On Evaluation

(and sorry for being so very, very late with this…)

My kids, aged 14 and 12, often discuss their grades. Actually, in Norssi alakoulu, no numbers are used, instead, the evaluation is given as verbal feedback. In yläkoulu, however, the kids are evaluated numerically – finally, as my kids feel! It seems to be very important to have grades, somehow more adult maybe. Be as it may, the fact is that also the students in alakoulu often transform their verbal evaluation into numbers.

Not only youngsters, but also professional pedagogy people seem to appreciate numeral grading, which never seizes to baffle me. I belong to a group planning and giving a nationwide blended learning course (partly face to face, mostly in Moodle) in feminist pedagogy. In the group, my senior colleague, actually someone who in some sense really brought feminist pedagogy to Finland in 1990s, has recently participated in a university pedagogy course (YPE), a course for the personnel at the University of Helsinki. As a part of the course, there was a group work (test) that was evaluated with numbers (5: excellent; 4; very good etc.). My colleague, with her group, got a 5, and she has been bragging about it ever since. And, when asking, she says that it was not that their work was appreciated, but exactly the number 5 that mad her happy, and it would not have been the same, if the feedback was “only” verbal.

Having myself been a really “good girl” all the way from ala-aste to university and aiming at the best grades always I do see her point. This notwithstanding, after being forced to give grades to university students as an assistant, and later, a lecturer, and especially along the several pedagogy courses I have taken, I have started to feel very uncomfortable with grading. I know how arbitrary numbers really are. I have realized that learning cannot be measured from outside, and that every effort is more or less doomed to fail.

This of course has to do with my epistemological position. I suppose I have internalised the post-modern or post-structuralist – a social-constructivist – idea of knowledge as not something “truthful” and “pure”, but instead as a process, and as co-created. I do not think it is even possible for a teacher to “feed” the students with existing knowledge. As a teacher or a supervisor in university context, I understand my role as a guide or as someone who is taking part in the process of co-creating knowledge. I may at best be able to give advice, to be consulted, about how to create knowledge, but I cannot simply hand any coherent package of knowledge to anybody. It is for them (us) to produce. Knowing is a process.

So, when giving grades to students, what should I evaluate? Especially in an EMI context: what is it that I am supposed to measure? The content, not the language skills, I suppose, but can I separate these two (especially after confessing myself in my first blog that I feel really stupid with my limited English language skills as I cannot properly explain anything a bit more complicated than the basic everyday mundane stuff in English).

After expressing my doubts, I have to admit that grades may be valuable in motivating students. To take another example of my life: perhaps it has been too easy to leave the assignments undone during this TACE course just because I have known from the beginning that I will not be given a grade. This may be true on the one hand, but on the other hand, it has been a relief that the teachers of this course have been flexible and patient with all the delays related to my performance. It is probably because you know and share the experience of not having enough time for all the tasks one is expected to do.

And since the contemporary university institution is based on utilizing the employees and giving almost nothing (such as positions, tenure) in return, even if the course was graded, I would have perhaps thought that a moderate OK number will be enough. The constant hurry and pressure has really swiped away the girl that always aimed at having 10 as her grade. Today, it is simply impossible, if one is about to sleep at night.

The thoughts above were brought about by Atjonen’s (2007) thoughts on ethics in assessment. It is truly important to ask the following questions related to assessment:

  • what is assessed
  • why (is the aim to motivate, give feedback, or correct mistakes)
  • who does the assessment (the teacher, the student herself, peers)
  • how is  the evaluation done
  • when is it done: it might not be pedagogically wise to give the evaluation only after the course when it is too late to change anything; some evaluation during the course, for example in the middle of it, might be in order to emphasise the processual nature of learning.

It is also crucial to pose the question of what could ethical assessment be. Would it take into account the differences in the classroom? The variety of teaching and learning methods, the variety of personalities and their compatibility? How could it be made sure that the evaluation is fair and based on justice instead of biased observation or rewarding the students to be similar with the evaluator (which is called cultural cloning)? Do we actually assess language skills instead of progress? Do we allow sufficient emphasis on different backgrounds? Can we guarantee that different does not equal wrong?

