The following are lightly-edited notes from our first workshop, held on the afternoon of Wednesday 8th March, in which students discussed their experience of assessment on the Critical and Literary Theory module and other modules, without staff presence.  In bold are the prompts, questions and contributions made by Josh, who led the workshop.  All other comments are from participants.  Many thanks to Danielle Mustarde for taking these notes.

Welcome! This is an experimental project trying to redefine the Critical and Literary Theory (CLT) module by engaging students and staff in a dialogue in both a specific way and in a broader way around assessment. What is good assessment? Can there be good assessment?

Constraints of the project: funded by the university (to result in institutional change) which means we probably won’t be able to abolish assessment! We would like to push at the boundaries of these constraints though, and make it as broad a space as possible to discuss assessment.

Action: split up into two groups, discuss how the CLT module ‘does’ assessments, move into broader area.

A few quotes from the discussion:

  • “I’ve only ever had to do projects for language modules.”
  • “I wonder if that would be effective on this module – a sort of collaborative piece of work.”
  • “Choosing your partners and groups may be more effective.”
  • “I think the kind of seminar it is makes a really good difference.”
  • “I thought it was really important that CLT was compulsory.”
  • “If it [the module] was optional, I’m not sure I’d have done it. It’s definitely one of my favourite modules, but…”
  • “It’s really hard, but looking at it with hindsight, I’m glad I did it.”
  • “The way that the blog posts are done – it’s pass/fail – but depending on how much you engage with it…” (“That’s a good idea.” – another student in response)


  • “It would be useful to practise your academic writing skills without risking ‘failing’”.
  • “The fact that it’s got your name on it makes it all the more…” (Reference to blog posts for seminars)
  • “Group seminar, collaborative piece, that was posted online and that people could then comment on.”
  • “Maybe doing a total of five over the module, on any topic, as long as you do five..?”
  • “This week’s been hell.”
  • “I just feel like this term has been… [shakes head].”
  • “My problem with the blog posts is that they’re meant to be around 400 words (average) so overall it’s over 2500 words, but it’s only 10% of the module.”


5 minutes later…

  • “There are so many links between the two modules, it makes sense to… engage…”
  • “I think that it should have been split into Romantic Literature and … Literature.”


Group feedback #1:

 What is the module?

  • CLT is a core module, it deals with a lot of things that a lot of people won’t have looked at before since it is just theory focused, no literature in it. People say, the first essay you have to do is difficult for that reason. And the second essay, less difficult because you could read a text along with the theory.
  • Argument in the first one, “this is what this person is arguing”.
  • Whereas the second one, you could apply your own ideas. It was more creative.


  • CLT may not be accessible at first, but it’s the most flexible – we found.
  • Opportunity to write on so many different things.
  • You can do anything.
  • More motivated to do it because it was “real life”.
  • A lot of the ideas expressed in theory are so abstract, that it’s really hard to discuss without looking at other things (texts).
  • First year module – critical concepts – covers the ground much more slowly. For people going into CLT, this would work as a good groundwork.
  • I think, although it was a good “burst” there wasn’t enough theory to it (the first year module).


  • CLT – grouped by essay or a specific text, but I think it would be easier to think about if you were thinking about a wider theme. It would be good to have a topic or theme. You’d get more out of it.
  • The teaching approach would be much more flexible too.
  • “A canon of anti-canonical writers”. It doesn’t make sense in terms of how you can’t do the same one for the second as you do for the first. It could be a methodology of thinking that you go on with for a long time. Having to change it completely after one small assessment doesn’t make sense.
  • If it was more thematically done – an issue – as opposed to just like, being given a Derrida book… it doesn’t quite make sense. Goes against the anti-canonical thing.


  • Some kind of presentation might be better throughout the module, rather than another critical reading. Why? People can engage with it more. You can engage with it on a class level, you do best learn about it with other people. Interacting with people in your class via a presentation – everyone can learn from it. More feedback.
  • First assessment, you can’t write on the same theory as the second – so you save what you really want to do for the second, and just “want to get the first out of the way.”
  • I think the first assessment should be a prerequisite for the second. Theory, then applying that theory.
  • Want longer seminars too – they always run over.
  • You’d always walk out feeling like you still had things to say.


