Do Marks Matter?

I’ve always been a bit of an academic nerd, so marks have never been a big deal for me. The school and university system of assignments and exams worked for me, which made life pretty easy. I do, however, know that there are tons of students who find the whole system very challenging. Last year, for example, I received a distraught email from a very bright student who had tanked his exam. He’d let the stress get to him, he said.

That’s why I was fascinated to read about the book “Why A students work for C students“. In it, the author Robert Kiyosaki explains that the school system rewards kids who read well, memorise and test well. These are the kids who generally churn out the As and go on to study book-smart subjects like accountancy and law.

The C kids are often those who don’t fit this mould. They are often, however, highly creative, out-of-the-box dreamers, and it is these individuals who go on to innovate, create, and change the world around them. Thus, A students often end up working for C students.

I LOVE this idea, and I bet that in many cases it’s true. However, it doesn’t help my student who failed his exam last year. There are real repercussions for poor performance at school and university, no  matter how limited the system may be.

I came across a related idea in Stefan Collini’s (2012) book What are universities for? Here he’s discussing the idea that one of university’s roles is to enable people to develop their potential:

…  (but) what if the potential that people find they have to develop is to become unsaleable esoteric poets?

Kiyosaki says that parents shouldn’t be obsessed with their kids’ grades; they should rather help them find and follow their special gifts. But, what’s a parent to do if that gift is to be an unsaleable esoteric poet? In a world where people need to fill their cars with petrol and pay for health insurance, how idealistic is it to encourage students who may not be academically-minded to follow their (potentially unprofitable) dreams?

Since I left varsity, I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at my matric results, and job applications seldom ask for academic transcripts. So that leaves me wondering if, whether you’re an A or a C student, marks ultimately matter at all. Is it a case of “Nice work if you can get it, but if you can’t, don’t stress too much because you have other gifts”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Rating and evaluating lecturers: a perfect 10 or an outright fail?

At the end of each of our courses, students fill out evaluations about the course itself: how it fulfilled their expectations; what they found most useful; what they think needs to change; and, of course, their lecturer.

Years back, when I was still teaching middle school, I’d fantasise about what I would really like to say in a particularly painful student’s report. Instead of “Joey’s energetic nature means he can, on occasion, distract other students”, I’d imagine myself scrawling, “NOBODY LIKES YOUR SON. HE’S IRRITATING ON MULTIPLE LEVELS. (PS. HE’S NOT VERY BRIGHT. SORRY.)”

So when I hand out the course evaluations to my university students, I wonder whether they’ve spent the semester composing their evil responses in their minds. Most of the time though, it’s all good, and when students say I’m “awesome” I feel inordinately  happy, even though there’s no mention of my innovative teaching methodologies or my commitment to critical pedagogy.

Last night on Twitter, I came across THIS STORY about a Professor in the States who is suing a student for defamation after he posted about her on (which doesn’t operate in SA) , as well as other websites, blogs and YouTube. It made me wonder, should there be spaces online where a ranty student gets to spew bile about a lecturer anonymously? Doesn’t this place the lecturer immediately on the back foot with no recourse for self-defence?

On the other hand, I’m always bemoaning poor teaching and I can understand how powerlessness students must feel experiencing it day after day. Perhaps sites like ratemyprofessors can usher in an “Academic Spring” and an ousting of poor educators from the system. With an ever-increasing emphasis on research in universities, we need nothing short of a teaching revolution. Could online lecturer evaluations hold the key?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Five common student presentation errors

As the term comes to a frantic end, with stacks of marking and piles of paper, I get to enjoy my favourite chunk of classtime: the student presentations. I’ve blogged about this before (HERE and HERE), but I thought that today I would share some of the most common errors I see in student presentations. Who knows – you just might recognise your own presentation-self in here.


1. Reading off the screen while presenting

We require our students to present with slides (most use PowerPoint; some use Prezi). I always stress that the slides should be a backdrop to their own presentation, that if there was an ESKOM blackout and they lost all use of the computer or the data projector, they should be able to continue with their presentation with no problem. However, students often find comfort reading the notes on the screen, which decreases the connection they’re able to make and sustain with the audience.

2. Strange involuntary body movements

I will never tire of watching the strange things that otherwise normal students do when they stand up to present. Legs shake… one hand flies around… weight shifts from foot to foot… a finger points at the audience… a groin gets periodically scratched (no jokes!). We’ve started filming the students while they present and then playing the video back to them so they can see the strange things they do. They’re almost always surprised at what they see.