All in all, the basic question that everybody – no matter whether assessing or being assessed – should ask, is: are we doing the assessment of learning OR assessment for learning? If it is the former, how could we change it into the latter?

My Broken English and EMI in supervising PhD student(s)

Sadly, this is my first blog during this course. This is especially sad since I have used blogs as a part of some of the courses that I have taught myself and expected everyone to participate in blogging eagerly. It is really stunning how soon even we experienced teachers decline into children who must be forced to do their homework. I apologize for my infantile behaviour and that I have prioritized other job-related assignments over this course. This does not mean I don’t value TACE; on the contrary, I do, and very much so! So from now on, I try to be more involved also in web discussions.

At the moment, as a senior researcher working in Academy of Finland funded projects, teaching is a very minor part of my work. I am more involved in chairing workshops and panels in English than in regular teaching. As an adjunct professor (docent), I supervise several PhD theses written in English. One of my doctoral students does not speak Finnish, so our meetings are in English. So in this blog, I will concentrate on guidance or supervising as a pedagogical activity and ponder on my guiding or supervising practices and methods and the demands they put on both the PhD student and on me from a language perspective.

As supervisor, I like to think of myself as someone who can be easily approached. I aim at a dialogical relationship with my students. I try not to position myself above them as an authority, as someone who has “better” knowledge”. Instead I hope to be a supporter or a guide who is available for the PhD students as someone who is there for them when they need me. I wish to utilize my experience of supervision and guidance after spending decades first as a supervisee and then a supervisor. I also have had time to gather tacit knowledge of the processes of academic writing and inter- and multidisciplinarity, and I believe that these are valuable even though I don’t necessarily have perfect substantial knowledge of the theses my superviewees are working with.

What does supervising mean from a languages perspective? The situation differs perhaps from many others that are taking this TACE course: they have to be aware of the variety of language skills that their students possess, whereas I know that the PhD student I am supervising is much more fluent in English than I am. She, originally not a native speaker of English herself either, has done her MA studies in English and both speaks and writes very fluently. As I have studied in 1990s when there were no courses in English and all the books in the curriculum were in Finnish until after perhaps BA phase. Also, as I never went abroad as an exchange student (which I regret bitterly now) I simply have not had many possibilities (neither the need) to practice my English language skills until recently.

Now this difference in our English skills and me being the underdog in this respect can be interpreted as both a benefit and a downside.

The situation is actually quite beneficial in in the sense that acknowledging our differing abilities in English as our working language helps us to become aware of the power hierarchies in (any) supervision relationship, and in this case – as she is the more powerful in this respect here – also to dismantle or deconstruct them. It is probably easier for the supervisee to discuss with me and seek for help as she sees that I am really just a human being with my faults and lacks. She perhaps feels that she does not have to formulate perfect sentences in her writing either, but that she can come and talk to me with incomplete thoughts, as she realizes that I too am in a constant process of developing. So our differing language skills may in this case be empowering for the PhD student.

And simultaneously the situation is also a bit difficult for probably both of us, but probably especially for me. Although I do understand written and spoken English, it is sometimes hard for me to explain what I want to say in a foreign language. This becomes ever more difficult in situations where conceptual and theoretical ideas that might be difficult to explain even in Finnish should be put into words in a foreign language. This of course applies also for any other situation that I encounter in academic work such as conference presentations, my own writing, etc. But sometimes I worry if the PhD student might feel uncomfortable in these situations where I lose my words, mumble, and so on. – And then again, this might be one more phase of just emphasising that I am a human being and not perfect as such. Also, as I claimed earlier, I trust that my supervisor talent lies somewhere else that in the fluency of my oral delivery.

That I don’t claim authority but instead try to facilitate a dialogical relationship means of course that the students in general have to take more responsibility. Even if they ask me direct questions such as “should I write my thesis in a form of a monograph or as articles” I rather not answer them directly but make them think about the options from many angles. Doing this in English is sometimes challenging for me and perhaps also for the listener.

Although there might be some benefits in speaking less fluently than my PhD student, I would still argue that becoming a fluent speaker myself is certainly not a hindrance for the future supervisor/guidance relationships. Taking this course is a step on my way to improving my EMI teaching and supervising practices.