  • Doesn’t not being able to do what’s your strength, kind of, delegitimise the whole module? It’s quite striking. It’s different to anything I’ve ever done before.
  • I think that ‘one big essay at the end’ would be good, because you work towards it, using all the themes you cover.
  • If there’s going to be a really long essay at the end of a module – the questions should be available much earlier, so that you can have it in mind.
  • …but then does it become more assessment focused? People might not read other things, it makes the whole module about assessment.
  • I think with CLT, even if there was one assessment at the end, you’d still have a lot to learn from all of the theories – unlike other modules.
  • Even if the first assessment was a draft of the second one? Because you get feedback on that first essay, but then can’t apply it, as we have to do something different. It’s hard to apply it.
  • To be able to recycle that – to have an attempt, and then reuse it – it works really well. A more flexible approach to assessment.


  • Main issue with assessments generally – every single piece of writing that you hand in is assessed, so you play it safe rather than experimenting because you don’t want to risk doing badly. e.g. getting a good grade, but not feeling like I’ve written anything new – playing it safe.
  • Close readings – more restrictive. Not as easy to be creative.
Notes I
Whiteboard notes from the session

What assessment might encourage creativity?

  • Being given an abstract so you’re already thinking about it, handing in a report over Christmas and then getting feedback, with a provisional grade, which you can then increase could be a lot more beneficial.


  • The feedback you get on the first assignment doesn’t really apply to the second. It’s a different style of assessment.


What about the questions? Have the questions set/pick your own?

  • Mine were good.
  • Issue: other research essays (language based modules) only say, six essay questions set but not all the modules covered, so you find yourself having to write on something you’re not interested in/twisting the question. CLT was the opposite. Lots of choice, couldn’t choose.


What would you think of a module that gave you a first at the beginning (a provisional) and then you’re not graded throughout?

  • People would just do the module to get the first!
  • Take the module for an easy grade, not really do the work?
  • Depends on how you learn personally?
  • People might be lazy with it.
  • You’d always prioritize your other stuff, no matter how engaged you were.
  • Unless you kept it secret to the end [laughs].
  • Maybe you just have a check list, write a blog post, if you do this you’ll get a first, if you do this much you’ll get a 2:1 – so it’s based on your contributions, rather than an essay. You still have to earn it, but there’s less pressure.
  • First, but only if you get 100% attendance? (Could cause problems though?) Not authorised absences!


  • Maybe seminar participation? 10% would be quite a good model, it does make you engage..?
  • Problem though – might not feel comfortable expressing yourself in the seminar.
  • It would be good if it appreciated that some people can write an essay/some better engagement.
  • Engagement can be measured in other ways e.g. blog posts
  • School should make it more transparent about how seminar participation is marked – how is it qualified?
  • I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve never had a seminar participation mark handed back…
  • And it’s such a subjective thing! How comfortable I am speaking in a seminar depends on a number of things e.g. who’s in the room at the time, etc.
  • “Just turning up to prove they’ve done the work” in some seminars.
  • Some you just sit around a table for an hour, so many awkward silences… Where some you’re disappointed when they end, as you’ve still got things to say.
  • Also, others more outspoken – so you don’t want to participate.
  • Also people, “chatting shit”.
  • And people interrupting me – yes, they’re participating, but they’re being rude.
  • On module, watch a film, write a blog post, tutor goes through the posts and asks about them in the seminar. That was a good way of doing things.
  • I think that would be a good way.


  • Timetabling important – whether early or late in the week/before after lecture.


How do you think that could be got around? Feeling comfortable in a seminar, etc? Maybe let students negotiate what should be more weighted in the final mark e.g. “I want my essay to be weighted higher.”

