Archive for category education

Assignment marking: Do the math

Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while is the unseen labour that goes into marking student work.

It’s semester 2 marking time in Australian universities, and I’ve just finished a stack of mine. ‘Stack’ in the figurative sense, because these were a combination of learning logs and and video blogging, all submitted and marked digitally, so there were no actual stacks of anything.

Being the audience and assessor for these students’ work was a privilege, and I don’t think any teacher should forget that having the authority to do this work is always a privilege. Sometimes it is also a joy. And it is always something that we do, knowing the important positive impact that quality feedback has on student learning.

It is a labour of love, but it is a labour to be sure.

Generally a student assignment takes 30 minutes to mark. So they say. Once I get my hand in, I can usually get through an exam response in 20 minutes (they don’t tend to require any feedback), and an essay in 30 minutes, but a set of professional plans (e.g. annotated lesson plans, units of work) takes about 45 minutes and you just can’t rush it.

A typical formula for university marking in my field is that formal assessment feedback and grading for each student should get an hour of your time each semester. That’s 30 minutes for each assignment if you only set two assignments. If you want to set more assignments, it’s on you to mark them quicker. If you’re in the edu-biz, you’ll know that this is where group presentations and short response exam papers start looking attractive.

In a typical semester I have 120 students. That’s maybe 90 students in one big unit, and 30 students in a smaller unit. As a high school teacher this was also roughly the number of students I had – roughly five classes of 25 (some with 30 students, some with closer to 20, e.g. senior classes).

Using me as an example: I set two assignments each semester. And we know that on average I plan to spend 30 minutes on each.

My semester runs for 9 weeks (because it’s followed by prac.), but they can also run for 13 weeks. You can’t really set an assignment in weeks 1 or 2. If the assignment is big, worth 40% or more, you can’t really set it in weeks 3 or 4 either.

Let’s say assignment 1 is submitted in week 5. We’re expected to get work back to students in 2-3 weeks. So they say. Which puts me giving their results back to them in week 8 (a very important deadline if the next assignment is due in week 9).

120 students


30 mins each


60 hours extra work

/over 3 weeks


20 hours of extra work each week.

Add about 3 hours for each of the following:

  • getting your head around the task and long times spent on first few tasks marked
  • moderation with a colleague
  • administration of grades, uploading feedback to LMS etc.

Rinse and repeat just one week later if you have set assignment 2 to be due in week 9.

So if you’ve got about 120 students on average, and managed to keep yourself limited to your 30 minutes per assignment in all units in both semesters, then you will have worked about 23 hours of overtime for 12 weeks out of the year.

I say overtime, because the whole time you’ve been doing this, life, and other work, goes on…

Classes still need teaching. Emails still need answering. You still have to front up to important meetings. Research papers still need writing, grant proposals still need submitting, you may be collecting research data and attending conferences too. If you’re a school teacher, it’s classes, emails, meetings, lesson prep, school dance supervision, year 8 camp, sport coaching, bus duty…the list goes on.

As depressing as this exercise is, I think we should all do the math on this for our own teaching context.

People need to know the reality of what teachers mean when someone asks them how they’re going and the only response they can muster is a stoney-eyed “I’ve been marking”.

Spouses and family members need to be acknowledged for how they support the teachers in their lives during marking seasons.

Teachers need to grasp the reality of their workloads so they aren’t taken by surprise each time the overtime cycle hits, and help each other learn how to manage the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes (or collectively rise up and change this system maybe, hey?).

And beginning teachers need to be aware of what they’re in for.

I am so grateful to my boss for giving me lighter teaching load this semester (just 35 students!) so I can focus on my research publications, but next semester I’ll have 120 students again. I can’t wait to meet them, but I sure do wish their assignments would mark themselves!

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If students designed their own schools…

Chatting in the mid-year break with Bianca and some other PBL-peeps, this video was recommended to me. It’s only 15 minutes long, and now I’m recommending it to you too:

The video shows what can be done in a school where teachers and leaders are prepared to really let students design their own learning. Like, really let them do it.

