Yesterday I had a class with our new undergraduate students, to discuss ‘feedback, assessment and academic integrity.’ It was one of those titles that comes out of a convoluted discussion mid-way through the summer when putting together module handbooks and nothing to set the heart beating faster.
In essence, the class was about helping the students to understand various aspects of academic practice, so that they can engage more constructively with it, rather than simply stumbling into problems further down the line.
As I was putting together my notes for the session, I realised that a key problem in this was going to be presentation and framing. No one likes to be told how to suck eggs, so seeming truisms about ‘reading the question’ or ‘knowing the marking criteria’ have a strong tendency to make the trip from one ear to the other in a very short timeframe. This despite the copious evidence that students do not do these things on any regular basis.
In the end, I expanded the notion of academic integrity to be the main focus of the lecture, to act as a frame for understanding all the other elements. By conceptualising all academic inquiry (regardless of status) as an application of the scientific method, which in turn is dependent upon transparency of process, I was able to hang a number of other points together. Thus academic misconduct is about a break-down in that transparency; assessment is a (relatively) transparent way of gauging student understanding; while feedback is part of the continuing acquisition and challenging of knowledge.
How successful this was will only become clear in the coming months, but it was received well enough and there was a focus to the discussion. Certainly, it made it much easier to explain why academics make such a fuss about plagiarism, something that otherwise can seem rather petty.
More generally, this touches on the ‘difficult’ topic question that I was considering recently, inasmuch as it is about the presentation of material, as much as the substance. By stepping back from the detail, sometimes it’s possible to gain a better understanding of the underlying logic, which in turn helps make sense of that original detail.