13 Feb 2012 ............... Length about 6,000 words (40,000 bytes).
(Document started on 23 April 2011.)
This is a WWW document maintained by
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You may copy it.
How to refer to it.
Web site logical path:
Hanscomb's virtues: Students' approaches to assignments
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
This page holds first an essay by me;
followed by what I take to be an independently designed intervention
addressing the same issue, but with a contrasting attitude
Feedback on work related attributes.
The first part of this page is an essay prompted by
a talk which I heard on 21 April 2011
by Stuart Hanscomb.
It develops my views on the issue, which I think is a new one w.r.t. the
educational literature. This essay is far from polished, but I feel I've done
enough to sort out my ideas, and to make it more or less readable; so I want
to hang it out for a bit to settle. We can hope that this page will be
superceded by a
paper by Stuart, but I wanted to air the issue
at once. All complaints about this page should be directed to me; praise for
originality etc. should be directed in the first instance to Stuart.
gave a talk
He also has a draft paper on this.
If you want a summary / abstract of this essay, then jump to
the last section.
The underlying phenomemon
Most new ideas are based on some phenomenon, some observation. Educational
researchers have most access to their own experience as teachers, and some
access to what they hear students mentioning about theirs. What I take to be
the underlying heart of this is that, when teachers mark a piece of student
work, we often involuntarily perceive or attribute characteristics to the
student to do with the way they did it: procrastination, showing contempt for
the marker, showing undue conscientiousness, .... This is no surprise to a
psychologist familiar with the area of
and the term "fundamental attribution error" names a widespread tendency to
attribute our own behaviour to force of external circumstances but others'
behaviour to their inherent character.
The educational issue is: should (HE) teachers pay any attention to this?
On the one hand, if we want to focus on students' learning we should pay
attention to results not to their personal habits such as the clothes they
wear, whether they work at night or day, whether they are tall, or bald. On
the other hand, employers explicitly ask us to comment in letters of reference
on some of these attributes (e.g. diligence, self-starting, timeliness,
sickness absences, ...); and most programmes in fact give directive study skill
advice. If we were to give feedback based on these attributions, it would be a
new dimension to feedback on student work, but a logical continuation of the
role of study advisor.
Such attributions and conversations are more likely to arise in cases of
personal tuition e.g. PhD supervision, one to one essay feedback in Access
courses. But I am periodically aware of making such attributions
even when doing anonymous marking of a big pile of exam scripts.
??Note too that these attributions seem often to be inter-personal: that
teachers interpret the mode of student work as an overt communication of an
attitude of the student towards the teacher (or the work): contempt,
thoughtless compliance, joking, .... We take it personally.
On the other hand:
"Always remember that it's just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a
[Ken Kesey, "Remember This: Write what you don't know", NYTBR, New York Times
Book Reviews 31 Dec 1989]
I take this as a reminder that the most common attributions people (including
other students) make about students' writing are wrong.
This is a new, overlooked aspect of feedback
A simple minded view of feedback and learning is that it is all about the
learner, not the teacher. It is done to the learner, in order to improve
learning outcomes, in a one-way process: telling them what they did wrong so
that they will correct their learning. This is an instructivist view, which
is bad for learning quality because it ignores the dialogic nature of learning
and teaching (which is the heart of Laurillard's model), and is also bad for
managing costs because it ignores the nature of the task for teachers.
A number of little-noticed insights into feedback have emerged that illustrate
this, and I see Stuart's point as adding to this set. They are characterised
by being based on observations about the teacher, not the learner. (They
thereby illustrate how unbalanced it is to be "learner-centered": and so
ignore the crucial other half of the learning and teaching process.)
- Taras (2005) points out that the formative /summative distinction is about
effects on the learner, but is nonsense when you look at the teacher. For a
teacher, the main time spent is in reading the student's work, and then a
judgement (summative) comes into their head. Witholding the judgement simply
means witholding information from the learner; adding formative comments is
relatively little extra work. (Or at least, not doing so wastes the time spent
reading and making the judgement; even if you are a tutor who writes an essay
in reply to an essay.) Summative and formative are not separate from the
viewpoint of teachers' work.
