We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jenny Lloyd, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.
Is it always a good idea to make students’ lives easier?
Last week, I found myself invigilating a mock exam and, as I watched the students wrestle with their papers, I found myself reflecting upon a couple of items that I heard recently on BBC Radio 5. The first was a suggestion that the timing of the school day should be changed to reflect the teenage tendency to stay up late and sleep late into the morning. Apparently, as teenage biorhythms differ significantly from those of very young children and adults, they learn more effectively later in the day. It was therefore proposed that the school day for teenagers should be shifted so that they could be taught in the afternoon and early evening. The second item noted a study which suggested that students’ reliance on digital devices has resulted in a large number being unable to tell the time using a dial-based clock. As things stood, students would soon be taking exams, some of which would be scheduled in the morning and some in rooms with clocks of the old-fashioned kind with a face and hands. Common to both items was the concern that, with exam season looming, clearly something should be done to address these conditions as they might negatively impact upon student performance.
Responses from listeners to the station were classically varied: ranging from sympathy and disbelief to disdain and outrage. Some said that everything possible should be done to support students at such a stressful period in their lives, while others questioned the value of an education system where students striving to achieve academic excellence struggled with something so basic as getting up in the morning or reading the time from a conventional clock.
Initially, on hearing these items, my first reaction was to see some value the suggestions. Surely, I thought, we should at least consider offering academic input when the students are most receptive. It also seemed logical that the clocks should present the time in the ‘language’ that students are familiar with. We wouldn’t use a clock labelled with Greek numerals or binary numbers, so what’s the problem? And, after all, the students aren’t being assessed on their ability to tell the time… but then I thought, are they?
The latter question came from some reading I had recently undertaken around the subject of ‘authentic assessment’. Authentic assessment, according to Gulikers, Bastiaens and Kirschner (2004), is defined as that which is designed to marshal a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes, and apply them to a ‘criterion situation’, ie a type of situation that they might encounter in their professional life. The classic written exam – the sort that I was invigilating – is the sort most often criticized for a lack of authenticity. Conducted in an artificially-created environment, it is thought that exams fail to mirror what students encounter once they leave school, college or university, and are therefore considered to be a poor predictor of success in later life.
Yet, I reflected, when it comes to authenticity, it is worth acknowledging that exams do test skills that sometimes fly under the academic radar. For example, they test personal organization through students’ ability to schedule revision, get themselves to the right place at the right time and with the right tools to perform the task. They also test skills like the ability to read and understand a task and respond correctly. Finally, yes, they test the ability to read the time, perhaps ‘translate’ analogue to digital time if necessary, and manage their time in the exam room effectively.
Although the changes proposed by the studies were made with the best of intentions, their unintended consequences might actually be more damaging in the long run. Removal of apparent ‘challenges’ such as reading clocks or getting up early would destroy some of the few elements of authenticity that exist in the relatively sterile environments of classrooms and exams – indeed, it would make them more sterile. Life outside of school and university requires students to perform complex tasks in less-than-optimal conditions. I suggest that by smoothing every academic bump they encounter we might deprive them of the opportunity to employ life skills that are much more valuable to them in the long term than gaining the odd percentage point here or there.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, when it comes to teaching and assessment I don’t think we should purposely make life difficult for students; I just think that it shouldn’t be made artificially ‘right’ either.
 Kelley, P. and Lee, C., 2015. Later Education Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change. Education Commission of the States.
 Busby, E. (2018) ‘GCSE and A-level students cannot tell time on traditional analogue clock, teachers suggest’. The Independent online, Weds, 25th April [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/gcse-alevel-students-time-analogue-clock-exam-halls-struggle-teachers-a8321496.html] accessed 01/05/18
 Gulikers, J.T., Bastiaens, T.J. and Kirschner, P.A., 2004. A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational technology research and development, 52(3), p.67.