The students in this alternative academic program design their own Independent Learning Projects (that they report on weekly to other students), as well as their own Individual Endeavours (ambitious term-long projects, e.g. learning to play the piano and putting on a recital).

Something that interested me was, about 1 minute in, one of the students explained that in the course they look at “the four main bodies of learning”:

  • English
  • Math
  • Social Sciences
  • Natural Sciences.

Make no mistake – I was totally inspired by this video and even showed it to my students this semester. So inspired, that I changed our first assignment to be based on completion of an Independent Learning Project! But when those four areas are offered up as the “main bodies of learning”, I can already see points of tension for making this kind of program work across the board. What of the other learning areas? What of health and physical education? What of the arts? Foreign languages?

Without engaging with conversations about what is ‘essential’, ‘core’, or ‘fundamental’ in education – and working out some kind of common goal or philosophy to anchor us – I suspect alternative programs like the one featured here will (continue to) struggle to gain traction.

Although these programs aren’t (yet) the silver bullet we need to shed our teacher-centred shackles, I believe bringing these approaches into our teaching is vital.

Personal take-away thoughts:

  • Students have passions and interests that they are entitled to pursue.
  • Students are capable of designing their own learning, if we give them some parameters.
  • Students are more motivated to learn when they have some control in devising the questions for investigation.
  • Independent learning approaches seem an immediate good fit for students like this (this is is a class of nine Honours students, who self-selected into the program), but would disengaged or recalcitrant students need more scaffolding?
  • Doing my own Independent Learning Project in high school was a transformative experience for me. It was called a ‘mini thesis’ by my teacher, and I chose to study the French Revolution. I did this for just one term in just one subject – surely this is achievable across the board without rethinking our whole approach to schooling?

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Assessing soft skills in PBL

This week in class we explored the Essential Fluencies as an alternative set of ‘soft skills’ to the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

One of my students followed up this investigation with the following juicy question:

Essential fluencies seem to structure skills within select criterion, however I am curious as to whether PBL uses these as guides (depending on the student’s PBL objective) or whether students are meant to meet all of these at different stages of their PBL (to achieve a final product)?

If this is a flexible criteria, would using a feedback grid be the most effective way of communicating the development of an idea (as it focusses less on curriculum goals, more on constructive advice)?

I decided to post my answer to part of this question here on the blog:

You’ve asked a good question about skills and standards. My understanding of PBL (and other inquiry-based models) is that assessing skills is just as important as assessing content knowledge.

There are two (opposing) axioms that relate to this:

  1. ‘What gets measured gets done’.
  2. ‘Not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that can be measured matters’.

At the moment I’m inclined to agree with the PBL movers and shakers – that developing ‘soft skills’ should be seen as a vital curriculum goal, just as important as the acquisition of discipline knowledge and technical skills. The argument here is that if we don’t find a way of measuring/assessing soft skills then teachers will continue to sideline them. Because ‘what gets measured gets done’.

The BIE crowd have developed a range of assessment rubrics for the four skills that they identify as most important to PBL specifically: creativity and innovation, presentation/communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. You can find them here:

Of course, the opposing view is that such assessment rubrics lead people to forget the second axiom ‘not everything that matters can be measured’. I know sometimes I’ve watched presentations for example that are awesome, but their awesomeness can’t be explained using the BIE assessment rubric. It’s like all rubrics actually need a criteria labelled “X factor!” for when a piece of work or project does something amazing that we didn’t plan to (or cannot) measure. And sometimes by focussing students so explicitly on assessment rubrics, they can get obsessed with how to ‘game’ the criteria to reach the highest standard, rather than taking risks in their learning to work toward a big-picture goal.

Opposing axioms.

Opposing axioms.

As there is no ‘Ultimate God of PBL’, we are free to use whatever framework we want to think about “soft skills”. We can take up the Essential Fluencies, we can take up the skills foregrounded by BIE, we can use the 4Cs proposed by, or we can use the General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum.

