The marks of 'surface learning'

When I recently read law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a “mature student”, I was struck by the widespread deference to authority, the all-pervasive atmosphere of rote learning, and the almost exclusive assessment by examination.

This Neanderthal approach to assessment and evaluation particularly confounded me. What was worse, however, was that students were not allowed to see their marked exam scripts. They were only allowed to discuss their scripts with teachers on request.

Knowing how arbitrary marking can be from my own experience as a university teacher, I took the novel step of requesting marked copies of my exam scripts under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

My request was viewed as scandalous.
Staff held their noses and whispered that “a student” had dared to demand a marked copy of his exam scripts. However, the dean of law, Professor Hugh Corder, did comply with my request.

A perusal of the scripts revealed some interesting facts. First, I was surprised by the similarity between the marks awarded by the internal and external examiners. The reason for this like-mindedness, I discovered, lay in the fact that external examiners are not required to mark scripts blindly. They know what mark the internal examiner has awarded before they read an answer. Consequently, the protection offered by the external examiner to the student against bias, indifference or incompetence on the part of the internal examiner is extremely limited.

Secondly, no examination memoranda existed, a requirement at other universities. How else are internal examiners to communicate with external examiners? The answer is that with sighted marking, no communication is required at all.

Thirdly, most lecturers employed the point-for-point method of marking. Under this method, a marker looks for required elements to an answer in much the same way as a shopper looks for products on the shelves of a supermarket. As long as the shopper picks products off the shelf in the right order, he/she is rewarded. How he/she selects those products is irrelevant.

I subsequently asked the dean whether he would change the faculty policy and make marked scripts available to students so as to comply with the law. He replied: “No, as explained at some length during our meeting, the general policy of lecturers being expected to discuss a script with students and allowing the student to see his/her answers will continue to be the approach. Requests for the marking of copies will be considered as they arise, and I should imagine that the response will depend on the circumstances of each case.”

Alas, the dean has no discretion over whether or not to provide copies to students under the Act. That discretion lies with the student, who is permitted to choose either a copy of his/her marked exam script or to inspect the script.

Moreover, the dean’s reasons for claiming a discretion are cause for grave concern. The reasons appear to be to an attempt to control cheating and concern over circulation of good answers. The circulation of good answers can only be a problem in a system built on rote learning. What happens at UCT is the presentation of the same lectures each year in core courses. Resourceful students have reduced these lectures to paper and they are widely circulated, ingested and regurgitated by each new intake of students. The real reason for the refusal to change faculty policy is based on the fear that students will compare their marks and find them riddled with inaccuracies.

The refusal to change policy is also an indication of the poverty of teaching and assessment in the law faculty. It is not that law teachers are blind to better systems. There is an old debate over the advantages and disadvantages of teaching skills rather than content. For example, Justice O’Regan, in a 2002 South African Law Journal article, argues that the test of what constitutes the better lawyer is skills-based rather than content-based, but the emphasis on content is built into the structure of our law schools. Various departments protect jobs through curriculum design. O’Regan comments: “Curriculum redesign is therefore often hijacked by institutional politics.”

The reason the law faculty insists on lectures and exams as its main method of teaching and assessment is due to poor salaries. Restricting assessment to comparatively simple point-for-point marking in short examination time-slots is bureaucratically efficient. It allows teachers to curtail the chores of teaching and assessment so that meagre salaries can be supplemented by lucrative opinion or research work.

However, for students who feel short-changed, our new constitutional dispensation provides a remedy not only in the right to information but also in educational malpractice suits. Every student now has a right to have copies of their marked exam scripts. By the same token, every matric pupil has the right to see marked copies of their exam scripts.

As far as I know, no educational malpractice suit has as yet been entertained in South Africa, but if the current encouragement of surface rather than deep learning continues, the first suit is just around the corner.

Dr Rob Turrell is a speech writer in the Office of the Chairperson, National Council of Provinces. He is writing in his personal capacity

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