I have been taking courses, off and on, through Athabasca University since 1996 and for the most part I love to learn through distance education. In fact, distance education is an old friend of mine. I experienced difficulties in high school due to my own lack of self-discipline and rebellious attitude toward authority figures”?teachers in the instant context. With age and maturity I have learned patience, tolerance and respect. The academic challenges that I faced as a youth were not attributable to a lack of ability or intelligence, but they nonetheless resulted in my leaving high school half-way through grade 10. I completed my High School Commercial Upgrading 10-12 through National College’s distance education program and found that I easily achieved high marks through non-classroom based self-study. When, in the mid-1990s, I felt the desire to learn again, Athabasca University’s distance education was a perfect fit for me.
Interestingly, the greatest frustrations that I face studying through Athabasca are not academic at all, but rather the result of student-tutor relations. These frustrations are markedly different than those I faced as a student in high school relating to my teachers”?those were almost all personality conflicts. Conversely, I have yet to work with an AU tutor whose knowledge I didn’t respect and whose personality I haven’t enjoyed on some level. My frustrations, which are extreme and seem to be growing as I take and complete more courses, find their roots in the marked variations between tutors; specifically their respective preferences and demands on students.
I have been marked down by some tutors for writing paragraphs that are too short, only to be marked down by other tutors for paragraphs that are too long. Some tutors decry my writing as too verbose, while others feel that my writing is succinct and concise. Tutors have demanded more citations to support my assertions, others fewer citations of authorities so as to expand on my own ideas. But the biggest problem that I have with tutor-to-tutor variation is word limits. Some tutors demand strict adherence to the word limits of an assignment, while others are far more concerned with quality than quantity. As one tutor has explained: “Forget the suggested word count. I do not believe in word or page limitations. The suggested word lengths are just that, a suggestion of appropriate length, but to me they represent the antithesis of intelligent writing. I would suggest that you spend your time writing an answer with which you are satisfied and ignore counting words. I’ll take it from there.”
Another tutor marked me down for submitting a paper that was too brief, when in fact it was over the stated word limit (granted, the mark was raised when this fact was pointed out). The most recently marked paper that I received had the following comments: “A marvellous analysis… I have little to comment regarding your argument. It is thorough and well-thought out. Well done! :you clearly have an excellent grasp of the material and a strong mind for this subject. I hope you pursue it more in the future.” But then: “However, I felt I had no choice but to reduce the grade I would have otherwise given due to the excessive length of the paper:” This one was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and I felt that I had no choice but to appeal the mark under the University’s guidelines (section 12.20 of the university calendar).
The point that I am trying to make here is that there is little, if any, consistency between tutors, which in turn, places the student at a disadvantage going into each and every new course. He or she must learn the niggling preferences of every tutor over again and try to tailor assignments to please them. Marks are lost while adjusting to the new relationship and just as student-tutor relations are getting comfortable, the course is over and a new tutor with different demands is assigned for the next course. To make matters worse, individual preferences are normally communicated as feedback to the first assignments”?marks are already lost before the preferences are communicated. In fact, I have worked with over a dozen tutors and only one of them sent me preferences and expectations prior to the course start date. I was very impressed and appreciative of receiving this information unsolicited and before any assignments were submitted.
I feel that there should be an attempt made at tutor consistency on the part of the university. Although it wouldn’t be easy, policies could be written to at least minimize the impact of these variations. A good start would be the implementation of a policy that would require tutors to send out their individual preferences and expectations to students along with their introduction letter prior to the start date of a course. I’d be interested to know whether other AU students are experiencing frustrations due to tutor-to-tutor preferential variations, or whether I am an anomaly in the student-body in this regard. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Wayne’s appeal was successful and his mark was raised 10% over the original mark, 5% over what the tutor had offered to raise it to.
Wayne E. Benedict is a Locomotive Engineer at BC Rail and President of the National, Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada (CAW) Local 110. He is working toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University.