I have 3 writing projects at various stages that I need to finish/move on next week. I can write quite quickly when I put my mind to it but I am also the world’s best at putting it off and procrastinating as well as drafting and redrafting and then going back to the original draft, not liking that and starting again… When other people edit, I have a hissy fit and re-write. I often end up with what I started with in the first place! There’s a lesson there.
Anyway I have been reading Alawuntoherself ‘s reflections on where the best place to write is with interest. She’s tried her kitchen, a cafe and the university library and all seem to have their pros and cons. I need to have a good writing week. I have a book chapter to revise, a journal article to revise and I have a set of proofs to go through. I also have a mountain of teaching materials to pull together and new VLE sites to add content to. So I want somewhere without distractions and ideally without access to anything at all to do the proofs. I want somewhere where I can sit with my books and notes and ideas for the article and chapter and I want somewhere where I can browse for online content, youtube videos as well as more traditional academic materials for my students. So – proofs sounds like a summer house job. That might also work for the article and chapter although curled up on my sofa also sounds tempting for them – at least for the initial ‘ right let’s figure out what has to change here’ phase. I might also pop down the hill to my mum’s place – change of scenery sometimes gets the brain working and she has a breakfast bar which I like sitting at. As for the teaching materials – library would be good but I’d need headphones for the videos or podcasts I want to check. Chances of me remembering them are slim!
I do think where you write best depends on what phase of writing and thinking you’re in and what mood you’re in. I actually think variety is probably best for me. I get bored easily so I couldn’t rock up at my local cafe every day for a week and have a productive day every day. I’d get distracted and interested in other things. So, my writing plans are concentrated on Tuesday to Friday as I am in the office tomorrow and am likely to get sidetracked with post exam board queries and other pretty dull admin stuff. I’ll let you know how I get on but in the meantime do let me know if you have any writing tips and I’d love to hear your favourite writing locations.
This is not a blog about horses, or riding lessons or anything like that but I do have riding lessons, twice a week when I can fit it in and today’s lesson, though hot and sticky and airless, helped me understand something about some of my students which has until now baffled me a bit: Students who come for feedback on their exams or assignments and say ‘I don’t think I applied the law enough’ or ‘I was too descriptive wasn’t I’. Well if they know that, why didn’t they change it?
So, as I was trotting round the outdoor arena during my horse riding lesson this morning, I was getting increasingly irritated that I just wasn’t quite getting things right – this happens a lot but I’ve never made the connections before (I’ll spare you the technical details, this isn’t about my riding abilities). As I made pretty much the same mistake for the umpteenth time I suddenly recognised that sense of frustration I was feeling. I see it in students all the time when I give feedback. The thing with the riding lesson today was this: I wasn’t trying to do something difficult or complicated, I know what I was meant to be doing and why, I know how to do it and the instructions, guidance and advice given by the instructor made perfect sense. In other words, ‘I get it’ – doesn’t mean I can do it. Sometimes I can feel myself doing it wrong but am too late to correct it, sometimes I don’t realise what has gone wrong until my instructor tells me.
This pattern applies to a lot of the students who have come for feedback on exam performance in particular. They know the law, often they know intricate detail and information about cases that I would have to go look up; they know they need to apply the law to the question they are given, they know why they are doing this and usually also how to do it. Anything I tell them about structuring answers, referring back to the question, imagining what the client in a problem question would want to know, making a point and justifying it with evidence etc, make perfect sense to them – doesn’t mean they can do it.
Some of the students genuinely have no idea where it’s all gone wrong, they know it has but they don’t understand why, when they knew the law, knew they needed to apply it and knew how to do it, they still didn’t manage to do it. Others don’t know where it’s all gone wrong and it isn’t until I show them their work and explain that they have given a far too general answer, haven’t fully answered the question or have provided description without analysis that they see that that is what they have done. As soon as I point it out, they agree it’s obvious.
So what can we do about that? The feedback I am giving these students isn’t really anything they don’t already know. We can talk about what I think went wrong and how to improve and not make the same mistakes again – but they either already know that or it is obvious to them once I’ve pointed out the issues with their answers. So what is the solution in my riding lessons? Repetition, practice, different exercises which get at the same thing, every now and again going right back to basics, constant feedback and making sure that the basics are right, intuitive and so solid that they become second nature. If that works for my riding lessons I suspect it works for learning generally. Students need to write more and receive more feedback on their writing. They need to get into a habit of writing, they should write as much as possible and that writing should be critical, analytical, reflective…That may not be a popular thing to say, it means more work for students (writing) and more work for us as lecturers (marking/giving feedback) but I don’t really see any other way.
Now this may all have been completely obvious to all of you but of course the other thing about learning is that it is so much easier with context and experience, and my experience of frustration today nicely set the context for understanding something about my teaching, and feedback in particular, which I hadn’t ever consciously thought about before, which is this: Students often know what they should be doing and theoretically even how to do it but that doesn’t mean that they can do it. They need practice, lots of it!