to drift higher and medication started to be increased. I had walked straight into a danger zone - too much to do so the increased walking kept on being put off, badminton sessions missed due to work and travel, no time for the garden and always I would promise myself to do more tomorrow or next week.

Another round of frustrating efforts to increase activity, control food intake etc.

By October 2009 I was fighting a rearguard action but slowly losing ground.

Then my wife and daughter threw me a lifeline.

I had been reading up about Dicko’s Jenny Craig diet effort see I was impressed but I made a simple comment “Yeah easy for him he had his own personal coach.” My daughter and wife looked at each other and said “right”.

Within a couple of days I had an email from my wife setting up a meeting with Helen, who co-ordinated personal coaches, from the Unigym. Reluctantly I went to the meeting.

One look at me and Helen said ‘You need to start slowly – you are too unfit for a personal coach. We are starting a new early morning class for people like you – looking to return to exercise. It’s not bootcamp despite being run by an army guy. It is self-paced but you will be pushed to your limit. Concentrate on the fitness first and worry about the diet later. One big challenge at a time”.

I turned up to my first 6.45 am session – nervous and apprehensive (first time in a gym other than to play badminton, squash etc) and very much out of my comfort zone. I confronted the harsh reality of my condition (or lack thereof). The class was self-paced but Jim Armstrong, the instructor, gently pushed the buttons to re-ignite my own motivation. Yet I was confronted by a rusted and completely useless body. See my performance table below. I could hardly do anything I was asked to do. This from a cricketer who terrified opening batsmen and who had once played badminton like a whirling dervish. There was not a fragment of that person left except in my mind. I had never felt such despair.

Fortunately there was a 7 day break to the next class (because of Hobart Show Day) and my tired muscles and shattered ego could slowly recover. Over the next few weeks I learnt time and time again in my Tuesday and Thursday sessions - how unfit I was. I certainly learnt humility as I tumbled and stumbled at the end of our group even on warm up runs. I dreaded the warm up runs, I loathed running on the crash mat and simply failed at skipping. But Jim Armstrong and Daryll Miller (who took over from Jim who went in January to the Sinai for a 6 month peacekeeping mission) persisted with gentle encouragement.

Started to do faltering runs on the Pipeline Track at Fern Tree (to be brutally honest these runs were a few metres before I went through terrifying periods of struggling to catch a breath) and small exercise routines (x number of push ups during the week, crunches etc) outside of the morning sessions so as to be better prepared for the Warm-up/Wake-up classes. I was desperate to just survive those sessions.

A blessing was that every session was new and different. Each morning we turn up half dreading what combination of activities Jim and/or Daryll have chosen for us but walking away proud but exhausted at the end of the hour that we had stumbled through their challenge.

It has now got to the stage that I look forward to each challenge whether a Tabata routine or a savage combination of weights, spin and shuttles. I still often find myself struggling at the end of the line (dropping out early in the beep tests etc) but other times I find myself keeping up.

Along with the gradual increase in fitness and flexibility came some good weight loss. However from Feb 2010-late July 2010 I hit a weight plateau where my weight stayed in the 102-105 range. Partly due to 3 extensive overseas trips. I took Daryll’s Hotel Room exercise guide with me and tried to replicate the morning sessions. Incredibly difficult to skip in many hotel rooms (low ceilings). During my month long trip in July I was doing mini-Tabata sessions – timed with an I-Phone app - of 3-5 sets most mornings. I also set myself the task of doing at least 1 short morning run in each country I visited ( total of 6 countries) which I did except in New York.

On my return despite maximum efforts in the morning classes, regular sessions of badminton, the use of food replacement satchels and increased exercises between classes the weight was hardly shifting. I then went through the confronting experience of consulting a dietician and outlining my eating habits. Favourite food – white bread sandwiches and cheese/vegemite, amount in a snack – 2-3 double sandwiches. I could see the disbelief in her eyes and the thought process “and he is wondering why he isn’t losing weight”. She encouraged me to buy the Calorie King software - (a fantastic purchase) and over the past month by increasing exercise, changing foods and controlling food intake I have managed to drop to below 98kgs. Simultaneously my performance in the exercise classes has reached new levels.

As the performance Table below shows I have come a long way but have got a long way to go and there is always the potential problems of injury or loss of motivation awaiting me.

End October 2009

Middle September 2010


116-118 kg+

97.5 kg

Blood sugar average

8 + drifting higher


Blood pressure range


99-140/ 71-90+


115cm +



107 cm no belt

97cm with belt

Running capacity

50-70 metres severe breath shortage

30 lengths of badminton court – knackered in 3 mins

15 mins non-stop hill (gentle) and step (steep) running

40 lengths of badminton court in 3 mins still ready for more


1-2 slow stumbling hops

30 skips on toes very quick

Push ups

<> less than 5 poor form

Sets of 30-40 in good form

Bench Dips

Legs in less than 10 <>

50-100 legs out


less than 10


90 secs +

Side prone

<> Less than 5 secs

20 secs +


<> less than 5 head returning to ground

50-100 keeping head off ground


Light – very slow

Heavy – good pace and form

Warm up before class


Lap of oval

Beep test



Weekly exercise totals


Crunches – 1000+

Push ups 1300+

Bench Dips 1300+

Presses against kitchen counter 2000+

Burpees 28


1 hour every couple of weeks

3 hours per week


20 mins once a week

20 mins + most days



Tarting to get back into

Throughout this period I have used my Facebook status to keep up a steady log of my journey. The public sharing kept me accountable and was often one of the things that kept me going when I stumbled or felt like maybe taking a break. Since discovered that my efforts have motivated a couple of people and that makes me feel good.