- Peter Elbow points out that we have not one but two critical modes:
in one (judgemental, authoritative, "constructive") we tell the learner what
they should have done; in the other, we tell them what we felt when we read
their work (describing our personal feelings and interpretations). The latter
"Reader-Based Feedback" mode is forced on us when we don't know what the author
intended to communicate; but it is also much less affronting for authors
sensitive to criticism. Frequently published advice or even directions about
writing feedback for students, that requires it to be "constructive",
presupposes that all students write so well that you know what they meant at
all times, and also assumes that all students are infinitely resilient (i.e.
insensitive) to criticism.
[The same literature repeatedly expresses bafflement or outrage that students
frequently do not attend to or even read "formative" feedback, as if they
didn't take it personally; yet also expects students to have an instrinsic
interest in learning (i.e. to identify with it personally).]
A more sensible post-Elbow view is that we have these two modes in our
arsenal, and need to select the mode in response both to the particular work,
and the particular student.
The Reader-Based Feedback voice can express feedback successfully even to very
sensitive recipients. In normal life, I find myself naturally using a mixture
of the two voices when reviewing for journals; but feedback to students is
often solely in the authoritative voice, while the aspects of the students'
work actually range from the factual (which are right or wrong) to stylistic
matters which are not agreed on within the discipline and so for which an
authoritative voice is in fact bogus.
- Work by Beryl Plimmer drew my attention to how markers
are writing to multiple audiences. When I mark an essay I am generally a)
writing private notes on new ideas (or doubts) the student has given me to
follow up for my own benefit later; and for making adjustments to the course
next time. b) writing private notes on my view of this piece of work: it will
be in private jargon and abbreviations, and uncensored as to content. It will
be used later for discussions with colleagues on mark adjustments, and as a
basis for writing feedback to the student (I have to work out what I think
first, before I can explain some subset of that to the student). c) writing to
the student: formative feedback. d) writing at least a mark to the department
bureaucracy e.g. a marks database. e) writing comments on the script itself
e.g. spelling errors, or the location to which some comments apply.
In addition to these five or so simultaneous writing tasks
to five different audiences on five different bits of paper or software
windows, there may be multiple simultaneous reading tasks. In Plimmer's case
of marking computer programming assignments there were source code, test suite
output reports, design documentation. In the case of essay-like assignments,
there is usually at least the essay body and the bibliography to turn between
As soon as Plimmer provided software that reduced the labour of managing all
this, the quality of feedback to students, as judged by the students, went up
markedly; thus illustrating the importance of analysing and supporting the
teacher side of feedback provision.
- Hanscomb points out that markers automatically form these
judgements / attributions / perceptions of students from their written work.
We should pay attention to this, just as we should pay attention to Elbow's
alternative voices, and Plimmer's multiple outputs of marking.
I'm thus sympathetic to Stuart's insight because it seems to add to this
collection of observations about what teachers really do when they respond to
students' work (as opposed to what policy or theory says feedback should be
about). If we, as teachers, have these perceptions of students, make these
attributions, then what should we do with them? Are they, or could we make
Stuart gives examples of these percepts or attributions, which he calls
His list of candidate virtues (my names; he had 2 line descriptions):
- Responsibility vs. unwillingness to (commit to a view in an essay)
- Flexibility (rigid conformity vs. creativity & rebellion w.r.t. norms)
[Character and this assignment]
- Sloppiness ... conscientiousness
[Character and this assignment]
- Open mindedness, negotiating, listening vs. dogmatism.
- Respectfulness towards others' views. Modesty vs. arrogance [cf. Tony Blair] [Perry-c]
- Perseverence vs. defeatism
[Character and fbck cycle]
- Resilience, courage, meeting new challenges
[Character and fbck cycle]
- Defensiveness / reflective (on one's own perf.) Cf. P.Elbow's tactic.
