Archive for category university

Teaching and work-life balance

This week I’ve given my pre-service teachers this ‘wicked problem’ to start a conversation about work-life balance:

Imagine it is dinner time on Tuesday and you have three things to do before school tomorrow:

  1. Grade papers
  2. Meet a family/friend obligation
  3. Sleep

You only have time to accomplish 2/3 of these things.

Which thing do you drop?

The decisions and justifications that ensued were sufficiently terrifying. Don’t worry – I also had an excellent follow up discussion about all the joy and fulfillment that teaching brings to your life…

Overwhelmingly, students chose to drop sleep (if they were the kind of person who could handle that kind of thing), or family/friend obligations. Many justified their choice by explaining that family and friends would be understanding, and they’d ‘make it up to them’ later.

Some home truths I needed to explain after we had our discussion included:

  • This is a wicked problem that most teachers (and ALL beginning teachers) face down pretty much every single night. And every weekend. Basically, in every moment of spare time.
  • You can only run on a few hours sleep a night for so long. Driving while overtired can be as bad as driving drunk. Your body will kick your butt come holiday time and you WILL crash. You will also cope less well with this as you age.
  • Your friends and family will only put up with being neglected for so long. They will get tired of coming second best. Many will move on as a result. Where will that leave you?
  • The assertion that “I will not get myself into this situation” is naive. A beautiful and important goal, but naive.
  • The claim that you will get those papers knocked over in a couple of hours ignores the reality of many teachers’ work. English teachers especially mark long pieces of writing – like essays and short stories. You’re looking at around 30 mins per paper, so if you have even half a class to do, you’re looking at 7.5 hours marking work.
  • When you’re not marking, you’re planning. There’s. Always. Something.

The follow up sharing has come thick and fast.

Here is an explanation of the Four Burners Theory that one student shared. She wondered if maybe women generally feel more pressure than men to keep all four burners running, and burn out as a result.

One student shared information about music that is purposefully constructed to reduce stress.

This article bemoaning ‘mindset’ culture and the way ‘good teaching’ is conflated with ‘tired teachers’ serendipitously came across my feed that same week.

And, just to prove that when a message is needed, it comes from all angles…Steven Suptic even made a video that same week about being BURNED OUT from making videos.

I’d love to hear from teaching colleagues about their strategies for solving the wicked problem above. Or their struggles in attempting the same.

Postscript, 12th May: And wow, this post from Tomaz Lasic this week with advice for new teachers is solid gold.


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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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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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It took nine weeks

How long did it take for you to settle back into work?

This is what people will ask me, down the track. What people have already been asking for a few weeks now.

I started work just after bub turned 11 months, and now she’s 13 months. It’s my ninth week back.

It took nine weeks to get ‘with it’.

I think I have successfully: decided where to get coffee and lunch; remembered most of my passwords; stayed back at work a couple of times; stayed up late working after bed time; said hello and had a chat to most people at least once; started teaching, with three lectures under the belt; presented a conference workshop; established a new dinner time routine.

Working. Enjoy responsibly.

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Eye of the Tiger

I want to make a play list of songs that would be good for getting ‘psyched up’ for work.

There’s currently one song on my list – used as a theme song for the TV show Suits, ‘Greenback Boogie’ reminds me of the thrill you get when hard work pays off. Though there are certainly no suits being worn in my office, and I’m well aware that working 20 hour days is not actually that glamorous…

I used to play ‘Get in the Ring’ a lot on the way in to work, but although it was good for preparing to deal with some tense issues at the time, I don’t think I benefited from the antagonistic feels in the long run…

So hit me with it – what tunes are best for getting excited to go to work?