But ultimately I’d argue that yes, whatever framework you choose, you should find a way of explaining to students the standards you are looking for on a range of criteria, for the particular project they’re working on. Assessment rubric sheets should be designed to make the criteria and expected standards transparent to the learner, and to aid the feed-forward process throughout a project as well as the feed-back process at the end of a project.


I know I haven’t answered all of the parts of this student’s juicy question, and we’ll be talking more about it in class. It may generate another blog post. In the meantime…

  • How would you answer this student’s question?
  • Do you agree that providing assessment rubrics for soft skills is useful for learning in PBL (or otherwise)?

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PBL presentation at AATE conference

Last week I presented material on using PBL in English at the AATE national conference.

Some English teachers up here in Brisbane gave me permission to show their work there, and I also shared some key links that helped me when I was beginning my PBL journey:

The big points about PBL that I highlighted by the end of the talk were:

  • PBL involves a process of deep learning over time.
  • PBL must involve an authentic audience beyond the teacher.
  • PBL still involves small bites of teacher-delivered material, timed to support learning and project progress.
  • PBL involves students in tackling real world concerns. Relevance is key!

Finally, I offered a range of my own ideas for PBL units for English. This frustrated non-teaching teacher would be very pleased to see others use/adapt/critique these project concepts…please report back if you do!

Digital storytelling PBL concept - by Kelli

Digital storytelling PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)


Student research PBL concept - by Kelli

Student research PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-ND-SA)


Poetry PBL concept - by Kelli

Poetry PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)


Shakespeare PBL concept - by Kelli

Shakespeare PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)

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Teaching English using textual concepts

I know I just finished saying that my blog would mostly be used for PBL reflection in the near future.

But there is a new resource available for English teachers and English curriculum boffins that I must share immediately.

The English Teachers Association NSW, in partnership with the NSW Department of Education, have created a resource for programming in K-10 English.

It is organised in ‘stages’ (rather than in year levels), but once you get your head around stage 5 = year 9 & 10, stage 4 = year 7 & 8, and backward in pairs from there, you will get the picture.

English Textual Concepts - 'The Textual Concepts and Processes resource'

English Textual Concepts – ‘The Textual Concepts and Processes resource’

The creators of this resource analysed the NSW English syllabus (which in theory maps on to the Australian Curriculum) to identify core concepts and processes implied by the curriculum documents.

The 15 ‘textual concepts‘ are:

  1. argument
  2. authority
  3. character
  4. code and convention
  5. context
  6. genre
  7. connotation, imagery and symbol
  8. intertextuality
  9. literary value
  10. narrative
  11. perspective
  12. point of view
  13. representation
  14. style
  15. theme

And the six ‘learning processes‘ are:

  1. understanding
  2. engaging personally
  3. connecting
  4. engaging critically
  5. experimenting
  6. reflecting
First six concepts, with learning processes represented across.

First six concepts, with learning processes represented across.

There are questions that jump to mind for me when looking at this resource, including:

  • how are the ‘learning processes’ intended to interact/overlap with the ‘general capabilities‘ in the Australian Curriculum?
  • where do ‘language mode’ and ‘medium of production’ fit into these concepts? Is it in ‘code and convention’, or…?

Overall I am excited by this contribution to English curriculum understandings. The conversations it will make possible between primary and secondary English are especially promising!

I highly recommend a look.

How might this approach to English subject content (knowledge and skills) interface with the curriculum (Australian Curriculum or otherwise) being used in your area? It’s been designed for NSW obviously, but could it have application beyond there?

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Let the PBL begin (again)!

It’s the end of semester one, which means two things for me:

  1. It’s time to prepare my ethics application for my funded research on project based learning in secondary English.
  2. It’s time to finalise preparations for my own project based learning plan for next semester.

