A while back I write a blog post called Ever wonder what an MA in Education Assessment does to your brain? and it did pretty well (148 views so far). But I feel like it was a bit of a cheek because it was essentially a draft of an essay to give you a flavour of the sort of writing that is expected.
Well, I've just received my final results (I did well - I'm very proud of myself!) so, safe in the knowledge that they can't take anything back, I thought it was time to release part two of this reflective series and share my thoughts on what an MA in one of London's most prestigious universities ('number one in the world for education', according to them) is like.
I won't be mentioning the name of the uni nor any names of lecturers. How about we start with some context?
I had been an in-class Primary teacher for 10 years and decided that I needed a break from the politics of schools and had been feeling nostalgic about university life for some time. My wife already had two Masters Degrees in science and was in the middle of a PhD and she, along with some friends, suggested I do a Masters in Education. The particular course recommended was in Academic Assessment as a) it was a growing academic field and b) there was only one institution in the world who offered it and it was figuratively just down the road from me.
The course required a letter of recommendation, which I was fortunate enough to receive, and an application essay. Well, I can write just fine (my style is a little less than academic - more on that later - but fine enough to get in). It cost around £9,000 but, to my surprise, the Student Loans Company covered that (was I salty that I had only just paid off my previous student loan? A little...). I feel like I need to point out that I was already living in London, so accommodation expenses were not an issue. Also, I had a really nice e-bike so travelling costs were nil. Additionally, I was able to pay the bills through some tutoring gigs so I wasn't working full time as well, which some people had to do. I mention all of this to check my privilege early on. This isn't a celebration of me, nor is it a guide on how to complete an MA. Just a reflection on my experience.
Context in place, let's go...
The first term was concerned chiefly with the philosophy of education. The first (long) module was called What is Education and was essentially a summary of the history of education covering Piaget, Vygotsky, Skinner etc. Each week was focussed on a different ethos of education - socialist, anarchic... it was so dull. The lectures were invariably three-hours of a guest lecturer enjoying their own voice and plugging their self-published book.
I'm not even kidding.
So, three hours of being talked at followed by thirty minutes of seminar time. To be fair, the seminars were really useful because you actually got to discuss the ideas and principles. But they were way too short and, perhaps inevitably, the same four-five people did all the talking (I was one of the four-five).
The first essay for this module was a 1000-word, unmarked piece. Well, it was marked, but not summatively. This meant that we got feedback and it was more an opportunity to get to know the way to write for an MA. We could choose our own question and everything.
Great. Except we had been given no assistance on what the expectations were. When we asked, the only answer any of us was given was: You are doing an MA at the number one university in the world for education; you should know how to write at Master's level. Maybe that's fair? I don't know. MY previous degree was a BA and I had spent a third of my life since then helping 10-year-olds master Primary level writing. I wasn't exactly sure when I was supposed to have taken this pre-requisite MA writing course (I'm being facetious - there was no pre-requisite course).
Anyway, I did the essay and handed it in. The feedback I got was... well... I have an English degree and I've had books published so I'm pretty confident that I know the basics of writing. The feedback I got did not make grammatical sense. Some paragraphs didn't even make syntactical sense. I was annoyed mostly because my use of English was being criticised by someone who clearly didn't know how to form a complex sentence. And I know that this sounds really shitty and I come off a little bit why do you bring fools to judge my work but I wasn't the only one. There were eight of us who had our paper marked by the same person and none of the feedback was useful. That was my main complaint. I don't mind people disagreeing with my writing style and I am happy to be given suggestions on how to improve (use the comments below!) but to have feedback that amounted to little more than 'this bad - need improve', especially at the number one university in the world for education was not good enough.
Imagine my joy when I found out that this same person was going to mark my actual essay! So I complained, along with several other people, and we had our marker changed.
