Friday, May 09, 2014

Outline bloat

I wonder if the current trend of crafting monster essay outlines for our essay test questions started with me. Looking back, whenever I wrote outlines, they were long and detailed, stuffed full of whatever garbage knowledge I possessed and could dredge up that would in one way or another fit the question. I was so proud of them, I'd even post them here for people to download, should they be so inclined. I'm not sure anybody did, but they're still in my previous posts, nonetheless. Hope the links still work.

Today, there's almost a competition among us to see who can drag out the longest possible essay outline. Somewhere, we seem to have forgotten what 'outline' means. It's a skeletal, basic structure of an essay. These days, we have bloated our outlines so much with content so that by word count, the outline is often way longer than the maximum size of an 'A' Level GP essay.

We've even gone to the extent of research by Google to acquire as much content as possible to dress up our outlines so that they don't look naked compared to anyone else's. And the discussions we have over them... the more the bloat, the more avenues for disagreement over question and terminology interpretation; the relevance of this or that approach; the aptness of this or that example or piece of evidence. We spend hours trashing out questions (sometimes just one question), and outlines to these questions; chopping and changing as we go. Occasionally, complete overhauls have to be done. All this before we let the kids have the questions to answer in their tests and assignments.

While we can say we work our asses off setting test questions, I wonder how much of this effort is actually productive? Kids writing essay tests face certain constraints that we don't: a maximum count of 800 word; a time limit of 90 minutes; and one brain each with no Internet access. We, on the other hand have a currently expanding word count; nearly limitless discussion time; many brains working together; and Google access. This huge disparity of constraints inevitably doom the kids to failure. How can they, with their limitations, possibly match our expectations? Anything they come up with will look incredibly crude and ignorant next to our expansive and erudite outlines. And when we mark, our tendency inevitably seeks out that which is missing from our expectations and penalize each omission cumulatively. There is no way for the average student to pass like this.

In a court of law, which judge prejudices himself by working out beforehand what arguments and evidence to accept and reject even before the trial begins? Rather, the judge weighs the arguments and supporting evidence offered by the opposing legal counsels, consults precedents and then makes a ruling. Likewise, when we are grading essays, each essay is a case we need to rule on. It's inherently unfair of us to presuppose an answer and score them low when their answers deviate from our expectations.

Perhaps this is the reason why we are sometimes surprised at the 'A' levels when some kids who usually pass our tests do unexpectedly poorly; and other kids who normally fail do unexpectedly well. It's probably the difference between those who are good at formulaic responses but apply the wrong formula, and those who just have to muddle through with no choice but to focus on the question. Anyway, as far as I can tell, Cambridge only releases its detailed report AFTER the markers have completed the marking and they only report on what they have observed of the overall performance of the cohort. I believe when Cambridge marks, the marking is done without prejudicing themselves beforehand.

So now that everybody is submitting monster outlines, I find myself swinging back towards flexible, non-partisan, short outlines of 5 or 6 sentences long, focused on the reasoning structures required by the question with no interest in the content. I have no control over what content the kids are likely to present me with, anyway, so content is a secondary concern. My primary concern is to see if they can address the question appropriately while making their logic transparent. For me (and likely Cambridge too) that's good enough to pass. Beyond that, I can then reward what content each kid provides accordingly. And that is a fairer marking system, I think.

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