[Character and fbck cycle]
Other examples, at least of where such perceptions are not only made but
voiced, tend to come in one-to-one project supervision. A tutor might say
"you seem very involved in this topic/ aspect: do you think overly so?"; or
"you've completely skipped over that aspect yet I've heard you speak
passionately about it: why?".
suggests something like:
A virtue corresponding to the basic scholarly requirement of basing your (the
student's) work in the academic community: of showing awareness (e.g. in a
literature review) of how your ideas fit into a landscape of existing ideas.
Seen as a centre-optimal virtue à la Aristotle, then the two (bad)
extremes would be a) polemics that ignore all other views and contributions,
and b) exhaustive, pedantic, and undiscriminating bibliographies.
What kind of things might these be?
He calls these attributions "virtues". However they, or some of them, seem
equally plausibly to be other kinds of traits.
- Graduate Attributes? e.g. self-starting, conscientious, ... These
are essentially skills: something that was taught and learned.
- An "approach" is a method or strategy that can (like deep and surface
learning) be applied in many different cases if the person chooses to select it.
- Aristotelian virtues, not skills.
I.e. a diff. kind of thing than Graduate Attributes?
Habits of character (following Aristotle's approach).
(Plato examples: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice.
See here for a long list of virtues.)
(Virtue ethics is one of the three contrasting ways of
reasoning about moral issues (virtue ethics, consequentialism e.g.
- Strengths. This is a positive psychology concept: an
intermediate concept between personality traits and virtues? There are 24 of
these, including "loving and being loved" and "integrity".
of them in one set of words is available on the web.
A recent, short overview of this concept, which mentions that a starting point
was pre-existing virtue catalogues, is given in:
Peterson,C. & Park,N. (2011) "Character strengths and virtues: Their
role in well-being" ch.4 pp.49-62 in
S.I.Donaldson, Csikszentmihalyi,M., & Nakamura,J.
Applied positive psychology: Improving everyday life, health, schools,
work, and society (New York: Psychology press).
- Big Five personality traits: open-minded, conscientious, ...
These are persistent traits that change only very slowly over a lifetime.
These are not fixed procedures, but approaches that are selected from a small
number by an individual in response to the specific problem / context.
These five are dimensions; and most people can act if required anywhere along
each dimension (e.g. being exacting in their work to shirking their duties in
other cases). But the personality tests measure how different people show
marked tendencies about their predominant approach on each of the five
dimensions. Different professions attract, and need, different personality
- A tone of voice (cf. Vygotsky)? An attitude to an activity, that could
quite well be very different, but has large consequences when adopted.
In neo-Vygotskian theory, all important modes of thought begin (for a
developing individual) in a conversation. They are first conversations
scaffolded by an expert, then carried on as equals, and finally internalised
as a solo mode of thought. Certainly we are familiar, in both everyday and
academic life, with how the first person to speak so often sets the tone of
voice for the whole conversation. So if the first person to answer a teacher's
question shows great expertise, no-one else feels able to contribute nor to
ask vital but simpler questions; conversely if the first person asks a simple
question, then others tend to feel that to ask a complex one might be
inappropriate showing off.
Thus the tone of conversations are "approaches": most people can manage to
display several (though we can learn more), but the tone tends to persist
within on occasion or one group.
If a student sees writing an essay as a huge intellectual challenge this may
paralyse them; but that perspective may remain frozen with them, as a "block".
The nature of these types
At one point Stuart contrasts virtues to skills. This is right, but the
important general point is that you cannot have a graduate attribute, a
virtue, an approach, a strength, nor a personality trait without at least one
corresponding skill to exhibit it. You more often have a set of such skills
for each attribute, but without at least one you can't manifest it. For some
virtues, e.g. courage, this isn't a barrier: you can see even in an infant
whether their behaviour at each moment is high or low in courage. But for
other attributes, say flexibility w.r.t. norms, it is not obvious to everyone
how to manifest these.
- First you must learn at least one skill or method per attribute.
- Second if you have more than one applicable method, there is the
question of how you choose which one to apply. One constraint (b1) is what
set of methods an individual has. Another (b2) is the context: the demands of
the task, and the limitations of opportunity. A third influence (b3) is the
preferences of the individual, if and when the choice isn't already decided by
what is possible and required.
