Written by Tommy Truong
What a momentous year 2019 has been. It definitely feels that way for the Media Team at CSESoc. May I, on behalf of Media, thank our audience for sharing their insights on the first year of trimesters. The chorus of student voices have allowed us to thread a common shared experience and a new-found compassion for the plight of the fellow student at UNSW.
Nevertheless, as we prepare for the new year’s tribulations, let us spare some compassion for our greatest teaching asset. The staff at the CSE School have been with us from the beginning, helping make the transition as smooth as possible. To shine a light on their thoughts on the trimester system, we went and scouted for staff willing to talk to us.
Now to be fair our conversation with John Andrew Shepherd and Andrew John Taylor was conducted over half a year ago, but we hope that these experiences (some rather than others) remain true. We had hoped to have more interviews with a diverse range of lecturers, but timetable clashes and heavy workloads prevented that.
A common thread throughout our conversation with lecturers was a deep and profound compassion for the students and the adversities they face under the new system. At the core of every teaching staff, is a fundamental principle that they are educators first and foremost. They make every endeavour to ensure that the transition or the establishment (for you first years) of trimesters is as painless as possible. We remind readers that this is an ongoing transition. Not often does a change so fundamental ever go the way it was planned, but it’s just that much more bearable thanks to our wonderful teaching and support staff.
So, to our first question.
Comparing trimesters with the previous semester system, do you feel that the workload of being a lecturer has changed? How has it changed?
An answer from John which succinctly conveys the feelings of other lecturers as well. John noted the end of semester marking to be "a real killer to academics". Exam markings have deadlines that must be met to be published on time. With a shortened semester, marking, resolving grievances and supplementary exams are compressed into a much smaller time frame. For those who are well into the twilight years of their degrees, you may remember a time when tutors use to give individual feedback in labs and comment throughout assignment code. Alas, those days have disappeared. John and Andrew mention that exams, assignments and labs have moved towards auto marking to be less of a burden on academics and teaching staff. What we gain in efficiency, we equally lose in the critical feedback that tutors give, specialised to each student which had a real impact on their growth as programmers. Remember, that there is no concept of auto marking in industry so the feedback was helpful in developing skills necessary to accept and respond to feedback. Now this is not to say this was necessarily a response to trimesters as we will explain later on, but it would be better if academic staff were not so rushed to get through content and paid more attention to the needs of students.
We asked about how publications and research may have been impeded by the new system, and while it was too early for some to tell, John remarked that all they could do was work just as hard while maintaining the quality of their courses. I am reminded that as much as we may complain, university is only one stage of our lives whereas for academics and staff, university is where they make their living. The confines of the system do not change even when we leave so the additional stresses placed upon staff now become a constant in their careers.
What changes have you made to your course to adapt to the new academic calendar?
To be perfectly honest, in asking this question, Elton and I had gone in with the bias that there had been drastic changes made and that courses across the board had surrendered quality for deliverability. To our surprise, John and Andrew had kept most of what had made up their courses and sacrificed only the timing and frequency of assignments. We make no assumptions in this article on the breadth and degree to which other courses have made changes but as Andrew remarks ‘Courses aren’t constant’. The CSE faculty have over the years made changes either from necessary updates to keep courses relevant or in response to the calendar. These revisions have supported a somewhat smooth delivery of course content albeit rushed.
A concrete example of where beneficial changes to courses have occurred, irrespective of the trimester, are weekly assessable tests/quizzes. They had been introduced into some CS courses and the motivation behind them were to keep students on track and reduce the temptation for students to let their studies slip. There can be a view that this increases student workload in trimesters, however it had been introduced 2 years prior into courses such as COMP2041 and because of positive feedback was kept. They definitely add a sense of structure to what seems to have been a very chaotic year for some. There is at least some standard of work and study placed into courses that have implemented this, for students of all academic levels and time constraints.