  • Yeah, that sounds really good.
  • One way – do 100% of assignments, but you choose 50% of them – your choice what you hand in at the end.
  • Really good idea – some essays really proud of, some you really don’t enjoy doing so you’re just doing it to pass the module. Increases the pressure if you get a low grade as then you have to do better in the next to pull your grade up.
  • MOLE journals.
  • 60% on MOLE journals, assessed as you go along – it worked really well. You could engage with all different areas throughout the module. Works really well with creative writing module. Feedback as well.
  • Creative Writing – portfolio assessment really, really good. You’ve worked on it throughout the semester.
  • A portfolio based assessment might be better for CLT.
  • Structure: being marked more on your development and progression and engagement rather than anything else.


Blog posts, journal entries – would you feel more assessments, but smaller would be better?

  • Yeah, you don’t really get chance to practise your writing.
  • I do enjoy me degree! It would be nice to engage with it a little more than we can do now.
  • More, smaller assessments would mean you’re not scared to make mistakes also.


  • You’d need to make sure there was a good system for feedback though. You’d want progression throughout the year.
  • Specific feedback sheets are a really good idea. Shows that you’re tutor has read your essay and engaged with it.
  • Frustrates me that you can’t keep you exam transcripts though.
  • It would be good to have more of a conversation.
  • Feedback varies wildly.
  • “You need to write a better essay”. Not very helpful.
  • Detailed feedback works better for essays.


What about, the big essay – you put all the work in – is at the end, which kind of makes sense. But then you get feedback on it, well, what can you do with that?

  • For CLT I got a really detailed feedback, and I still look at it now. Still useful.


Department thinking of doing a portfolio type thing throughout the whole degree. Which means if you were experimental with things and it didn’t work out, it doesn’t matter.

  • Sometimes think it’s a shame that research essays have to be quite rushed, it’s not usually just one you have to write, you have to think about them all at once, which can have an impact on it.
  • Essays get progressively less well-done!
  • Two essays on the same day, simultaneously proofread both of them…
  • But I think a portfolio way of assessing the module…
  • CLT is broad and can be applied to anything, make it more interrelated?
  • More conceptual, so it can be quite frustrating when you can see an influence from a book you’ve read on another module, but you can’t use that because it’s not seen as relevant.
  • I also, like that chance where you can write about whatever you want.


Assessments need to be accepted by the faculty. e.g. Philosophy and the “take home exam”. Questions get put up on MOLE, released over a 24 hour period. It was meant to be that you write for about two hours, you can use books and texts, but some people went way over the top and/had a nervous breakdown…

  • Hard not to see it as a huge essay due in the next day!


What do you guys think about exams for English?

  • I had a take home exam, everyone Googled the answers and got almost full marks.
  • I don’t think English works very well with exams…
  • Memorising quotes – you’re just being tested on your memory, not your ability to analyse.
  • You can’t do things justice because you’ve only got an hour or two.


  • I think close readings work better.
  • The Victorian Prose exam, that was just remembering things and unloading on the day in the exam.
  • Feedback: You need more quotes…
  • My Feedback: Technical stuff about my writing style, but that’s not really how I’d write in an essay or academic situation – you’re not thinking about that so much, you’re thinking about time and getting the information down more than anything.
  • A close reading is a good way for people not to stress out.
  • We had a close reading exam for renaissance in second year, that was okay.
  • They told us (for renaissance) beforehand what it would be, so you could approach it.


What about exam feedback?

  • You can’t keep your answers, so it’s hard to understand your feedback…
  • Comments about, you could have added in this and this, fair for an essay, but for an exam?
  • It’s impossible to memorise an entire module, or even book – it’s more of a memory test than how you engage with a text.
  • One exam I did in second year, the way they did the exam was quite good – they gave you a list of topics beforehand so you could revise beforehand.


  • I think tutors need to decide why they’re giving an exam in the first place.
  • It needs to be more accessible as well.
  • They’re a lot of stress. It’s hard to spend three hours writing when you feel physically sick because you’re scared you might fail.
  • Not fair that luck is part of exam – i.e. you’ve revised a topic and it happens to come up/not come up.
  • Time/personal factors as well – someone might feel better, do better.


Exams do get you to engage more broadly though, don’t they?

  • Yeah, it’s good in terms of learning about context of a certain period.
  • A close reading – what’s the relevance, really?
  • Get told off for including too much context, but in an exam, they seem to want that.

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