- Thirdly is the issue of what kind of pattern, if any, is revealed by
Because of (a) they aren't fixed traits but progressively developing abilities
Because of (b) -- choice of methods -- they aren't really attributes of the
agent (person), but "relations" i.e. determined by the combination of agent and
context, not by either one alone.
The nature of these types (2)
All the above types are habits of character; all require skills in order
to be manifested; and so all require learning ("cultivation") which strongly
modifies when they can be acted on. They differ in whether:
- the attribute must be taught or could be innate
- the attribute is valued (seen as good), or seen as just a dimension of
individual differences (like hair colour, preference for pictorial over
textual communication, ....).
- the attribute is unipolar (e.g. height, age, skill at speaking)
or bipolar (e.g. hatred ↔ indifference ↔ love)
- the desirable point on the continuum is in the middle or at the ends.
The normal sense of the English word "virtue" is unipolar (having it is
good, not having it is bad).
Aristotle's virtues have the centre as good (valued) and the two (bipolar)
extremes are less so e.g. cowardice - courage - recklessness (or greed -
healthy appetite - eating disorder).
Hanscomb's virtues however are unipolar: he wants his students to show
responsibility, flexibility, resilience, etc.
The VIA strengths are seen like this (unipolar, valued), but with the
attitude that there are individual differences, and the focus is on
which strength an individual has (excels in).
Personality ("big five") traits are bipolar like Aristotle's virtues, though
mostly not valued but just differences.
My conclusion on the nature of these types
I think Hanscomb's virtues are "approaches"; "approaches to assignments" (as
opposed to "approaches to learning" as in the deep and surface learning
"Approach" is the word used for the alternative methods or strategies learners
show towards learning, called deep and surface learning. It is tempting to see
these as traits and talk of "shallow learners", but this is wrong.
Learners typically can do both, and select one depending on the context.
Teachers can usually force almost all learners into shallow learning, though
not the other way round. Thus approaches are not attributes of the learner,
but a relationship determined by the combination of learner and context.
(Biggs (2001) puts this best.)
A strategy or approach is a high level planning decision, and often involves
deciding on priorities, the relative importance of various parameters. For
instance in project management, should quality, quantity or cost be optimised?
In war, what are the war aims? Should territory, civilian deaths, or keeping
the army intact be most important?
In learning, the deep-surface contrast seems to be about whether understanding
is the aim, or learning as measured by a specific form of test. In cases
where a course has multiple forms of assessment (e.g. weekly quiz, end of
semester exam, progression to a higher degree), a somewhat different kind of
strategic choice must be made by students as discussed by Snyder (1971). In
Hanscomb's cases it is about getting an assignment done: so the form of test
is fixed, the deadline is fixed, and the strategic choices might be about
time, cost, quality. However only two of his virtues seem to be of this kind:
flexibility, and sloppiness. Three others seem to be about how the student
responds to, not one assignment, but the cycle of repeated assignments and
feedback (perseverence, resilience, defensiveness). The other three seem more
to do with links between personality traits and Perry-like features of
students' "epistemology": responsibility, open mindedness, respect for others'
However they are all to do with, not regulating learning (as in how a student
does, and regulates, their revision), but with doing an assessed assignment.
Thus I view these as approaches, not traits; and as distinct from approaches
to learning (deep and surface). This is the second lesson I learned from
Stuart. It is a new area of student choice.
Some of Hanscomb's virtues seem related to the Perry issue,
but they are simultaneously to do with the demands of essays in the social
sciences, and with the interpersonal attitudes that students should have towards
peers and teachers. Open-mindedness is about whether you can learn from
arguments and what others say, or are stuck with the judgement you first
Put another way: There is a deep issue in education associated with Perry's
(1968) work about how a learner relates to differences in views, opinions, but
it has four different instantiations.
- The nature of the material to be learned.
Perry focussed on this at the level of subject matter content: where
discipline areas require their learners to understand and write about
differences in views of experts in the field.
