Monthly Archives: July 2013

Postcard from La France Profonde

A bit of a lazy blog this week.  Nothing really scientific, just a bit of a synopsis of our holiday so far.  Two weeks in and two of the children (29 and 19-year-old) arriving on the 0500 train in Gourdon tomorrow – Saturday, so last day on our own.

Without a doubt this has been the quietest part of France we have ever visited (we are staying in rather a nice villa, Combe du Bos, just outside Salviac).

Combe du Bos compressed  Combe du Bos interior compressed

One of the reasons we like France is because it is big but has so few people, and so the roads outside the big cities are almost deserted and the only real hustle and bustle you get is on market days or in tourist traps such as Carcassonne.  The Lot and the Dordogne area, which is where we are, is however, the sleepiest place we have ever been.  The towns and villages, except for the restaurants and bars, shut their doors at around mid-day and do not reopen until 3 or 3.0 in the afternoon.  How some of the shops make a living we can only guess at.  The exceptions to this universal lunchtime closing are the big supermarkets and even they tend to have only one or two check-outs open during the long lunch.

The local stone is fantastic, except where they have covered it with render, and the houses and churches lovely and quaint.  Almost cute.

Rampoux Church

Rampoux Church

Market Hall beams Villefrance du Perigord

Market Hall beams Villefrance du Perigord

Villefranche du Perigord quaint  housesa compressed

We even found a Dolmen at Pech Curet – we have been hunting for them for years under the impression that Dolmens and Menhirs were like Stonehenge – quite a different scale in France!

Le Dolmen Dolmen

Also love the refreshing lack of Health and Safety as evidenced in Le Tour at Luzech!

Le Tour - ladder Le Tour Luzech

Food and drink lovely – a selection of local wines and the cheese board from La Casserole in Salviac.

Local wines  Cheese compressed

and why do French supermarkets have so many more desserts to choose from?


Unfortunately I do not have a good camera with me so unable to do the magnificent insect life justice; swallowtail butterflies, hummingbird hawk moths, bumblebees, many interesting hoverflies and even some artwork!

  Three swallowtails compressed  Metal butterfly

Butterfly shop compressed

Rocamadour – a fantastic sight, but why build a town on such a steep slope!

Rocamadour compressed

Having a great time and still a week left 😉


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Tidydeskaphobia – does your desk reflect how your brain works?

A bit of a light-hearted post before I go on holiday.

Twice a year, once just before Christmas and the other just before I go on my summer holiday, I develop an urge to tidy my desk.  This takes two forms, first I attempt to reduce the in-box of my email account to zero, including, if possible, my folder called AAAA-pending and second, the physical process  of attempting to put a semblance of order to my somewhat cluttered desk.


This also includes my overflow desk, theoretically my meeting table, but in reality a bit of a mess.


This is a bit of a strange compulsion because I don’t actually feel comfortable with a tidy desk and have a deep suspicion of those folk who habitually have tidy desks and as for those with empty desks, well it raises the hairs on the back of my neck just thinking about it.  I am just not comfortable working in such a barren environment.  In fact, in that short period of time that my desk exists in its alien tidy state I have great difficulty finding things.  On the plus side, I do get one bonus when I do my twice-yearly desk tidy – my collection of ball-point pens and pencils increases in size dramatically 😉

Desk tidy

There is a popular myth that says that the state of your desk reflects how your brain works; that someone with a desk like mine exists in a world of chaos and multiple jobs on the go, regarded by many as a very inefficient way to operate. I  must confess that in that in one respect, the myth in my case is based in fact, I do have a huge number of tasks on the go at once, but I like to think I am quite efficient and complete them all in good time. The opposite side of the coin of course, states that a tidy desk reflects a tidy, well organised mind; a person who starts a job and finishes it before embarking on their next task.  Me, I like to go with Albert Einstein who supposedly said “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  [apparently apocryphal – see comments].  This, is in  my opinion, somewhat insulting to those of you with empty desks; to each their own is my motto.

Do I consider myself to have a cluttered mind?  Well actually, in other parts of my life, working and otherwise, I am, to say the least, rather anal.  My library at home, some 11,000 books plus*, is arranged by subject area and alphabetically within subject, and in my general fiction section, even by nationality of author.  My extensive reprint collection, numbering 10021 as of 10th July 2013, all of which I have read,  are carefully filed away in my filing cabinets, by subject and author, and also entered in EndNote™.  Note that as an added sophistication, the keywords are my own, not from the author’s list; plus I have a back-up system of good old-fashioned record cards!

Filing cabinets  Card index boxes

More record cards again  More record cards

I also have my student’s PhD theses lined up in chronological order, although I confess that sometimes I feel the urge to arrange them by colour and of course the hard copies of my data-sets are also arranged perfectly, although the box-files don’t match!