Overall, the What is Education module was terrible. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against philosophy. I am quite fond of meandering questions that don't' need answers but it's not what I signed up for. It added nothing to my understanding of academic assessment and felt, if I'm honest, like a very long catch-up course for the (many) non-teachers on the course. Perhaps that was my naivety; I had assumed that this course would be mostly taken by teachers but it turns out that practising teachers were the minority. I was also shocked to discover that none of the lecturers were teachers. Some had never even seen the inside of a classroom! This was truly an exercise in teaching theory.
This module lasted the whole term and the only noteworthy thing was that I was told off for moving a chair during a seminar on anarchy! The lecturer did not appreciate the irony. The final essay for this module was okay. The initial feedback I received from the non-marked piece was completely contradicted in the feedback for the officially marked piece but, to be honest, I had come to expect this by now. At least it passed. I think the most frustrating thing for me was the very clear bias towards anything that could be considered social justice. Perhaps it is in the zeitgeist, perhaps the uni in question was about to be reprimanded for their historic links to the slave trade, who's to know. I just know that I was told that my essay would be improved greatly if I 'worked in' a bit about social justice. Never mind that my essay had nothing to do with social justice, if I could just add just a little paragraph about it, that might improve my grade a bit.
Oh, and no, I haven't forgotten the question mark in What is Education. I mentioned this and was told:
Ah, but is it a question? A question requires an answer and is there an answer to what education is? That's what we want you to explore.
Dumbledore was less obtuse.
The other module that term was Assessment Issues and Practise. Now this one was better. It focussed on assessment (the reason I embarked on the degree in the first place) and, perhaps, benefitted from being a smaller cohort. It was during this module that I learned all about fun things like Construct Irrelevant Variance and Differential Item Function tests. Juicy stuff. There was also a lot more discussion, which was actively encouraged by a lecturer who was clearly not just knowledgable but very passionate about the subject. It didn't hurt that each week we were encouraged to bring snacks for the mid-session break.
The essay for this module was also really interesting. We had to pick any formal assessment in existence and assess its fitness for purpose, based on the key reading from the term. It was through this essay that I ended up with enough material left over to write a blog post about the Year 6 Reading SATs (which was later published by TES). It was interesting. It felt relevant. It absolutely sped by.
Term 2 saw the introduction of Understanding Research - a module I was looking forward to not least because the level of formality combined with the depth of academic research required so far was a little bit overwhelming for me.
Alas, it was not quite as helpful as I (or others) had hoped. Instead of a steady week-by-week guide to academic research at a Masters level, it was more a monster of the week kind of deal. A different guest lecturer would come in and discuss the sort of research they did... but at a very surface level. I learned some vocabulary - I learned the difference between qualitative research and quantitative research but beyond that, I honestly got more from my wife (who is in the middle of a PhD) and YouTube.
The one shining light each week was the seminars that followed the lectures. In contrast to my undergrad degree, most of the people actually complete the reading before the session, so people had things to say. At least, the people who were willing to talk had something to say. But that's fine. Some people aren't chatty and I can't complain because there were five or six of us who formed a WhatsApp group and went out for dinner week to discuss things further. So that was nice.
Remember when you could just randomly go out for dinner with friends? Ah, 2019.
My issue with this module's assignment was that was to be draft-marked by the same person from What is Education. Now, their advice, which I had followed, resulted in my receiving a lower mark than they predicted. The reason? I suspect a little too much of that person's own personal opinions were fed into the final piece.
Lo and behold, I was given similar advice as before (Where's the Social Justice angle? they cried). I ignored the advice this time, reaching out to other people instead. People, I might add, who were nothing to do with the university. Anyway, I got a good grade back on that one so I am glad I did what I did.
Was it a good module? No. It did not help me understand research at all. And even if it had, what is the sense of hosting this lecture in the second term? The final, taught term of the degree (third term was the dissertation)? It makes no sense.
The last taught module before a) my dissertation, and b) the entire world went COVID, was Educational Testing. This was another very good module. Again, it was assessment-based. It was run by the same lecturer as Assessment Issues and Practise. It was lively and up-to-date. One week, we had a discussion about TIMMS and PISA tests from the people who interpreted the results for the government! We had a discussion, another week, about exam paper created led by the people who create the exam papers for Cambridge Assessment! This was hands-on stuff. I learned so much; not just as a student but as a teacher as well. This was really effective assessment teaching. And it was fun.
