Researching engagement with assessment, as a physicist

I have not posted as much as I might have wished recently, and when I have, I’ve tended to start with a grovelling apologies on the grounds of lack of time because of my head of department duties. I sometimes also hesitate to post because of a lack of confidence: I’m not really an expert; what grounds do I have to be so opinionated. However, following my ┬áseminar in our own Department of Physical Science’s Seminar Series at the Open University on Thursday, I have decided that it is time to take a more robust attitude. OK, I’m unusual to be a physicist, let alone the head of a Department of Physical Sciences, doing pedagogic research. But that’s what I am; that’s who I am. The point is that I am researching learning, but I am doing so as a numerate scientist. I’m going to stop apologising for the fact and I might even stop moaning about the resultant difficulty that I sometimes have in getting papers published. I am not a social scientist, I’m a physicist.

So what does that mean? It means that I try to use scientific methodology; I listen to student opinion because it is important, but I also look for hard data. I don’t say that one thing causes another unless there is evidence that it does. Furthermore – and scientists sometimes fall down here too – I report my findings even when they don’t show what I was expecting. Well, that’s my aspiration. As frequently happens, I was slightly worried by some of the comments following my talk on Thursday – people say “ah yes, we have found such and such”. Have they REALLY found this, or is it what they think might be happening? Hypotheses are important but they need testing. Even more worryingly, I’m writing a paper at the moment and it is very tempting to ignore findings that don’t support the story I want to tell. Please don’t let me do that. Please give me the courage to stand my ground and to report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I have just realised that I don’t seem to have posted about the talk that Tim Hunt and I gave at the Assessment in Higher Education Conference in the summer on “I wish I could believe you: the frustrating unreliability of some assessment research”. I will rectify that as soon as possible (…remember, I’m a head of department…) but in the meantime, our slides are on slideshare here.

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