Howdy, Partner

I am giving a talk on Friday about the partnership relationship between teacher and student and, in my opinion, why we often accidentally attack this through a less-than-optimal approach to assessment and deadlines. I’ve spoken before about how an arbitrary deadline that is convenient for administrative reasons is effectively pedagogically and ethically indefensible. For all that we disparage our students, if we do, for focusing on marks and sometimes resorting to cheating rather than focusing on educational goals, we leave ourselves open to valid accusations of hypocrisy if we have the same ‘ends justify the means’ approach to setting deadlines.

Consistency and authenticity are vital if we are going to build solid relationships, but let me go further. We’re not just building a relationship, we’re building an expectation of continuity over time. If students know that their interests are being considered, that what we are teaching is necessary and that we will always try to deal with them fairly, they are far more likely to invest the effort that we wish them to invest  and develop the knowledge. More importantly, a good relationship is resilient, in that the occasional hiccup doesn’t destroy the whole thing. If we have been consistent and fair, and forces beyond our control affect something that we’ve tried to do, my experience is that students tolerate it quite well. If, however, you have been arbitrary, unprepared, inconsistent and indifferent, then you will (fairly or not) be blamed for anything else that goes wrong.

We cannot apply one rule to ourselves and a different one to our students and expect them to take us seriously. If you accept no work if it’s over 1 second late and keep showing up to lectures late and unprepared, then your students have every right to roll their eyes and not take you seriously. This doesn’t excuse them if they cheat, however, but you have certainly not laid the groundwork for a solid partnership. Why partnership? Because the students in higher education should graduate as your professional peers, even if they are not yet your peers in academia. I do not teach in the school system and I do not have to deal with developmental stages of the child (although I’m up to my armpits in neo-Piagetian development in the knowledge areas, of course).

We return to the scaffolding argument again. Much as I should be able to remove the supports for their coding and writing development over their degree, I should also be able to remove the supports for their professional skills, team-based activities and deadlines because, in a few short months, they will be out in the work force and they will need these skills! If I take a strictly hierarchical approach where a student is innately subordinate to me, I do not prepare them for a number of their work experiences and I risk limiting their development. If I combine my expertise and my oversight requirements with a notion of partnership, then I can work with the student for some things and prepare the student for a realistic workplace. Yes, there are rules and genuine deadlines but the majority experience in the professional workplace relies upon autonomy and self-regulation, if we are to get useful and creative output from these new graduates.

If I demand compliance, I may achieve it, but we are more than well aware that extrinsic motivating factors stifle creativity and it is only at those jobs where almost no cognitive function is required that the carrot and the stick show any impact. Partnership requires me to explain what I want and why I need it – why it’s useful. This, in turn, requires me to actually know this and to have designed a course where I can give a genuine answer that illustrates these points!

“Because I said so,” is the last resort of the tired parent and it shouldn’t be the backbone of an entire deadline methodology. Yes, there are deadlines and they are important but this does not mean that every single requirement falls into the same category or should be treated in the same way. By being honest about this, by allowing for exchange at the peer-level where possible and appropriate, and by trying to be consistent about the application of necessary rules to both parties, rather than applying them arbitrarily, we actually are making our students work harder but for a more personal benefit. It is easy to react to blind authority and be resentful, to excuse bad behaviour because you’re attending a ‘bad course’. It is much harder for the student to come up with comfortable false rationalisations when they have a more equal say, when they are informed in advance as to what is and what is not important, and when the deadlines are set by necessity rather than fiat.

I think a lot of people miss one of the key aspects of fixing assessment: we’re not trying to give students an easier ride, we’re trying to get them to do better work. Better work usually requires more effort but this additional effort is now directed along the lines that should develop better knowledge. Partnership is not some way for students to negotiate their way out of submissions, it’s a way that, among other things, allows me to get students to recognise how much work they actually have to do in order to achieve useful things.

If I can’t answer the question “Why do my students have to do this?” when I ask it of myself, I should immediately revisit the activity and learning design to fix things so that I either have an answer or I have a brand new piece of work for them to do.

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