I’ve been trying out elements of project based learning (PBL) for a few years now, and this will be the first unit that I feel fully embraces the model to underpin class organisation and one of the two major assignments:

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

This assignment will no doubt shift a little as I develop marking criteria to align to the unit outcomes. Ah, constructive alignment, don’t you love it?

This blog will largely be used in the forseeable future to record and reflect on my PBL research and teaching.

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Public school educated and proud of it

I’ve been thinking for some time about what to write about for my 300th blog post. I wanted to make it about something close to my heart, something that tapped in to a long standing passion.

One of the public schools I've enjoyed teaching in

Public high school (my image)

One area that I have been passionate about for a long time is my commitment to free and inclusive public school education in Australia. As an alumnus of the public education system I want to use this blog post to outline the main benefits I see in public schooling, and champion the teachers and students that work and learn together in these high quality institutions.

Ethics, values, and public schools

To say that public schools are lacking in values due to their secular nature is an abhorrent slur on the sector. However education commentators such as Kevin Donnelly will readily tell anyone that will listen that the lack of religion in public schools is a left-wing agenda designed to deny Australia’s heritage of Christian values.

My experience in public schools flies in the face of such assertions. In all schools I have worked and studied in there have been student-staff groups that meet to discuss or practice religion at lunchtimes and study breaks, and many schools continue to offer scripture sessions. I freely admit that my personal preference is for scripture to be taken out of school settings, but I respect the decision of school communities to offer the service where parents and/or students have expressed a desire for it to be in place.

For those like me that would rather see discussion of ethics and values occur in a broader context than the religious one, public schools promote this freedom. All schools will choose certain words or phrases to guide their students in fruitful directions – in my primary school the school crest offered ‘Honour and Service’ as a creed to focus the development of student values, and my high school offered ‘Loyalty, Sincerity, Generosity’, words that continue to frame my personal values in adult life.

In addition to these pithy creeds, public schools all offer codes of conduct, mission statements, and other means of imparting values to their students. And although the adequacy (and currency) of the National Values Education Framework is contestable, the ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling‘ are in place as a shared set of values for all schools in Australia.

Of course, all school sectors utilise similar means of organising school life around shared values and I am not trying to claim here that public schools do it any better! I simply hope to speak against the myth that public schools are a ‘wild west’ of value-free behaviour and anti-establishment attitudes.

Public schools and diversity

One of the biggest things I think public schools have going for them is their remit to provide free education, and to provide it for all.

I realise this claim does not always translate into a level playing field at the school level. The operation of specialist schools and the efforts of families to move into the catchment areas of ‘more desirable’ public schools cannot be ignored. I am not so naive that I think all public schools are operating with equal resources – they are impacted significantly by factors such as the sociocultural background of their communities and geographic remoteness.

By and large, however, the public school sector is authentically committed to diversity. Not just diversity in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of culture, sexuality and class.

You will not find a student that is gay being asked to leave a public school because they are not living ‘as God intended’.

You will not find a student that is poor turned away from a public school because they cannot pay the fees.

Public schools continue to teach disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities and from low-income households

I struggle to understand how parents who send their children to private schools do not see that they are effectively paying to ‘opt out’ of diverse communities. I have fought long and hard with some of my close friends about this … at work however, I tend to invoke the ‘do not discuss politics at the dinner table’ rule. I will happily make my personal view known here, however: I think that propping up a system where richer families pay to quarantine their children from learning alongside others that are less like them, or less well resourced, is a blight on our nation.

Resources in public schools

One reason I have often heard cited for sending children to private schools is that they will ‘have more opportunities’ there.

And this may be true in some cases – your average local public school might not have an orchestra, or a swimming pool, or an annual school play (then again, they very well might – have you asked?).

But if they don’t have these things when you enrol, is this really the end of the world?

If your school doesn’t offer violin lessons, might it not teach your child resourcefulness to go and find somewhere that offers after-school classes?

If your school debating team doesn’t win many trophies, might this not teach them how to focus on personal bests and celebrate teamwork?

