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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

Institutionalised

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Evening all,


Interestingly enough, following my recent post that discussed stupid and expensive things that we absolutely should stop doing, I've been reliably informed that the VC of my uni asked his team (prior to my post) "what things should we stop doing?", or words to that effect. Now as you may have gathered, I can occasionally be a touch skeptical about the value of VCs who earn over a million dollarydoos for dollarydoing *something*, but credit here- that's a really good question. To answer it properly and thoughtfully requires engaging with some difficult choices. I want to extend the previous "stupid and expensive" thought a little bit, if you'll indulge me.


In the teaching space what is the most expensive activity universities conduct? Is it admin? Nope. Is it actual teaching, lecturing and running tutorials? Maybe. Subject/unit development? Possible. Is it assessment? I reckon it is. Just think- 15 minutes for every exam or essay or whatever multiplied by all the students in a subject. Obviously unis have legions of casual teachers/markers. Those costs are obvious, even if they are illegally suppressed. But what of the flow on costs of excessive assessment?


Although it's a less glamourous part of my role (no Columbo or Bargearse comparisons available here sadly), I also manage appeal processes for my university, and Chair appeals panels myself. This encapsulates everything from high-impact/high-consequence appeals such as suspension or exclusion from studies for reasons of academic standing, to appeals of minor, low consequence decisions. It is obvious why we should provide students with an opportunity in-extremis to explain why they have struggled, and to assure the uni by providing a plan to improve. While unis understand that students are complex individuals with complex life trajectories, we don't always get the full story. An appeal provides students with that opportunity to share, and if handled with sensitivity and tact, can demonstrate to students that we can listen to them, and that we care about them and their success.


However there are a whole range of appeals that, while providing some level of assumed quasi-legal recourse for students, simply do not function as intended. In the last post I touched upon "special consideration." Typically this is used when students get sick the day of an exam, or the day before an assignment submission. But in this cursed age of "grade grubbing" (a concept I'll return to shortly), just imagine this: 12 quizzes (labelled as one assessment of course 🙄), a report, 6 weeks of forum posts and an exam. Each assessable, and therefore each eligible for a student to apply for special consideration. The golden rule here is that if you give it a mark, students will give themselves every chance to gain that mark. No ifs or buts. They are gunning for it whether they're scratching for a Pass, or whether they're a HD-getting KPMG partner-in-waiting. And students grub for grades because they've been taught to! As Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies once sang,

"When I went to your schools, I went to your churches
I went to your institutional learning facilities
So how can you say I'm crazy?

Students, their parents, their schools, and now us in higher education have all told them that marks are what matters. All of the above have broken the link between learning and reporting of "learning", and now we must remake the link.


Coming back to my point here, doing stupid costly things. Considering how many special consideration applications, special consideration decisions and appeals could be generated by one student in one subject, it strikes me that it's an idiotic system.

Massively expensive, fraught with negatives for students, and set up for "fairness", but terribly demanding and costly to run a process in which students only feel it was fair if it goes their way. Now when we think about scalable assessment, running more assessments of low weight is meant to be pedagogically superior to high stakes. But I wonder if reducing stakes has also reduced the security of these assessments, while increasing contempt for these atomised assessments among students, and hugely expanding the cost when all aspects of the cost are considered.


To round this off, I'll close the loop with appeals. Unis have what is, in my view, a damaging habit of creating legalistic rules in policy and procedure, and then leaving application of those rules to people whose skillsets doesn't actually apply in that sphere. So I see lots of situations like:

-Student appeals on the basis of a lack of due process

-student doesn't know what due process is

-student actually reargues the original decision, or adds irrelevant information in a hail mary attempt to have the appeal upheld

-appeal panel also doesn't understand due process and upholds the appeal.


Given that academics are routinely appointed to these panels throughout the sector, I have no doubt this is very common. So my suggestion here is threefold-

1) Stop using panels. Three or more untrained academic staff in concert does not add up to better decision making.

2) Empower professional staff to act as an "appeal" test- One properly trained professional staff member whose job it is to make these decisions is better than an untrained whim-based decision-making apparatus. These staff are already mostly in place- start using their capabilities. 3) reduce appealable "decisions" to those where some form of actual decision making occurred (rather than properly following policy) or where a student should get that final opportunity to help the uni help them, such as with suspension or exclusion.


Basically, allowing endless appeals across the total spectrum of a student's course of study creates a ridiculous mummers farce whereby fairness is not served, unis and students play a silly game of bureaucratic charades, and everybody loses.


Till next time,

KM

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