Ticky-tacky feedback

I’ve had two things on my mind this week – the first is the amazing cover of Little Boxes by Walk off the Earth:

(this is a serious earworm – catchy tune and lyrics which are political satire as relevant today as when the song was first written in 1962); the second is how to make assessment and feedback useful to students. And, actually, I think that both of these are connected.

It strikes me that often feedback is spoken about as something that teachers give to students – and that when students say, as they do over here every year in the NSS results, that they are not happy with the feedback they were given, pressure is put on teaching staff to give more feedback. But if we’re constructivists about learning – and we are, aren’t we? – then surely feedback should be something that we are helping students to construct for themselves, not something that we are giving to them.

I teach on a large level one course, and the bulk of the assessment on that course is by we tutors marking a 1500 word essay and a 90 minute exam (where they write two essays). The essay (worth 50% of the mark) is handed in in week 6 of the course, marked and handed back in week 9 with written comments, the exam is about 4 weeks after that. That’s not great – students are waiting for a long time before we tell them how they are doing (there are weekly MCQ quizzes, but they don’t test their ability to write or construct a philosophical argument, so they are of limited use), but the real problem with this design of assessment and feedback, imo, is that it treats the students as passive recipients rather than as active learners. I’m not meaning to single out Philosophy at U of Glasgow as being particularly bad – it’s just one example of a common method of assessing undergraduates.

The real issue is, I think, that we’ve accepted a constructivist model of learning, and we realise that students learn better when they are actively engaged with their learning, but we haven’t yet looked at how we might get students actively engaged with their feedback. But when you think about it it’s obvious – isn’t it? If students learn better when they construct things for themselves, then they will learn better if they are able to construct their own feedback. And, of course, there are plenty of ways that this can happen.

I like putting students in charge of their own learning – I’ve been using versions of the Jigsaw Classroom for many years now because it ticks so many boxes, and one of the things that it does it gives students opportunities to self-assess and get a feel for how they are doing compared to their peers – but the most powerful way of assessing students is to give them opportunities to construct their own feedback and to recognise that their judgments are at least as good as any so called expert. David Nicol’s REAP project has convinced me that peer review, or peer critiquing (which ever you want to call it)* works not because students get feedback from their peers, but because as they construct feedback for their peers they are also making judgments about their own.

So why have I called this post “ticky-tacky feedback”? Well, it’s because when I am sitting marking piles of anonymous undergraduate essays it’s hard to see the individuals behind the writing, and it is all too easy to turn into a marking machine and reward those students who follow the set formula, and that is wrong for so many reasons.  If all we are doing is assessing for the sake of assessment, and not for the sake of getting students engaged in their learning, then, as WOTE say, “they are all put in boxes and they come out just the same”.

I’m glossing over a lot of stuff here, but you get the point.

* Students don’t mark each other in this model – and that’s important. They provide comments without giving a mark or grade.

Posted in Critical pedagogy, Jigsaw Technique, Learning, Peer interaction, Teaching, Twisted Pair, University | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Learning and Meaning

I rewatched a superb TedX talk yesterday by Tesia Marshik called Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection. She talks about the myth of learning styles and the danger of believing in them, and it’s a powerful and persuasive critique. What particularly struck me watching it this time was her explanation of how we store what we learn in terms of meaning, and a few of us had a long conversation about this afterwards.

Years ago my mum taught remedial maths to secondary school children. They didn’t want to be there – they didn’t see the point. But most of the boys wanted to have a motor bike when they were old enough, and most of the girls wanted a fairy tale wedding, so mum’s brainwave was to give them all a project of planning for their bike, or wedding, or whatever else it was that they wanted. So, rather than ask them to do abstract sums, she got them to work out a budget for something they really wanted – she gave maths a meaning for these students.

When I’ve thought about this before, I’ve thought about it in terms of giving students reasons to want to learn, and I still think that’s true, but I think that putting it in terms of helping them to find something that makes it meaningful to them is a better approach. I can give my students instrumental reasons to study philosophy – because they want to pass the course for example – but these reasons don’t actually help them to learn anything. Helping them to make it meaningful to them, on the other hand, is helping them to store it in a way that will be valuable to them –  it will actually help them to learn.

The picture at the top of this blog post, by the way, is from the talk. Apparently the board on the left is an actual game of chess, and the one on the right is just random pieces. If you show these images to folk who can’t play chess, they’ll only remember where a few of the pieces are on each of the boards. But if you show them both to expert chess players, they’ll remember where most of the pieces on the left hand board were, but do no better than the novices at remembering where the ones on the right hand board – the left hand board means something to them. I think that’s a stunning demonstration of Marsik’s argument.

Here’s the talk in full – I recommend it. I’m now off to think more about the implications of this for how we assess and give feedback to our students, and how I can frame this in the context of my thesis and CLMooc

Posted in #CLMOOC, Learning, Online learning, Peer interaction, PhD, Teaching, University | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a name?

Hmmm, I just tried to sign up to Instagram again. Now, I know that I don’t own the name NomadWarMachine, but I use it across so many platforms that I identify with it as strongly as I do with my “real” name.

But somebody else has taken it (stolen, I am really thinking) it on Instagram so I can’t have it. Pout. So after sulking for a while I tried to sign up with the name I use for Skype (another place where a usurper stole my nomad name).

But somebody else has stolen that as well. And to add insult to injury they have never even posted there.