When asked about whether marks had been affected at all, both Andrew and John disclosed that the initial trimester had yielded similar mark distribution to past years. We found that quite surprising. With increased workload and reduced time for everything else, we had assumed that it would translate into a lower mark distribution. John had said that to some effect, scaling had meant that the distribution of marks would not differ much to previous years with Andrew mentioning that COMP1511 had actually achieved slightly higher marks compared to previous years.
It is not a fair comparison to compare one year of trimester marks to a multitude of semester marks. Mark differentials between the two system could be attributed to unique changes made by each course and further scaling undertaken. Only as the years progress, will we see if there is a correlation with trimesters and its effect on marks. However, marks are not the be all and end all of university especially when students in CSE are scouted based on their skills. For the majority of students these skills are learnt at university and that’s a concern. For when courses drop parts of their curriculum without another course picking it up, we lose those skills that may differentiate us from another applicant. Without viable places for skills essential to CS students to be learnt, it will be difficult to justify implementation of trimesters purely on data given by mark distributions.
One thing both lecturers agreed on is having undergraduates take more tutoring positions especially with introductory computing courses. Getting tutors who keep track of students who seem to be drifting away and keeping them on track is a point of improvement according to Andrew. The intuition definitely makes sense as students we can pick up those signs that our fellow students are slipping and it’s easier to talk to tutors who understand the experience. However, attracting students to become tutors, on top of their already heavy workloads, may be a challenge to fulfilling this goal.
What are some benefits lost and gained as a result from changing to the new academic calendar from a lecturer’s perspective?
At the end of the year many of us undertake internships. Sadly, as we have now experienced internships overlap with the exam period, with the more unfortunate of us having to balance the ‘9 to 5 life’ with exam studying. Andrew and John foreshadowed that the timing of internships and exams were particularly troubling, remembering that this conversation had happened half a year prior. Stopping short of saying it was a lost benefit, it was mentioned that faculty were talking with industry to look at what they could do with inflexible internships who do not offer outside the usual summer program. Another point of foreshadowing was of student burnout with such an intensive academic calendar. Students are really feeling the pinch when exam time comes around and they have to study for content without the proper attention that it deserved and as John rightly says there’s less time for ‘reflection and absorbing’ of content throughout the trimester too.
When asked about what had been gained, there were two points that were mentioned. Firstly, those that were in a rush to finish their degree could overload and take 9 courses over the whole year. Also on the flip side of that people who needed to take less courses, to really focus on their studies, could undertake that. Secondly, postgraduates who had to take 4 courses each semester in the old system found it challenging to find courses to undertake. With international postgraduates adjusting to life in Sydney and at UNSW, trying to undertake that task is no easy feat. In the first trimester article, I had equated that if you took what I considered to be a healthy load of 2 courses per trimester then your degree would be extended by a year.
While as a first year, reading that would have been unappealing, I think trimesters have contributed to an environment where the path to your degree has now taken the importance it should. Students now consider what is best for their education, since choosing courses to take, when and how many now has more of an effect on one’s performance then it once did. On that point, advice that both lecturers did give was to plan ahead. Having a vision for what you want to accomplish after 4 years of university, using the handbook and asking questions of students and lecturers to inform opinions has never been so valuable.
And that’s a wrap.
Thank you to Andrew and John for agreeing to have this conversation with us and if you want to know more about them, we made a podcast where we had a more personal conversation about their life and teaching experience.
Throughout this 3-piece series, we have explored with depth, the challenges students and staff face but also the hope and opportunities that the future holds. We hope that you have enjoyed reading the articles as much as we have enjoyed writing them. Remember, it is down to the resilience and determination of the students and teaching staff and not the strength of the system which sees students retain their high academic performance. On a larger scale, thank you to our readers and listeners last year and hope you can continue to support us. As we sign off from these articles, we hoped you all had enough time to rest up and prepare arms for another gruelling year at UNSW. Look out for each other and peace out.