This blog post chats about my aims for educational practice in the University, focusing on inclusivity and diversifying assessment!
For my first blog post, I thought I would share the first speech I made as a sabbatical officer. I went to a meeting of all of the directors of teaching and learning in Cambridge and highlighted the SU's priorities in education for the year ahead- let me know if you have any questions about what I'm up to, and if you think these priorities are still representative of the problems faced by students!
"Hello everyone, I’m Neve, the current UG Access, Education and Participation Officer for Cambridge SU. The past few months have been quite hectic, but me and the other sabbatical officers have been working hard to outline our priorities for the year. The big one, you won’t be surprised to hear, will be our campaign work on the cost of living crisis, but as AEP part of my job is to work on educational matters within the University as well- I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot of you in many committee meetings over the next few months.
Broadly, the SU this year is focused on standardisation and inclusion in the University’s educational practices. There can be no doubt that Cambridge offers students many unique opportunities, but it also stands alone in the sector for many reasons, not all of them positive. Part of the reason for this is the lack of standardisation across faculties and departments, who are all able to create their own policies with regards to crucial educational decisions like lecture capture, exam allowances and alternative modes of assessment. During the pandemic, we as a University reimagined what a Cambridge education looks like, something that many of you will have worked on. But now it feels that we’re at a tipping point; some faculties have already transitioned back to in-person, closed-book exams, whereas others have essentially maintained the same format they developed in 2020. My own finals were sat from the comfort of my room, with the help of all of my notes and five hours to focus on nothing but that perfect essay; before COVID, I would have been sat in an exam hall desperately trying to remember exactly what Davidoff and Hall said about the growth of the middle classes in the 18th century so that I didn’t lose marks for inaccuracy of evidence. I have little doubt that my final mark would not have been as impressive if it weren’t for these exam allowances that the History faculty made, and if I did manage the same result, the journey would have been far worse for my mental health.
Diversifying assessment can have a hugely positive impact on student mental health. Making the system as a whole more flexible and able to anticipate the needs of students would decrease the burden on committees that have to deal with exam mitigation and allowance requests, whose processes can often be alienating and confusing for students to deal with. Even allowing something as simple as resits, which are standard across the sector, would greatly reduce the burden on students during exam term and throughout the academic year. It’s vital that schools, faculties and departments make these decisions together; every Cambridge student deserves the same standard of educational experience, regardless of their course.
Similarly, this year the SU will be pushing for further progress on the recording of lectures throughout the University. Whilst the current guidance on lecture capture is leaps and bounds ahead of the standard pre-pandemic, it seems strange that something that is so uncontroversial at almost every other university could cause such debate here. As recording lectures is something that has become standard practice over the last few years, students’ expectations have completely changed. We have learnt to use lecture recordings as another study tool, something to refer back to when we need clarification or additional readings. The notion that we should no longer be recording lectures because students simply won’t attend seems outdated and ableist. We all know that in-person teaching is far more effective than anything that can be delivered through a screen. But missing a lecture here or there can’t always be helped, and students shouldn’t be punished for this. They are adults, able to take responsibility for their own learning, and their faculty should be providing them with all the tools required to do this. These tools include recorded lectures, preferably with captions. If the University wants to facilitate inclusive teaching, these are the basics.
If we’re thinking about standard practice across the sector, then we must mention Cambridge SU’s campaign to introduce a Reading Week. We’ve been talking about this for a long time now, and I’m sure you all have your own thoughts on the benefits and challenges this presents, but the fundamental positives are the same as lecture capture and diversifying assessment: breathing room for students who everyone agrees are overworked. Having a Reading Week may not technically reduce student workload, but it will give students crucial time in which they can either take a break from their intense study, or catch up with anything they’ve missed. Ideally, they’d be able to do this with the help of tools like recorded lectures.
I hope we can work together this year to create a progressive vision of what a Cambridge education can look like, developing an ethos that values blended and inclusive learning for all. Students have high expectations for themselves and their education, and it’s the University’s job to help students meet these expectations without putting a strain on their health or enjoyment of their time here.
I hope that you all agree!"