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.