Fail

Some of my results this year haven’t been very good. Pretty dire, in fact. But that’s not interesting. What is interesting, however, is that I used the phrase “my results”. Not “my learners’ results” but “my results.” Please believe me when I say I haven’t gone back and edited that for effect – I haven’t. If you like, I am effectively claiming ownership of those results. This chimes with something a colleague reminded me of yesterday about the way that a lot of the teachers I know think: if the students do well, it’s because of the students’ hard work. If they don’t, then it’s because the teacher didn’t work hard enough.

The reality, of course, is that exam success or failure is a result of learning, and learning on a course is a shared responsibility. It is the responsibility of the learners, of course, because they do the work that gets assessed, and in a controlled environment like an exam there is nothing anyone can do to help them. This is sort of the point. It is the responsibility of the teacher as well to make sure that enough learning has occurred to enable the student to pass the exam. Teachers also need to be aware when this might not be the case, and be able to adapt and make changes to ensure that the right kind of learning occurs.

When it goes wrong, it’s really really hard for everyone involved to analyse it rationally. Mostly, of course, this is because of the notion of failure and what this means for learners, particularly the potential knock on effects of failure. Fail is a tough word, and has massive negative connotations, to the extent that some people and awarding bodies avoid the word. Thus student performance “does not meet the criteria” or is “below standard”. This is a pointless idea, because the connotation of fail merely transfers itself onto whatever euphemism you apply. You may say (and I often do) “I’m sorry, you haven’t passed” but the learner knows you mean “you failed.” So you spend your time trying to unpick, just like the student does, what went wrong. Which bits went wrong in the exam, which bits could have been taught differently? Was I checking and giving enough feedback in an appropriate way?

The thing to avoid is blame. You can’t go round blaming other people, or indeed yourself. Yes, there are going to be repercussions and some stern conversations. It’s not a happy experience, after all. But there’s nothing to be gained from finger pointing, from saying “it was the student/teacher/manager/direction the wind was blowing” because this creates dishonesty and defensiveness. Much better, once the initial grief is over, is to think about what can be done now. These might be immediate plans: for example, is it worth anyone doing a resit? Or they might be more long term, birds eye view ideas. Like analysing the whole course and identifying the issues that may have led to the exams not being passed and then making changes to put into place on the next course.

Emotional responses to situations like this are hard to unpick because they are emotional. Sadness, disappointment, guilt, shame, none of them are easy to deal with, even with the cold statistical view that 30% of your students failing is also 70% of your students passing. There is sometimes a case to be made for a diva-like “oh the hell with it!” and then forgetting the whole experience: I’ve had those moments, for sure. Exams, however, are not one of these times because there is a lot at stake. This is one of those times when you need to go away and write down all the things you are going to do about it. So if anyone wants me, that’s what I’m doing.

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3 comments

  1. I think another issue with this, especially with ESOL, is knowing the student well enough at the start of the course to predict what exams they will be able to take at the end of the course – as the time to make these decisions getting tighter and tighter this is going to impact on results. Maybe something to add to your Ponderings would be whether, in different circumstances you would have made different decisions about who to enter for what.

    1. I agree and that absolutely will be part of my reflections on this particular situation. It would be a bit tricky to go into too much detail here, however, because to do so would make it abundantly clear which course I was talking about and therefore possibly upset individuals should they ever read this.

      I think the point about the ESOL qualifications and the way that institutions are having to adapt to deal with the shorter number of guided learning hours is going to be an interesting one this academic year: “national benchmarks” are no more than national averages and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the national average for success in ESOL dropped this year. It’s been riding high over the last few years, presumably with some institutions achieving close to 100% achievement. Personally, given the nature of ESOL, I suspect definite rule bending if not outright fraud to achieve this – although I feel obliged to say that my own institution is not one of these places.

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