But it wasn’t fair.

Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidyuweb/  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidyuweb/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My life, as a marker of student work, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the production of work that all students followed. Such a ‘house style’ is used by colleagues in other subjects and covers formatting, word count requirements (penalties for exceeding the limit etc), reference style (specifies the precise variant of Harvard or Vancouver), expectations around structure drawing, figure and table format etc etc etc.  For a start, I’d have to specify less when I write my assessment guidelines. Then I’d be able just to apply an agreed set of standards to any bit of work that crossed my path, and I’d be familiar with the standards by virtue of seeing them in everything.

My life, as a writer of scientific papers and grant applications, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the production of such things that we all followed.

My life, as someone who applies for jobs and who serves on recruitment panels, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the format and content of CVs, applications forms, covering letters and supplementary information that all jobs required and all applicants followed.

The thing is, house styles deny students some very key learning experiences. Firstly, it denies them an appreciation for a variety of styles and formats  and the subtlety that some are better than others depending on the context.  Secondly, it often squelches that much desired quantity of ‘initiative’.  And initiative, specifically, ‘using one’s own initiative’ is something that needs practice just as much as working hard and studying does. House styles, and assessment guidelines in general can risk being so prescriptive, that it denies some students the opportunity to exceed in ways we could not conceive of. It also fosters the development of far more strategic behaviours – ‘I didn’t include it because it wasn’t in the assessment guidelines’ – which may actually restrict learning.

The existence of a vast range of styles of journals, referencing, funding applications, CVs and job application formats means that we should be aiming to help our students identify the requirements of a particular task and complete the task to those requirements. We should be helping them realise that they should verify the required formats rather than assuming they will fit the comfortable mould of the familiar. And we should be teaching them that there are consequences for failing to follow guidelines such as the work being dismissed with out consideration. Of course, we must balance this against the need to provide a constructive environment for our students to learn in. As assignments are rarely about the formatting alone, any kind of punitive action based on formatting alone will deny the student valuable feedback.

My life, as a reasonable human being, would be infinitely easier if my students read the assessment guidelines that were produced. Then re-read them. Then checked their ‘just about submitted work’ against them.  That seems like good practice for real world things where guidelines are provided but leave room for initiative. And differ from each other.

Now, don’t get me started on explicit assessment criteria. That’s for another day.

2 Replies to “But it wasn’t fair.”

  1. Interesting Katherine. I’m a big fan of house styles. But perhaps as you say I am lulling students into a false sense of typographic security! I never thought of that.

    I wonder is it better to first they can make sure they can adhere to a style, whatever we agree that to be, and require all work to be formatted to that standard. They will have to check and make sure etc at the is early stage. Then perhaps a later assessment in upper years can throw a spanner in the works and ask them to submit with a different style?

    But on the whole I think I prefer a house style for degree work, but with students being aware they are adopting a particular style. I’ve tended to push the RSC style in the past.

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