If your school doesn’t have a drama club, might your child not help to start one? Or maybe even you could lend a hand?

The attitude that the school must provide every opportunity imaginable to students strikes me as an arrangement where parents over-rely on a single institution to provide learning opportunities for their children. I much prefer an arrangement that is grounded in community efforts rather than provision of an exhaustive suite of culturally elite services to a ‘clientele’.

The notion that opportunity only exists where it can be bought is the myth I seek to bust here. If the (perhaps not-so-glossy?) brochure for your local public school doesn’t advertise a chess club, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, or that they can’t start one.

Public schooling and future success

For those who assume that paying fees to a private school is a way of buying a student a ticket to future success, think again.

Barbara Preston from the University of Canberra recently discussed the findings of a number of studies that showed ‘State school kids do better at uni‘. This topic was also dealt with in a follow up piece by Jennifer Chesters from University of Canberra, who presented further data to demonstrate that ‘Private schooling has little long term pay-off‘.

Of course, the issue of future success has many other faces and is a more complex picture than that painted by test results and future earnings. One thing to keep in mind is that formal assessment and reporting can only ever show us part of the picture when it comes to learning and student outcomes. On the other hand, kids from public schools can face discrimination in the workplace when employers perceive a lack of social capital as a reason for passing over applicants from public schools (disregarding merit). My glasses aren’t so rose-coloured that I’ve never noticed the “old boys/old girls” phenomenon in play!

What I fear though, is that many middle class families are sending their children to private schools with the good intention of providing a ‘better’ education and an advantage when it comes to university entrance. Some parents report taking on second jobs just to pay for private school fees. Such families should be aware that there is no guarantee of getting bang for that buck. If it were me, I’d spend that money on a annual family trip abroad instead.

Why I will never work for a non-government school

In case anyone has gotten the wrong idea, can I pause here to say that I highly value the professionalism of my non-public sector colleagues. In the work I have done for the English Teachers Associations in NSW and Queensland I have had the pleasure of meeting English teachers from all sectors that have one thing in common – a desire to do right by their students and help their respective schools be the best they can be. In both my professional association and my research work, the resources that I create relating to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and literacy are intended to benefit all teachers, not only those in public schools.

However … I could not ever, for any amount of money, work as a teacher or administrator in a private school.

This is due to the simple fact that I would rather contribute my labour to the public sector, where I believe the values of equity and social justice are most fully realised.

It is also because for every person who has anecdotally told me about the benefits of private school pastoral care programs, there has been another reporting stories of being bullied by their peers and/or forced to conform to hideous rules by their teachers. Anecdotes aren’t representative, and in my line of work, I’ve really heard them all. Sure, some public schools have issues. Let me assure you, so do some private schools!

My point here is: anyone who cares to argue that private schools are better because they can afford the best teachers, keep in mind that I am one of many teachers that are committed to remaining in public schools. If you’ve ever pictured public schools as a wasteland of second-rate teachers, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, maybe I’m wrong…

Earlier this week I broke my ‘no politics at the dinner table’ rule when colleagues brought up the question of where I would send my own kids. And I respect that one of these folks comes from a devout Catholic family and so will likely send his kid there. I concede that if, like another colleague, I have a child with special needs that cannot be accommodated in a public school then I will have to consider a private school alternative. And when one colleague raised the possibility that the entire school system is already irrevocably broken and that old notions of ‘what works’ may need to be discarded completely … well, that gave me pause for thought. But honestly, I do trust that the system that served me so well will serve my children well too.

Maybe I’m wrong to be loyal to any sector of a system that is so badly failing to innovate and change. Maybe politicians aren’t done propping up the private sector and the slide into a truly two-tier system of schooling is already inevitable.

For now though, I just can’t ignore what I know about the awesome work that happens in public schools, or the sense of responsibility I have to continue improving that system from within.

And for always I will remain proud to be a product of the public school system.

300th post

Happy 300th post to me🙂