However he wrongly assumed that a person has a single consistent epistemological
position about the nature of knowledge (e.g. relativist),
whereas it is nearer the truth to say that one of the things we quickly learn
about each topic is its status. For instance almost everyone sees music as
something where views differ but there is little prospect of arguing someone
into or out of likeing one style of music. In contrast, almost everyone sees
tide tables as a matter of fact: neither arguing about it, nor any technology
available, makes any difference to when in fact the tide will come in.
- Critical thinking. Closely related to this is to see it as
"critical thinking": where the required style of discourse is to discuss
alternative views and the differences in quality of evidence for each. This
is in effect a skill or procedure many students must learn, like calculus for
scientists, regardless of their preferences.
- Peer interaction styles. But it is also important in how a student
interacts with their peers in discussion: a matter in part of social conduct.
Newman saw this as the central value of universities: bringing students in
contact with people of different opinions but similar status, intelligence,
and well-informedness. This is partly a training for life, where you have to
deal with such differences in opinion; and where justifying your opinion is
often required. But it is also an opportunity to learn. And a matter of
social conduct: showing respect for others' views is a requirement in many
- Personal identity. But it also has a personal aspect. When your
views are attacked, do you feel that it is your identity that is attacked,
undermined? (On the other hand, if you are detached from the views you
discuss, does that mean you appear insincere socially, internally feel empty
and unmotivated about studying the area, and see arguments as being
merely a game like chess, unrelated to practical action?)
These four aspects are by no means necessarily unified in each person.
We may express our perceptions of a student in terms of personal identity or
attributes, yet want to teach them: i.e. want to change not their identity but
If we take this view, then what should we do? I'm not aware of good
literature on active interventions to promote progression to better Perry
levels. But presumably the intervention would be (partly) to interpret
student work in terms of the Perry related stage or attitudes it shows, and to
do active tutorial interventions to try to progress the student in this
We should give systematic feedback on study skills,
If we accept that we give any teaching at all about study skills, methods, and
personal development, then we shouldn't just give exposition but feedback.
Feedback has to be in response to some kind of student work; and Hanscomb
points out that teachers automatically form the basic perceptions. How might
we organise this?
Pre-facing work with questions requesting feedback. This is the technique of
We could extend this by requiring students to submit, along with their essay,
an account (learning diary?) of what work they did for it, and how they
organised that effort. A time management report: but probably the
quantitative report on time is less important than the qualitative report of
how the work was broken down into parts, and what those parts were.
Then the tutor could give feedback on this management (study skill) aspect of
The Patchwork Text
technique could be relevant here: requiring learners to make entries each week
into their learning diary; then review them at half term.
This kind of feedback is about attending less to the current product by a
learner (how to re-edit this particular essay); and more to general approaches
in the learner that led to it, and seeing how to modify these for the future.
Is this intrusive? or is it taking an interest in what students do?
Draper (2008) coined the phrase "Teacher monitoring" to discuss the
indications that students may welcome this attention even when it is not kind
or "supportive" in emotional flavour.
So: Stuart suggests giving explicit feedback on three neglected areas;
and to do so by expressing it in terms of character attributions.
This could be better than in technical terms.
It could be done, following Elbow, not in the voice of expertise, but in the
voice of expressing personal impressions; thus largely obviating the danger of
sounding arrogant, impertinent, ....
At interesting suggestion is that the process of starting from these
instantaneous and unconsidered judgemental perceptions and considering them
seriously, is that a marker might learn as much about themselves as about the
students. This might well include a process leading the tutor to become more
articulate about the implicit intellectual values they hold and would wish
their students to internalise.
Biggs,J. (2001) "Enhancing learning: A matter of style or approach" ch.4
pp.73-102 in R.J.Sternberg & Li-Fang Zhang (2001) (eds.) Perspectives on
thinking, learning, and cognitive styles (London: LEA)
[Argument that deep& shallow learning is not a trait]
Draper,S.W. (2008) "Learning and Community" pp.132-144
in A.Comrie, N.J.Mayes, J.T.Mayes & K.Smyth (Editors)
Learners in the Co-Creation of Knowledge: Proceedings of the LICK 2008 Symposium,
Edinburgh 30 October 2008 (Edinburgh: Napier University).