3. Robot voice

There’s something about giving a formal presentation that makes many a lively, engaging, funny student turn into a robot. The whole presentation gets delivered in a strange sing-song tone to the voice a’la the talking clock you get when you’re lonely and you phone 1026. I know what this is: the student has learnt the presentation off-by-heart and is reciting it to the audience. The problem is this eliminates any natural spontaneity, which an audience finds appealing and engaging. 

4. Being very, VERY serious

Yes, sometimes students present on things like illnesses, pollution or poverty, and a serious tone is justified. However, often they forget that audiences like to connect with real people, and real people exhibit a range of emotions during conversations. Often students forget to smile when they introduce themselves, or get excited when trying to get audiences to buy into their idea. This almost always affects the impact of their presentation, which can feel more didactic then is appropriate.

5. Making themselves small

I’ve been super-aware of this one since watching Amy Cuddy’s AMAZING Ted Talk (click HERE if you haven’t seen it yet) about how one’s body language shapes who you are. Some students, when they stand up to present, make themselves so tiny. Their shoulder close in, they wring their aims together, they slouch inwards. This doesn’t just create the impression of an unconfident presenters but, as Cuddy shows, feeds into feelings of powerlessness for the students themselves.


I’m passionate about helping students learn to present effectively and powerfully. I see these five errors a lot in student presentations, but I firmly believe that, in most cases, good presenters are bred not born. Seeing the students improve during our courses is proof of this.

Do you see your presenting styles in this list? Can you spot any I may have left out?


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Putting the “high” into Higher Education

As a BA graduate at a university in Cape Town, I am well-placed to know that there are many ways UCT students get high. The fresh sweep of wind as they walk down Jammie stairs… the pump of adrenalin as the short loan book they wanted is still in… meeting a last minute hand-in deadline. There’s other less legal (but equally natural) highs, but we’ll save that for someone else’s blog.

What I’m interest in is what it is that puts the “high” into Higher Education. I started think of this while reading Ronald Barnett’s (1990) book, The Idea of Higher Education. In it, he writes:

It is not “further education”: it is not simply more of what has gone before. Rather, the term is a reference to a level of individual development over and above that normally implied by the term “education”.

(1990: 6)

I thought this was such an interesting idea on two levels. Firstly, it reminded me again about the way that our use of language both reflects and shapes our practices as human beings. Gee (2008: 97) gives another educational example of this. When we say “The teacher teaches the student French”, our words imply that French is being passed down whole from the teacher to the student. As an educator, I know that this kind of one-way flow of information doesn’t result in deep learning. So even in its simplicity, this statement embodies particular notions of how teaching and learning should take place.

This leads me to the second aspect of Barnett’s idea that I find interesting. What are the values implicit in referring to after-school education as “higher”? It could be said that once you attend a higher education institution, you’re ready to move higher up the social ladder. Or maybe a higher education allows one to access texts (of all sorts) at a higher, more sophisticated level. And do you only achieve “highness” once you’ve graduated, or is the whole experience, from the very first day, a journey up an inclining hill?

Barnett argues that the thing that makes higher education “high” is the sense of criticality that should be built in to it. Students shouldn’t simply acquire particular competencies. Rather, they should be able to adopt sceptical stances in relation to the truth claims and practices they come across. Barnett explains:

Students must be encouraged to stand back, reflect deeply, consider ethical dimensions of both thought and action, to understand the place of their knowledge in higher education, to glimpse something of what it may be, to gain their own independence from all that they learn, think and do.

(1990: 78)

The challenge is how, in a skills building course like the one I teach on, where we’re teaching students how to do things the right way, to encourage them to be sceptical. They can be as critical as they like about what I teach, but if they don’t use the kind of language that I teach them in a professional report they will a) fail the assignment and b) not be adequately prepared when they go to work.

There’s tons of research about this, which leads me to a tentative theory on what is high about higher education. Maybe it’s that there’s a whole dynamic body of literature around learning and teaching, which is devoted to understanding better what happens in academic classrooms, departments, faculties and institutions. It’s not a stagnant body; it’s always growing and developing – reaching higher levels of understanding, if you will. That’s why I’m excited to be part of this field of enquiry.

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Would you Facebook friend your students?

It happens every semester: there’s always one lone student who decides we’re tight enough for him/her to call me “Gabs”. I never know where it comes from since one of my largest social fears is contracting someone’s name too soon. This probably stems from the time, in std 6, when I called a popular girl by her nickname and the netball court came to a standstill as jaws dropped dumbfoundedly. This is not a mistake I am keen to remake, so I am always extra careful in this regard.