PhD theses Sycamore data

So what about my brain?  How do I think it is arranged?  Strange to say, or perhaps not, I tend to visualise my brain as a system of card index boxes, and thus when I try to recall something, I mentally riffle through the record cards until I find the relevant fact(s).  So my desk does not, at least in my opinion, reflect my brain, although perhaps the rest of the office and my brain do have a lot in common.  Incidentally, mine is not the messiest desk/office I have come across.  Two of my former colleagues at Silwood Park, now both retired, outdid me in the cluttered office stakes by a very long way.  At least you can get more than one person at a time in my office.

And just to prove that I have actually tidied my desk…….

Tidy desk

*Note if you wondered why I don’t know exactly how many books I have.  I did once have all my books catalogued and listed on record cards, together with a star-rating system, but in the process of an acrimonious divorce, my card catalogue system was destroyed (don’t ask) and I just didn’t have the heart or time, to start all over again.  I now rely on my back-up notebooks to help me remember which books I own.   I will also confess that when on holiday, I arrange all the books in the rented villas we stay in alphabetically by author, although I do manage to resist the temptation to arrange them by subject area 😉


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Exams – the easy option?

Having spent a considerable amount of the last month or so invigilating and marking exams, not to mention doing my stint as external examiner for the MSc in Conservation Management at Writtle College I have started to think about what is that we expect to achieve by setting exams.  In fact, I have even begun to wonder if we need exams at all.  Do we just set exams because that it is the way it has always being or do they tell us something that other assessment methods can’t?

I have used the word easy in my title, which at first sight might seem a little contradictory.  After all, as an examiner, there is the annual slog of producing ‘novel’ questions, together with a model or indicative answer, against which to mark, and then there is the curse of marking X number of scripts in a very short time, making sure that you grade the answers according to whichever criteria your department or institution has opted for. Not exactly a stress-free occupation and made worse by the fact that inevitably there is an incredibly short turnaround time required so that the students don’t have to wait too long to hear their fate.  Marking is definitely one of my least favourite things.

Joys of marking

We should also of course, not forget the stress and anguish that most students will have gone through to produce the scripts that you, with a strict time limit to observe, will inevitably spend less time on than they deserve.

Why do we use exams, and in this case I mean the traditional, sit down and answer questions in a room full of other aspirants, mostly all perspiring nervously and hoping against hope that the topics the revised will be on the face-down script in front of them.  The easy answer is that they tell us, the teachers, how much the student has understood of what they

Exam hall

have been taught and how good they are at retaining that information and  regurgitating it on to a piece of paper.  We would also argue that it tells us which students are also able to interpret and analyse what they have been taught and put it into context in a stressful situation.  From that, plus usually some coursework and a dissertation or research project, we can then assign (in the UK at least) an arcane grade (First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third, Pass or Fail or at MSc level, Distinction, Merit, Pass or Fail) that then determines the future of that student.  On the student side, a written exam  favours those with good memories, the ability to shrug off stress and write quickly, legibly and coherently.  That said, after some 40-odd years of sitting and setting exams, I find that I can pretty much tell what final degree result a student will achieve just from teaching and interacting with them in class, without actually seeing any written work.

So why do we need exams, why not just go for a less stressful approach?  Well obviously that would not work, because occasionally, even I am surprised by a result and more importantly, how would you assess  if the student had attained the required learning outcomes?  So you definitely need some form of assessment.  In other words, some form of coursework testing, which arguably reflects the situations we face in real life.  Coursework gives students the chance to be analytical, synoptic and reflective, to read around their subject and to meet deadlines.  There are also arguments against this form of assessment.  These include, marking (coursework actually requires you to give some feedback), direct cheating by copying and pasting from sources; plagiarism software helps, but doesn’t tell you if there has been collusion.  In addition, it penalises the bright but lazy.  I revelled in exams; coursework, which luckily in my degree, didn’t count towards my final degree, was, sad to say, something I expended only the minimum of effort on.   It tended to get in the way of my social life.  What are the plus points for exams?  They are a good quick test that puts students on the spot, trains them to learn, to cope with stress and to time manage.  On the other hand you might argue that what it really tests is memory, stress resilience and the ability to write with a pen.  On the negative side, there is a great tendency for students, and I was no exception in my early years as an undergraduate, to analyse past exam papers and reduce the pressure on their memory centres, by question spotting and by avoiding revising any material from lecturers that they didn’t like or who are known to be hard markers.  Thus you end up with students who may have passed their exams but have gaping holes in their knowledge base.  You can argue that a written exam allows us to test synoptic and analytical thinking, but this could be tested just as effectively with coursework, as synoptic thinking is certainly not restricted to exams.  A huge downside is the marking element.  Do we do the students justice?  Almost certainly not.  A typical final year exam might require the student to answer three questions in three hours, so forty minutes per answer.  If you are lucky and have a relatively small class, of thirty students, that results in 90 scripts in less than perfect hand-writing.  You then probably have two weeks to turn the scripts around, including them being moderated, or second-marked by a colleague.  Practices differ between institutions, but, in my experience, there is always some element of moderation/quality review, either by marking a sample of the scripts or in some places looking at very single exam answer.  Suppose you allow a mere ten minute per script, that will take you 15 hours if you went at it non-stop.  Some of my colleagues have several hundred scripts to mark – how can they possibly do them justice?  How much rest do you give yourself between batches, how many scripts can you mark before your analytical ability is eroded? Should you go through and re-read every script after you have finished marking all the scripts?

