Read the question!

My son is in the middle of GCSEs and I’ve been giving him the best piece of advice I know for success in exams – read the question!

It sounds basic, but it is surprising how easy it is, especially in a stressful situation such as an exam, to miss the obvious, to answer the question you wanted to answer or that you thought was being asked. Taking some time to really read and ponder on the question before starting to answer is an excellent tactic – and then halfway through, and at the end, reading through what you’ve written to see if it really answers the question.

It is a tip worth bearing in mind in many aspects of life, not just exams. In my workshops and courses supporting University and college lecturers in developing elearning, I emphasise again and again how important it is to be absolutely clear and explicit about the task the students should be doing, how they should do it and when they should do it. However, even my own students don’t always read the questions I so carefully frame – they often leap in and give their opinion – even if it’s not what was asked for!

To some extent, it doesn’t worry me – especially with adults, who are in charge of their own learning. Sometimes it can be frustrating, yes, when you’ve carefully framed a question for discussion and the students go off and discuss something else entirely – but if that discussion furthers their learning, then it’s perfectly valid. Yes, it’s more work for me to reframe the questions that follow, or to moderate the discussion in a way that brings in my original learning points (because they can’t just be abandoned), but that’s my job as a tutor.

In the Best Practice Models community discussion on online communities yesterday, we were discussing whether a community of practice can be used for learning, and I made the point that a community of learners is something I aspire to, but that ultimately learning is planned and guided within that community. A community of practice is much more member-led, and the learning is more informal – though obviously it can still be facilitated, one example being that very discussion yesterday in a community of practice that was focused on communities of practice… I’ll probably come back to the differences between learning communities and communities of practice in a later post.

There are deep challenges for the tutor in turning the learning over to the learner, but it’s wonderful when it all comes together. One encouraging example for me was yesterday when one of my students on our How to Blog course posted exactly the material I had ready for that day’s posting. And she hadn’t even SEEN the question yet! A learner taking control of learning in a very real way. Wonderful.