I try very hard to maintain a healthy balance between connecting personally with my students in a way that creates a safe space for learning and not over-sharing in a personal way. Sometimes I’ll mention anecdotes in class as a way to show connection between what they’re learning and how these skills are applied in real life. For example, when I’m teaching academic writing, I often draw on my own experiences as a PhD student. 

However, I find it’s easy for boundaries to get blurred when it comes to social media. The religion of networking is one that we in contemporary professional communications preach, but I always feel conflicted when my students friend request me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and ask to connect on LinkedIn. These extra-classroom sites are increasingly spaces of very real connection, but by engaging with them, am I busting the borders that keep a relationship professional?

I read THIS story about a substitute teacher who was forced to quit her job because she wouldn’t unfriend her students from Facebook. But on the very odd occasion that I do a student Facebook stalk, I feel kind of dirty; I can’t un-see the drunken Tiger Tiger pics and it feels like something pure has been sullied. 

Perhaps there’s a market for an academic social media site? With a nod to scholarship, we can call it Bookbook, and it can connect students and lecturers on the basis of taking the same books out of the library and whether our marking is tackled as last minute as their essay writing. Instead of the Facebook thumbs up, we can institute a tick mark. We could even set up a lecturer/student selfie booth in front of Jammie Hall with a direct connection. What about it, Mark Zuckerberg? 

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Dear future readers of my academic writing

Dear student of 2033,

How are you?  I hope that wherever you are in the world, they’ve cured AIDS, the Middle East is peaceful,  and they’ve finally invented those hoverboards from Back To The Future 2.

I’m writing because by now you probably know me as a groundbreaking thinker in the field of Higher Education Studies but today, 17 March 2014, I am but a lowly PhD student trying to chart my course through the choppy sea of academic research.

I am writing to you to promise that no matter how smart I get, no matter the brilliant knowledge I create, no matter whether I’m a Master or a Doctor or a Professor, I will always write in way that you can understand. I will not subject you to the experience I had this morning, of opening a key text and, on the first few pages, encountering the following words:

predicates… reification… ineradicable… adduced… vexacious… subsumption…unreduced… heuristic… verifactory… incommensurability… hors textuelle…multifarious…corrigibly

Please know, dear student, that I am no dummy. The librarian in primary school thought I was a child genius because I read all the Dr Doolittle books in grade 2. I can “big word” it up with the best of them and I will, eventually, conquer the words above.

But know too that my many years of studying and teaching have taught me that the finest wordsmiths are those who can say what they need to say clearly and simply. They’re the ones who really impress me, making concepts come alive and helping me access new worlds of knowledge.

So before I let you return to your 3D hyper-virtual classroom (and I return to a world where it’s still possible to lose an aeroplane) let me once again pledge to keep my academic writing crisp and clear for the sake of you, my future reader.

Greetings and salutations,


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What’s in a (lecturer’s) name? Awakening to cultural awareness in the classroom.

I was thrilled to be asked to chair a session at HAICU’s (UCT’s HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit, if you didn’t know) colloquium  on Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma and Higher Education last week. I  felt like the programme had been planned especially for me since it focussed on issues that occupy my mind a lot and spoke to my identities as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, a post-Apartheid South African and a higher education scholar. You can find out more about the colloquium here

During the day we were exposed to stories about the Nazi Holocaust, about the legacy of trauma and eventual forgiveness. We heard about how Rwandans grappled to come to terms with the 1994 genocide and about apartheid’s effect on the South Africa of today. My take-home from the day was that all South Africans – whether perpetrators, victims or bystanders of/to apartheid – are still trying to find ways to manage the trauma of that time, and that dialogue is such an important part of this process. 

I had an opportunity to reflect on this in class last week.  I always encourage my students to call my “Gabi”. In part, I think this was inspired by my father who, even when he was Dean of a university faculty, insisted that his students call him by his first name. I see it as a way to get the students to relate to me less as a teacher and more as a facilitator – a co-creator of learning in the classroom. 

However, in one of my classes I have a black student who insists on calling me “ma’am”. This makes me feel old, like when little Afrikaans kids call me “tannie” (auntie in Afrikaans), so I’ve tried to push him to call me by my name. However, on Thursday, he explained to me that he comes from a culture that places a lot of respect on elders and that he’d feel uncomfortable calling me “Gabi”.

I was glad he’d been brave enough to explain this to me because it reinforced what I’d learnt at the colloquium. In a country as diverse as South Africa we need to listen to each other and consider different experiences and cultures in the way we relate to one another. I’ll definitely get off this guy’s case from now on, although I’m still not sure I can stomach being a “tannie” quite yet. 

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