On Mentoring

Believe it or not, I had a career first this semester: a 100% plagiarized paper, down to the typos. And the student admitted it.

It would’ve been so easy to light their paper on fire and file academic misconduct papers, but instead, I asked them why they did it.

The short version: they just gave up.

The longer-ish version: we spoke for an hour, during which I asked pointed questions about their background: where did they come from? Where do they see themselves in 5-10 years? What was their plan to get there? What were their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and fears? What obstacles did they face, and how did they attempt to overcome them?

On paper, this was a plagiarism case. In person, this was a rudderless student who’s in college “just to say they did it, kept awake at night over fears of letting others down, and making a series of escalating poor choices with life-long ramifications, but who also had a journeyman-level trade credential.

I unpacked the trade credential. They loved the work! When I asked if they wanted to still do the trade, they said yes, and owning a business. When I asked why they weren’t tailoring their college experience to meet their goal of owning a trade-specific business? They didn’t have an answer. While I’m of the mindset that an enriching liberal arts education is more than a future paycheck generator, four years incur tremendous time and money commitments for which “just saying they did it” isn’t a well-thought strategy.

My decision:

1) I wouldn’t let them just give up and, in the process, light the rest of their life on fire. They rewrote their paper from a blank page and passed my course.

2) They’re following up with me in the Fall. Yes, they have an official academic advisor, but I want to see their strategy, even if it’s penciled on the back of a napkin. Mentoring includes seeing this through.

I’m hoping I made the right decision.

Participatory research as active learning

Over the last semester, I have been running a research project, funded by the University of York’s Learning and Teaching Fund, exploring assessment norms and innovations utilised on Politics and International Relations degrees.

The project has been my first foray into participatory research with students. Throughout the project, six students took on the role of ‘Student Partners’ to help design, deliver, and conclude the research activities – activities that included running focus groups with other students. It made sense from a methodological standpoint to have this level of student involvement – after all, I was hoping to gain a student-centred understanding of the challenges and opportunities with innovating assessment practices.

Last week, we had our final research activity – a half-day workshop with the Student Partners to discuss research findings and to conclude the project. We also had some time to discuss the experiences of the students in collaborating with staff and each other on the research project. That discussion was an eye-opening one and made me keenly aware of how beneficial this kind of hands-on research experience can be for students as a form of active learning.

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Not Curving Grades, But “Smoothing the Edges”

I don’t curve course grades; rather, I review every student’s grades one by one in a process I call “smoothing the edges.” I first check to see if the student’s grade is on a cut line, such as 89.9%. I almost always round up and can count on barely two wings the instances where I left a grade tantalizingly and sadly close to the next grade. The common culprit? Not turning in assignments. As in, “if I don’t turn in this paper worth a letter grade, I can still get a B.” I can’t in good conscience reward missing work with a higher grade.

I try to prevent this, though, by reaching out to all students with missing assignments to ensure they get the grade they deserve rather than a grade they’re settling for. I’ll even file grade changes for proactive students and send reminders months later.

Next, I check for three patterns: sustained performance over time, increasing effort over time (low initial grades but finishing strong), and decreasing effort over time (losing steam and/or giving up). Don’t worry–final grading isn’t the first and only time that I look for decreasing effort. Working with these students throughout the semester almost always prevents this pattern from happening.

Finally, I ensure that a single poor assignment grade isn’t dragging down their entire grade. Just this morning I noticed a student who recieved an A on all but one assignment. For whatever reason, the student didn’t perform well on a single major assignment, which brought their entire grade down to a B+. I “smoothed out the edge” and gave them the A.

Returning to the three patterns, the “one bad assignment” is typically random with sustained performers and early in the semester with increasing effort performers. If my mentoring works, decreasing effort students find their center and recover strong. Think a V-shaped pattern: seemingly at the ropes like a prize fighter, getting a talk from coach, and rising to the challenge again. I’ve certainly been there, so I’m always ready with a pep talk.

My nap after submitting grades earlier today was glorious–and I napped with confidence in my students!

Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

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Chat GPT and Specifications Grading

Unsophisticated use of Chat GPT tends to produce generically poor essays, with repetitive structure, lack of analysis, and pretty stilted prose. Whether its identifiable as AI or not, the reality is that an essay written that way is likely to get a poor grade. When you receive a poorly written essay in which you suspect AI use, there are two typical paths:

  1. Pursue it as a case of suspected misconduct. You might run it through a detector to check for AI use, or ask the student to submit evidence of the work as it progressed through revisions.  Detectors are notorious for producing false positives, though, and students who were acting in good faith (but just have poor writing skills) will be caught up in this.
  2. Ignore the suspected use and just grade it accordingly. The essay is likely to get a C, as Devon Cantwell-Chaves pointed out in a recent tweet, so how much energy do you want to spend on trying to catch users out, when the results are poor? 
Devon Cantwell-Chavez tweets on February 13, 2024 about her approach to grading assignments where Chat GPT use is suspected.

To this I wish to add a third path: use specifications grading. 

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