This is not funny – this is my identity! I’m trying to laugh, but it matters. Well, not the second name so much, but my “real” social media identity.  That’s me, and when the name’s not available for me to use then I don’t want to use that platform.  Gah.


Posted in Social Media | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Cat Map

No, not a map of cats, but a map for cats. Specifically, this is a map of the downstairs of our house and the back garden. Each X marks a spot that is owned by a cat or that a cat finds exciting (or both).

No wonder there is so much cat hair everywhere!

Posted in #CLMOOC, Garden, Mapvember | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A map is not a tracing

Today’s inspiration for #Mapvember comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on the rhizome. This is one of the passages in A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) that I return to again and again:

Make a map, not a tracing … What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real … The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back “to the same.” The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence”. (D&G ATP pp 12-13)

To me this is the essence of #CLMooc, #DS106 and the whole participatory HOMAGO culture. Don’t copy (trace), but remix. Ignore instruction. Flout, subvert. Pirate, appropriate, make it your own. Refuse to acknowledge plagiarism as a problem. Honour the artists, writers, poets and musicians you admire by making your own versions of their work. Inspire, and be inspired.

Posted in #CLMOOC, D&G, Mapvember, Rhizomes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


A new month, a new challenge. This was one suggested by Wendy Taleo and developed by her and others in the CLMooc collective. Inspired by Miska Fredman’s mapvember challenge during November we in CLMooc will be making some maps together. Our blog has lots of suggestions about how folk might approach this but ultimately it’s up to each of us to decide what we all do.

I began today by talking Miska’s first word of the day – goblin – and sketching a quick map:

I don’t know where I’ll go with this challenge this month, but I’m aiming to have a bit of fun and practice my drawing … and maybe learn some fingerpicking tunes on my uke as well.

Posted in #CLMOOC, postcards | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Why I write

I write because I’m happy

I write because I’m angry

I write because I’m sad

I write because I care

I write because I can

I write because I can’t not

I write because I’m human

I write because I write

Posted in #CLMOOC, DailyCreate, DS106, Learning, Online learning, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

From Scotland with love

This week hurricane Ophelia hit the UK. Well, I say hit, but it was really more of a tickle in Glasgow – wet and windy, but no worse than the usual Autumn storms. And as I reflected on today’s Daily Create challenge today I realised, yet again, just how lucky I am to live in this beautiful country and to work at such a magnificent University. Look at Pearce Lodge, for example – elements of 17th century buildings reconstructed into a new structure when the campus moved in the 1880s, the chimney heads damaged and repaired after WW2 – I love this building for it’s shape and for its history. That’s build to last.

pearce lodge gate glasgow university

By contrast consider the Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in Puerto Rico – ravaged by hurricane Maria but determined to carry on teaching – I have no words to express my admiration for these people. I’ve sent a card – prompted by Alan’s blog post at the weekend – and I tweeted them a photo today (featured at the top of this post – it’s a wreck of a boat on my favourite island of Mull, with a tree tenaciously growing out of its deck) as requested by the Daily Create  – and I will be following Antonio and finding out what his students do next.

I take my hat off to all of you, and hope you will let me know if I can be of any help to you.


Posted in #CLMOOC, DailyCreate, DS106, Photos, postcards, University | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pepper pot

If Niall was designing a pepper grinder for the first time, he’s make it BIIIIIG! Niall likes food with his pepper 😉

Here’s a representation of the size he’d likely choose, with the Dalek representing Niall.

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Fractal music

Fractals fascinate me – the mesmerising beauty of their evolving, expanding symmetry never fails to draw me in and remind me how beautiful maths can be.  Mandelbrot, of course – such mathematical cleverness, but also the numerous examples that can be found in the natural world. Romanesco broccoli, pine cones, snowflakes – even trees. Surely Deleuze would not have been tired of trees had be noticed this facet of their nature.


So as I was googling this week I was delighted to find that fractal music is an existing genre. I read about the musical motif called an ostinato (which I think is a fancy name for a riff, actually), and wondered if we could use this to create some CLMooc fractal music.

For me it’s the act of zooming in and finding macro patterns copied in micro that fascinates me, so I wondered how to emulate that in musical form. A simple way of doing this, at least in my mind, would be to find a passage of music (the ostinato), and then mimic this zooming in and zooming out that visual representations do. Here’s my initial thoughts:

  1. Play the phrase at normal volume. Play it again very quietly and keep playing it over and over, louder each time, till it gets back to the original volume. Repeat.
  2. Play the phrase right down at the left hand end of the keyboard. Play it again a few notes up, then up again, right to the top of the keyboard. Repeat.
  3. El (a musical friend) suggested starting with breves (long notes) and repeating with shorter and shorter notes.
  4. Niall and I thought about layering the phrases in (3), so for each time we played it through as breves we’d play it through twice as semi-breves etc. (Hard to explain this one without doing it, but maybe this makes sense?) I think this would also work for (1) and (2), and we could possibly combine 1-3 and make one fractally magical noise.
  5. El suggested changing the note order to represent the branching.
  6. Other things that Wendy and I discussed were using different instruments, and using rounds (like “row your boat”).

And, just as I dash off to have my Saturday night pizza, I realise that we could use Fibonnaci numbers, and that seems so beautifully easy. At least on paper. 🙂

Mandelbrot Monday” flickr photo by kevin dooley  shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

Romanesco” flickr photo by tuppus shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

Posted in #CLMOOC, Music, Online learning, Peer interaction | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments