At the coal face: critical reflections on two tutors’ formative assessment practices under pressure.
Billy Meyer and Penny Niven
The context for this research was an Academic Literacy course at the UKZN. The course is part of a broader Access (Foundation) Programme, which is designed to help 1st year, mostly Zulu First language students from impoverished educational backgrounds adjust to the reading and writing requirements of a Humanities or Social Sciences degree in English. We (the writers) are both tutors on this course, sharing the teaching of some 75 ‘Access’ students. During the first semester of 2006 the outcomes of this course were, initially, that the students ...view middle of the document...
Besides being an“activist” research model, action research is also “critical” (p 205) because it aims to expose and identify the self-interests and ideological incoherence of educators. By reflecting on why they act in particular ways, the educators can then resolve to act in theoretically stronger ways. In this instance, we as tutors on the course critically interrogated the ideologies informing our formative feedback. Having noted incoherence within our practices, we wanted to revisit the theoretical frameworks for a better practice, and to develop a stronger, more accountable “praxis” (p 190). Action research is also ‘critical’ is because it aims to be “emancipatory” (p 202), that is to generate real change, bringing “transformations of consciousness” into “transformations of social realities” (p 181).
Furthermore, action research is “participatory” and “inclusive” in character (p 191). Therefore this project aims, over time, to work collaboratively with a larger group of tutors, involving them in them in the research process. At its best, this type of research develops “self-reflective communities” (p 201). In a context where there are usually seven Academic Literacy teachers, including some inexperienced Masters and PHD students, across the two UKZN campuses on which this course is offered, a project such as this one has the potential to be mutually developmental, building capacity within the community of practitioners.
Action research involves “spirals” or “cycles” of planning, acting, observing and reflecting (p 186). This “self-reflective spiral” (p 184) gives evidence of the “dialectical quality of action research: the dialectic of retrospective analysis and prospective action”, (p 185). This paper describes one cycle within the broader framework of an ongoing series of interactions between reflection, theory and practice.
The first stage in the essay writing process was the starting point for this research cycle. Between the first and final drafts of the essay, we swapped our students’ scripts, initially with a view to standardising our marking criteria for the summative assessment at the end of the semester. This gave us unexpected opportunities for observing, in detail, each other’s styles of formative feedback, because the students were required to submit their first drafts alongside their final versions. In fact, one of our criteria for the summative assessment at the end of the process, was making a decision about the depth and quality of the changes which the students had made between their first essay and their final draft in response to our formative feedback. Engaging with this process we started to note the surprisingly different ways in which we gave formative feedback. We began to consider and discuss these differences and wonder whether they mattered – whether our comments were really aligned with the courses’ outcomes. We also wondered if our responses truly conformed to any of the substantial...