Hurdles and Hang-ups: Identifying Those Things That Trip Up a StudentPosted: May 13, 2012
Most of the courses I teach have a number of guidelines in place that allow a student to, with relative ease and fairly early on, identify if they are meeting the requirements of the course. Some of these are based around their running assessment percentages, where a student knows their mark and can use this to estimate how they’re travelling. We use a minimum performance requirement that says that a student must achieve at least 40% in every component (where a component is “the examination” or “the aggregate mark across the whole of their programming assignments”) and 50% overall in order to pass. If a student doesn’t meet this, but would otherwise pass, we can look at targeted remedial (replacement) assessment in order to address the concern.
One of the things we use is often referred to as a hurdle assessment, an assessment item that is compulsory and must be passed in order to pass the course. One of the good things about hurdle assessments is that you can take something that you consider to be a crucial skill and require a demonstration of adequate performance in that skill – well before the final examination and, often, in a way that is more practically oriented. Because of this we have practical programming exams early on in our course, to resolve the issues of students who can write about programming but can’t actually program yet.
It would be easy to think of these as barriers to progress, but the term hurdle is far more apt in this case, because if you visualise athletic training for the hurdles, you will see a sequence of hurdles leading to a goal. If you fall at one, then you require more training and then can attempt it again. This is another strong component of our guidelines – if we present hurdles, we must offer opportunities for learning and then reassessment.
Of course, this is the goal, role and burden of the educator: not the cheering on of the naturally gifted, but the encouragement, development and picking up of those who fall occasionally.
Picked correctly, hurdles identify a lack of ability or development in a core skill that is an absolute pre-requisite for further achievement. Picked poorly, it encourages misdirected effort, rote learning or eye-rolling by students as they undertake compulsory make-work.
I spend a lot to time trying to frame what is happening in the course so that my students can keep an eye on their own progress. A lot of what affects a student is nothing to do with academic ability and everything to do with their youth, their problems, their lives and their hang-ups. If I can provide some framing that tells them what is important and when it is important for it to be important, then I hope to provide a set of guides against which students can assess their own abilities and prioritise their efforts in order to achieve success.
Students have enough problems these days, with so many of them working or studying part-time or changing degrees or … well… 21st Century, really, without me adding to it by making the course a black box where no feedback or indicators reach them until I stamp a big red F on their paperwork and tell them to come back next year. If they can still afford it.