Helping students do better in essays: what are the options of the seminar tutor?

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Liudmila Mikalayeva.

Daniela Jaklová Střihavková tells her story of a highly motivated seminar tutor in a first-year course on social work. The problem she sets to solve is a mismatch between the grader’s expectations and the students’ performance: the average grade for exam essays is between 16 and 18 points in 2016-2017, which is far from the maximum 30 points. What can the tutor do to fill this gap between the expectations and the performance?

The setup of the course will be familiar to many young instructors: while a senior professor gives weekly content-focused lectures and grades students’ work at the end of the course, a junior tutor is in charge of interactive seminars where students discuss and apply knowledge. The examination consists mainly of two essays checking students’ understanding of the nature of social work and of the social worker’s role, formulated in proper academic language. The essays are challenging for students, since they receive little training in writing them in the course itself.

Jaklová Střihavková very reasonably suggests improving the course through constructive alignment: course design should guarantee the fit between teaching goals, teaching methods and assignments. So if a major teaching goal is to enable students to define the role of the social worker in a concrete case, they should receive guidance on how to do it, have an opportunity to practice it and receive feedback before the exam.

Practically, the author introduced two additional seminar sessions where students practiced a task similar to that of the exam essay. Combining individual and group work, she provided space for the students to confront the complex task and reflect on their own performance. While she cannot prove that the essays received better grades because of these changes, both the grader and the students were happier with the learning outcome.

The effort by the seminar tutor to bridge the gap between the expectations of the grader and the actual students’ work was however only partly successful. Even after the additional seminars, students continued to feel unsure what the grader expected from them and the grader was still unhappy with how they used disciplinary vocabulary. I see three issues explaining the persistence of the gap.

A relatively minor point is that oral exercises may not be effective enough for supporting students’ success in written tasks. A much more important drawback, underlined by the author herself, is the absence of clear and explicit criteria for grading: the professor would need to make an effort detailing the requirements. And, most significantly, the course structure as such is at the core of the problem: the person grading students’ work is not directly in touch with the students and is senior enough to have forgotten how challenging it is for undergraduate students to understand and use academic jargon and navigate the often-implicit expectations to their work.

Jaklová Střihavková is right to point that to improve learning outcomes students need space to reflect on the curriculum, but young and senior instructors should become more reflective as well. Clarifying expectations, aligning content, teaching approaches and assignments, communicating among themselves and with the students is key and cannot be replaced by teaching experience alone. Students as well as instructors will benefit from it.