So what alternatives are there?  Some course modules at other universities and here at Harper Adams are assessed entirely by coursework and that raises the collusion/cheating concerns mentioned earlier.  We can detect plagiarism using software such as Turnitin™, but how can we tell that someone else didn’t write the essay, prepare the presentation or write the report and of course you still have to mark the work!  What about on-line assessment?  On the entomology MSc that I run, some modules are tested entirely by Multiple Choice Questions on-line; administered and marked by the computer – how good is that 😉  It is also a good way of testing basic entomological factual knowledge but again it is a memory test and doesn’t really test application and synthesis.  We also use short answer questions in conjunction with some on-line testing; this lets us test across a range of the learning outcomes, but again does not really allow much synthesis and analytical thought, and generates piles of marking, albeit somewhat easier, as mainly checking against lists.  One of my colleagues is very much in favour of exams, as he has rather a jaundiced view of coursework, although it can give us an opportunity to assess different skill sets; oral presentation, team work, writing skills, analytical thought and in the case of entomology, identification skills.  Unfortunately it does produce piles of marking, but hopefully also is good for deep learning which is what I think we want as an end result.

Another interesting method of assessment which I quite like the idea of, is an open book exam, where students are presented with some reading material some days or even weeks before the exam without being told what the questions will be, are allowed to take their annotated document in with them and are then presented with an exam paper with three questions, all of which must be answered.  Having observed this in practice, I have now come up with an interesting variant which I hope to be able to get approved by our exam board.  Students arrive in a computer room, they are presented with an exam paper, with, say six questions of which they have to answer three, and then allowed to use the internet to bolster their knowledge.  They are only allowed to take notes using pen and paper.  Two hours later they then move to a secure computer, with no internet access and spend the next two hours writing their exam.  This is more akin to real life, where you solve problems that you know some basic background stuff about by checking sources, getting extra information and then synthesising that knowledge into an intelligible report.  Of course it doesn’t  around the marking problem.

My friend Professor Guy Poppy at The University of Southampton, has gone on record via Twitter, suggesting that we could test students at the end of their university course with a portfolio of work and a 15 minute oral examination to check that what is there is actually their own, work, basically a mini-PhD viva.

Guy Poppy

Is this a mad idea?  Actually the Italians do all their exams orally and the Germans use a mixture of  written and oral exams.

A pleasant chat

An oral exam could be a bit stressful for shy students and might be an advantage for extroverts.  You would of course need a panel of at least three people to ensure fair play.  A typical British university final year might have 150 students in it.  So at 15 minutes a viva, which I think is probably too short, that would be almost 37 hours.  So let’s assume that the Department has sixty academics, allocates three staff members per viva, so 20 vivas can be run at once.  If we allow five minutes for marking that gives us twenty minutes per student which equals sixty vivas every hour.  So even if we decide to let the students have a bit more time to impress the examiners, we can still easily examine the whole final year in a day and the academics will only need to take part in three or four oral exams.  We used a similar system as part of the final year research project assessment when I was in the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College and that worked reasonably well.  What about consistent standards and available expertise?  You need a balanced department and also some people who have to circulate between panels to ensure similar standards, but even so, this could be a viable option.  It does not however, do away with marking the portfolio of work during the preceding three or four years, but perhaps if modules are assessed with a mixture of on-line MCQ tests plus informal use of the usual assessment methods, so not requiring detailed marking, it might actually work and encourage deep learning.

So at the end of all this I don’t really have an answer.  I find marking really tedious, but students and staff need the feedback to know if learning outcomes are being achieved.  Exams are a pain for the students to do but even more of a pain for academic staff to mark!  What I do quite like though is the idea of the short, sharp open book exam, despite the fact that it would need marking.  I would welcome any ideas and also any examples of novel easy to administer and mark test/exams and alternative assessment methods that have worked for you.

Post script

Just as I was going to post this, Meg Dufy over at Dynamic Ecology posted a great post about teaching ideas and their possible assessment methods.


Filed under Teaching matters