“I look forward to marking essays,” says Dietmar Wetzel.
Those of us who’ve been here a while will know that discussions about marking can feel like a tug of war. The best response to changing attitudes is to build flexibility into the system.
I have been at Bristol on and off for ten years now and have seen what feels like several cycles of discussions about assessment. Summative assessment was increased and cut back, in both cases to reduce stress. We were asked to come up with new forms of assessment to make things less repetitive, only to be asked to cut down on the number of formats because there wasn’t enough time to explain them to students. In my most cynical moments, I wonder whether we need any summative assessment at all, or whether it will inevitably erect barriers to meaningful learning relationships between us, our students, and the world we study. Resonance Pedagogy offers some helpful insights into assessment though, and I’m glad the University is embarking on a major reform. Given that almost everybody – both students and staff! – seems to complain about assessment, clearly there’s a need for change.
Here are three indicators based on Resonance Pedagogy that help explain why the focus on ‘designed for all’ and authenticity in particular should pay off.
Assessment becomes less tedious and more enjoyable when both students and tutors are involved in crafting it. We need to get out of the cycle of abstract discussions around more or fewer forms or assessment and look at the lived experience of assessment. As sociologist Dietmar Wetzel explains, “I look forward to reading student essays when they write about something they care about. It just shows in the finished work. My approach to essays is that students should write about the question they always wanted to explore but had always been too shy to ask.”
Crucially, this does not mean leaving students to their own devices. It will involve conversations about interesting areas to explore, and methods to employ. The student’s own question will then also be of interest to us as teachers. There are areas around our course topics that we ourselves may be unsure about, and conversations with students may be a way for us to advance our understanding. Assessment is part of a learning relationship and, as such, can be meaningful and productive for everybody involved. Wetzel pointedly says he is “looking forward” to reading student essays.
Secondly, we may turn from friendly interlocutor to powerful author of verdicts when we grade student work and pass our verdict. As empirical research in Resonance Pedagogy shows, though, there are still ways to stay human. In exam halls, for example, they have to do with the way furniture is arranged, or the way invigilators respond to glances, gestures, and questions. In written feedback, we can choose to use the second person throughout, addressing the author of the essay directly, and adopt a forward-looking perspective not just in the final Suggestions section of our cover sheet but even before.
Thirdly, I have let myself be convinced that assessment and grades do have some role to play in university education. I asked Jens Beljan, author of two of the foundational books on Resonance Pedagogy, about his view, and he reminds me that resonance is still only one of the modes of relationship we will encounter in teaching. “There is still a space for discipline, justice, objectivity, and these aspects and resonance need to keep each other in check. Grades can motivate people, discipline can enable intense and meaningful experiences, and stepping back from direct personal interaction, as we do in marking, can strengthen the sense of fairness around a unit.” Some of our students will only really shine in writing, so this will be their moment.
The key in all of these is to stand by the commitment to resonant relationships even during assessment. As Resonance Pedagogy reminds us, care, curiosity, and real interaction can, and should, shape the way we design, conduct, and mark summative assessments.