The assignment for this module was two-fold. First, we had to take a mock-exam paper and analyse it. Absolutely rip it to pieces and examine its effectiveness, reliability and validity at a question-by-question level. We had to look at everything from the relevance of the mark scheme to the use of blank spaces on the question paper. I love it.
Next, we had to build on that playful safe experience of a mock test and apply what we had learned to an existing assessment. This is how I ended up looking at the Year 6 Science Sampling SATs and realising that, far from being unfair and biased, they were actually very well constructed... according to their brief. The problem was (and still is) that the brief was either outdated or not fit for purpose int he first place. But that's not the fault of the exam paper.
I absolutely loved this module. Again, friends were made; WhatsApp groups were created; dinners were had.
Before I talk about my experience with the Dissertation, I want to add that it was not just COVID-19 that interrupted my uni experience. During the year there were two staff strikes due to altered contracts and mismanagement of pension schemes. This was disruptive and I think it detracted from my overall experience; however, I completely understand and stand by the members of staff for doing it.
My dissertation was horrible. I had a supervisor who was new to the Uni. They seemed to have a limited understanding of the Primary education system in England and, from what I could gather, had never heard of Year 6 SATs. This was a problem given that my 10,000-word essay was going to be about that very topic.
Fortunately for me, a fellow student was having similar problems (to be fair, hers were worse and included a little bit of sexism and xenophobia) so we metaphorically held hands and went to the lead supervisor (who was the amazing woman from both Assessment Issues and Practise and Educational Testing). To say she sorted things out would be an understatement. I don't know exactly what she did, beyond taking us both on as supervisees, but from that moment, things got much better.
Don't get me wrong. I still hated my dissertation.
The thing is, and I'm sure you're aware of this having read this far, I am not a very academic writer. Even in my undergrad (English Literature, if you're interested), I was told that my final dissertation, while hugely entertaining, was not academic enough to warrant an A-grade (it's okay, I got a 2:1; I'm happy). So writing so seriously did not come easily to me. I reached a point where I had to write a thousand words or so in my own style, then go back and make it dull. Sorry! Make it academic.
The patience of my supervisor and my wife knew no bounds. I would have told me to shut-up and get on with it.
But no, I was reassured without being patronised. and guided without being led. I managed to survey hundreds of teachers online and interview four very lovely people via video conferencing. The whole time I was worried that would never make the word count. I can write for days but very little of it is formally or non-fictionally relevant! In the end, I was over by exactly 10%, which is the maximum, maximum allowable. This is not a Humble-brag, it is a reassurance that if I can do it, you can do it.
My Masters degree is now complete and I have been awarded for my efforts with a Merit (essentially a B or an upper-first). My graduation ceremony has been postponed until 2022 but I don't mind. I did it. There were genuinely times when I thought I wouldn't.
To paraphrase the puppets of Avenue Q: what do you do with an MA in Academic Assessment? Well, I started this blog, which has seen one post published in the Times Education Supplement and another awarded Education Blog Post of the Week; I have a series of English Comprehension practice papers published; and I've consulted for a couple of education-based games companies. I'm about to start work on a book and my education website launches in April this year (if all goes well). I'm also helping lots of children regain lost confidence and guiding parents through the quagmire of English Primary education assessment.
Do I regret doing an MA?
Would I do it again?
Do I have any intention of pursuing a PhD?
... despite my wife's insistence!
Wow! This was a long one. If you managed to read the whole thing, thank - you're awesome. If you have any questions about my experience or an MA in general, leave them below or get in touch on Twitter. If I can't help, I'll find someone who can.
Next week (I'm trying to get back to once-a-week blogs), I'll be diving into the world of affordable laptops for home- and distance-learning so if you know anyone who might be interested in that, please share this blog with them.
Until then, stay safe, stay home, wear a mask if you have to go out. This will pass; maybe not soon, but eventually.
BA(Hons) PGCE MA