For example…

By Marcus Wilson 29/09/2010

A couple of days ago I overheard a student asking another staff member if they could see an example of some work done by the previous year’s students, to help them with a current assignment. 

I think most lecturers get asked that fairly frequently, and I’m not quite sure what the best response is. On the face of it, giving an example of good work to a student should help them produce good work themselves – e.g. by understanding what it is about that example that makes it good.  Certainly, when I’ve done things like write a bid for the NZ Marsden Fund (for which, I should declare, I’ve never got beyond the first round – except as a low percentage associate investigator) I’ve tracked down as many successful bids as I can and tried to see what about them leaps out as attractive. (Obviously I’ve failed to spot the required things so far). And when writing an article for a journal I haven’t submitted to before, I have a look at that journal and see what kind of thing they seem to publish. That’s just common sense.

But there’s a drawback to providing example assignments to students.  One is obviously that, in a few students, it tempts plagiarism, which is a serious matter.  But it also discourages novel approaches. All you end up with is a set of assignments that look the same as the previous year’s (or, worse still,  years’). It also suggests that a student is unable to work out what you want to see in the assignment from the instructions you’ve given them – i.e. your instructions are not clear enough.  Confused students are not a good sign.

I’ve begun to look more carefully at the ‘learning outcomes’ for the papers I teach here at Waikato.  The learning outcomes are how we would spot a student who has successfully taken the paper (not a list of topics they were exposed to in lectures) and these should drive the assessments. As we all know, it is the assessments that actually drive what a student will learn. Get the assessments right, with clear, transparent instructions, and learning should happen.  Does giving an example of a completed assignment from a previous year really assist in doing this? – or is it a distraction for the student as he or she works through his or her own assignment?  I’m still not sure.

0 Responses to “For example…”

  • Interesting. Perhaps the solution is not to show some other student’s assignment but a collage of good and bad ‘paragraphs’ from a number of prior work (but perhaps even on a different topic to minimise the possibility of plagiarism, or modified by you so it would not be useful to plagiarise). You could then comment on what is good about it or what is bad about each of them based on the assessment objectives. Yes I know, time… But it could be built over time I guess….

  • Did you reach any (however unformed) conclusions about the Marsden Fund process? You’d probably want to keep them to yourself anyway. Does a slightly outrageous/stimulating/controversial proposed project name help or hinder?
    I commented on the Marsden winners at, at my sticK blog (science, technology, innovation & commercialisation KNOWLEDGE

    • Marsden? 1. Your bid has to be really good. If it’s vague, unrealistic, full of bad grammar, is hard to follow, has the wrong team members, then forget it. That would probably eliminate about a quarter of the applications.
      2. Beyond doing 1., I haven’t the slightest idea. It’s been suggested that putting colons and question marks into the title improves your chances (as in “The colon and question-mark: The perfect Marsden title?”) but I think the panels are wise to this now…

  • Fabiana – our senior Bio tutor does something like this with the first-year students. One of the things we want to help them with is developing their ability to write a good scientific essay. In tuts she gives them an example or two of a flawed essay answer (or paragraphs therefrom) from previous years & then gets each group to assess it & identify where it could be improved. This semester we’ve added to that by getting them to bring their own essay introductions to class & ‘marking’ each other’s, in the sense of providing constructive feedback on them. With us first discussing what that means, of course! It will be interesting to see how much difference that makes when it comes to marking the actual essays.

  • So can’t be vague or unrealistic, yet must hint at scientific and innovation revelations that are there for the taking (as such). Give a proportion between good luck and a good project for being accepted?

  • @Alison peer reviewing is great (I thin, and so they say). But I think that it only works when the assessment objectives are well defined and well understood by the students. If students are somewhat confused about what those are, while essays may improve they may still fall short of meeting the assessment goals.

  • The peer review bit helps if it’s done as a class or if you pair up with someone who knows something about writing.
    I would suggest, however, that a bigger problem for assessment, in biology at least, is the exam system where large amounts of information has to be learned by wrote, a significant portion of which is then immediately forgotten. Over the years, I’ve learned significantly more from taking a couple of weeks to construct essays than I ever have from exams.
    And speaking from experience, the ability to write decent essays in biology was developed by a combination of large amounts of practice and forays into other topics like geography, english and philosophy. I find science papers tend to focus on the content, whatever guidance is given on how to write is … poor, at best. Taking papers that, as part of the course, focus a lot more on how to write, helps enormously.

    • Wow! So many replies to one post in just a few hours makes me think that people either love sciblogs or they haven’t got anything better to do all day (I hope the former) Keep them coming though 🙂

  • @ Marcus – I’m procrastinating 🙂
    @ Tirohia – I think all of us here would agree with you 100%. If exams are written so that all that’s needed to answer them is a bit of rote learning, then students will quickly learn to do just that. Whereas if the examiner sets at least some questions that really explore the students’ deeper understanding, then their students will realise that this is an attribute that’s to be valued. This is where properly-written learning objectives come into it as well – they give students signals about what & how they need to learn, but they also guide the writing of assessment items that examine that learning.
    But anyway – maybe we place too much reliance on those final exams? There are other valid ways of assessing students’ learning, after all 🙂