Recently I was contacted by a former student who is struggling with weight and health problems – 135 kgs at 23 years old. During a facebook chat session he said that he had given up but reading what I had done at my age he felt like he could also do it at 23. Sensibly he has opted for a medically supervised approach to his diet and a very gentle return to exercise/activity. He asked what I did – below is an edited version of our chat. It is not professional advice but rather just bits and pieces and ideas that seem to have worked for me.

Advice to a former student

Start slow.

Have a lot of mini goals - fitness, weight, health -- so if you are blocked/derailed on some you still get some runs on board.

1. Never too late to start.

2. Don't try too much at once.

3. Small but constant changes to diet.

4. Get the Calorie King Diet software (about $40 aus) - I have only had this in last 3 weeks but it has been extremely helpful. Managed to lose 6 kgs after several weeks of no loss.

5. Use a Wii with Exercise Plus - start slow. Advantages are that it is self-pace, it keeps track and there are a wide variety of tasks and activities.

7. Take full measurements now - (by a professional/gp - weight, height, waist arms etc and do a full blood test (another lot of incentives to work on ). Always helpful later when you are struggling to find +ve signs of progress/change.

8. Find a gym class that does circuit or cross training and allows you to start at your own pace. Look for maybe older trainers who have experienced themselves or seen their friends etc struggle with age, weight etc.

9. Learn to accept that everyone else in a fitness class can run quicker, harder, longer - do more push ups etc - but one day you will find yourself near the front.

10. Learn the proper form of the exercise rather than aim to do lots of repetitions quickly.

11. When I started I could only run a few metres before I felt like I would never breath again (can now run at least 1 lap of oval at fair pace). It takes time to recover running capacity, flexibility etc but it happens.

12. Change diet very slowly – this is where a software program like Calorie King can work very well.

13. The big factor for me was a great exercise class 2 mornings a week for an hour each. Any class will do to get the ball rolling but keep looking for the right atmosphere/support for you. Cross training is the best option rather than concentrate just on running or weights.

14. I found it very helpful to start to build a lot of little extras into my non- circuit class time - extra badminton, a little more walking, the Wii (esp yoga).

15. Small steps and remember there will be days when you slide backwards (weight gain, less push ups than the previous day etc).

16. Share with friends your journey – it has been a real positive to share with my friends on Facebook.

17. Start small but start to add increments to each exercise. When I started I was lucky to do 2 push ups or two very slow skips in a row - I can now do 30-40 push ups in a set or make skipping rope whir for 10 secs (not a lot) but I never thought I would hear the sound.

18. In terms of diet - start drinking more water, start to reduce diary foods. Add fresh fruits and vege for snacks.

19. Get fitted for good running shoes - even if not running much -- one reason for starting slow is to minimise or avoid injury.

20. Book in for regular massage sessions to help body recover and to prevent or detect start of injuries.

21. Start with short, medium and long term targets ie 134kg to 133.5 kg (initially just to get there even if slide back - but then aim to keep below that new maximum for a few days), then 132.5 kg etc.

22. Work with GP and dietician and try and find good gym class and or personal coach you are happy with.

A follow up chat a few days later -

4.26 former student

sigh...i could only do 15 minutes of brisk walk unfortunately...but it's a start i guess?


better than just a start

given your weight etc you might be trying too much but great to push yourself without being too over the top

better to start slow and low (in terms of numbers, repetitions, etc

4:29pm former student

i'll try walking in blocks of 15 minutes

not more right now :))


1 step a day for a 1000 days is better than 900 steps in a day and then no more

4:30pmf ormer student

wow thats awesome

i'll remember that


use little yardsticks ie a couple of more metres each day in the same time or feeling slightly less winded etc or quicker recovery


or 1 push up today, 2 push ups tomorrow, 3 on the third day, 30 at the end of the month it soon builds up

My coaches tell me “do what you did yesterday + 5% today”. That 5% is the killer.


The insight for me reading back on all the above is that health/fitness recovery is not just a question of flicking the switch from off to on or turning the key in the ignition.

It is a major investment in time, energy, emotion, finances and the returns only dribble in one drop at a time.

Plus as you sink into slothdom you have no idea of what it will take to recover a better level of fitness and health.

Back before December 2006 I am not sure what my reaction would have been if a delivery truck turned up and I was presented with the following:

· A booking for 20+ blood tests

· 30+ GP appoints over next 4 years

· 10+ specialist appointments

· A blood pressure monitor

· A blood sugar monitor

· Gym membership

· New fitted running shoes

· Calorie King software

· A Wii and Fitness Plus

· 2 hours of circuit class each week

· 3 hours of badminton a week

· 5+ hours of other exercise activity a week

· Daryll and Jim suggesting I should give everything 5% extra effort.

I am not sure if I have added anything to my life capacity or length but I certainly have improved the way I will enjoy and live for the remainder of my life.

I have the feeling that the easy gains have been made and the next 12 months will be more about very small increments and dealing with the inevitable set backs.

Where I started from - see this video filmed early September 2009 between 1.12-2.54 mins - is still only a few weeks of neglect or inactivity away.