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Getting your ducks in a row

Garbage in, garbage out. Quality teaching equals quality results. There's a watertight correlation between input and output, and the learning that takes place matches exactly what it says on the tins labelled "learning plan".

Dream on. In teaching, the input-output binary can wobble and the results can sometimes seem like pulling the handle on a fruit machine, expecting three bars in a row but coming up with an orange, a cherry and something that looks like a blueberry.

Working in creative media, I have to admit that's often no bad thing. In fact, I spend a lot of energy trying to convince my students to open up a film text, or a short story, instead of trying to squash it into a little box marked "meaning". As their confidence grows, they learn to take risks, to think, to join in the debate. They know I'm not looking for an input-output model here. "I expect to learn from your assessments," I remarked to the class - which kind of frightened them a bit.

Realistically, however, success in achieving many units eventually boils down to an input-output binary. Woody Allen says that 80 per cent of success is just showing up, and he's right. But what about the other 20 per cent who demand evidence that you didn't just show up but that you understood and actually learned something?

In general, learners love the showing up part - the input. Exposition, discussion, exploration, is all fine with them. They like the social element. A casual survey of my class's progress with the virtual learning environment which supported some units revealed that they thought it was great to be able to work through it at their own pace, for revision or to make up for absence. But they valued, too, the collective, discursive approach. Input, then, can be shaped to match a learner's needs and is rarely a problem.

Switching from input to output is tricky: you need to time it right, and you need to wring the evidence from your learners in good time.

How much time can you afford to spend on input? The answer is, of course, as much as possible. Again, note Woody Allen's salutary comment: "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia."

And output? Wringing assessments out of learners can take longer than you think. Why such procrastination? Some learners can find it agony to buckle down to assessment. Research published in Psychological Science suggests that when the tasks we're given seem to be creative, or seem abstract, we will drag our heels. When the same tasks are presented in more concrete forms, they will be done and dusted.

When you're writing units or assessment materials, it's important to work with the more concrete forms. You need to be clear about what can be assessed, demonstrated, observed (though I would love to write a learning outcome which gave credit for "sit quietly and think for one hour"). Lesson plans turn these outcomes into achievable tasks and set the goals.

Students who see themselves progressing, who see manageable chunks of learning assessed and credited, become hooked on success. Teaching and learning? In, out, shake it all about. That's the game.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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