Newman,J.H. (1852/1976) [ed. I.T.Ker] The idea of a university
(Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Perry, W.G. (1968/70) Forms of intellectual and ethical development
in the college years (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston)
Connected vs. separate learning. See:
Plimmer, Beryl references:
Snyder,Benson R. (1971) The hidden curriculum (MIT press; Boston,
A tone of voice (cf. Vygotsky)? An attitude to an activity, that could
quite well be very different, but has large consequences when adopted.
"Assessment -- summative and formative -- some theoretical reflections"
British Journal of Educational Studies vol.53 no.4, pp.466-478
Vyg? or neo-Vyg ref?
What original thoughts do I think I have here?
- New 4-level Perry classification
- The nature of traits vs.approaches / habits of character
- A classification of the forms these can be expressed in
- (Recognising Stuart's identification of a new phenomenon.)
- Articulating what kind of thing this is; listing others of the same
?More partial associations
Belenky connected knowing.
Feedback on work related attributes
Lorna Morrow is developing a feedback sheet and
procedure for doing a version of Hanscomb's idea, but focussed on work related
attributes, in this department. The spirit of her approach is quite
different. No rumination on the nature of virtues or traits, but direct
telling students of a tutor's judgement, phrased as authoritative truth, just
like an essay mark.
This brings out how this proposed learning & teaching process is related
- Feedback to students: just another bit of written feedback, based on
tutors judgements on their work.
- Hanscomb's virtues
- PDP (personal development planning/portfolio)
- Staff writing references for students to employers
- Graduate attributes
- Staff appraisal procedures
A possible process
After a brainstorm (ambiguity intended), here is an elaborated possible
procedure based on this idea.
- Student is required to come up with (say) 7 headings of their own; and
their own self-evaluation against those headings.
- Tutor comments on these. Then comes up with additional headings
(perhaps from a standard list), and the tutor's comments on the student
under each of these.
- A departmental list based on the headings which the department staff
assembled based on their recent collective experience of headings in requests
for references for students. Or Lorna's list which is close to this.
Tutor and/or student translate or carry over the comments from earlier steps
to fill in these headings.
- Graduate attributes (the university's set).
Tutor and/or student translate or carry over the comments from earlier steps
to fill in these headings.
Process v.2: Linking behaviour and attribute
Another issue to consider is the advantage of linking each attribute to an
observed behaviour, not just to a perceived degree as in the appraisal-style
process above: e.g. "quite conscientious".
An example of this version would be "emailing back revisions in response to
every bit of feedback given shows that you are conscientious".
(For more examples, if you don't mind a dubious reference,
see the section on "positive programming"
and adapt the examples for our purposes here.)
Process v.3: Use Elbow's Reader-Based Feedback voice
The processes sketched above use an absolutist voice, phrasing things as if
the tutor's attributions of the student's traits were unquestionably
veridicial. An alternative here, as in fact in any feedback, is to use the
"other" voice of feedback, described by Peter Elbow (see above), and which
he called "Reader-Based Feedback".
It phrases nothing as an attribute, presupposed true, of the student; and
everything as a feeling of the reader/tutor e.g. "your emailing back revisions
in response to every bit of feedback given makes me think you are
conscientious"; or "I was excited by your introduction, but felt lost by the
end of section 2".
Both because tutor attributions of student traits are going to have low
reliability, and because they are personal and likely to be emotionally laden
for the recipient, the Reader-Based Feedback voice is probably much more suitable
for feedback on work related attributes than the authoritative voice.
A quite different process
Alternatively, suppose we want to give reliable feedback on traits.
Then the view would be to reject all the above suggestions because
when we provide feedback from 'thin slices' of behaviour interpreted from
'signs' in behavioural output on traits/skills that have alternative, more
reliable and valid measures available, we do ourselves and our students a
The implication is that we should actually measure the traits of interest using
validated procedures from psychology. We could then both give real personal
feedback (not vent our amateur impressions), and give more evidence-based
references for future employers.
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