Ray Martin shows how to interpret an assessment issue from an inclusive perspective.
Marek Wirksa has established a pattern. When he achieves a good mark, the next time he slacks right off and produces weak work and when he achieves a poor mark he works really hard, so he’s really up and down. You’ve discussed this with him, but it makes no difference. At this assessment point his work is outstanding. You’re worried that your positive feedback will cause him to once again become complacent. What will you feed back to Marek?
There may be precious little you can do for Marek. You certainly can’t tinker with the marks: you have to mark against the learning outcomes and the grade descriptors, however tempted you are. There is no other option.
Why does he operate like this? Among the endless possibilities, there’s a likelihood that Marek is ADHD with a support tutor and/or mentor. And maybe you can enquire about their work together. They may do a lot on timetabling or building an online diary (and using it) because he’s likely to have difficulties with time management, planning and prioritising. He may also have major problems getting started – particularly if a project doesn’t sound sufficiently exciting (and if he gets a high grade in this last assignment, the challenge for the next assignment may seem insufficient to arouse him). The support tutor may wring his/her hands over Marek’s more or less intractable procrastination – ‘you can’t get passed it’, says Philip Asherton (2019), an ADHD specialist.
This procrastination is often accompanied by a tendency to favour high-risk situations – Thomas Brown (2014) suspects all stand-up comedians may, like Rory Bremner, have ADHD, living on the edge, creating shows more or less on the fly. This tendency may well appear when Marek is confronted with a presentation: he blags it. (His tutor/mentor will be wringing his/her hands about this too, no doubt.)
ADHD adults may have entrepreneurial skills and make and lose several fortunes, partly because they’re risk-takers but possibly too because, when they’re doing well, the challenge goes – and this seems to connect with Marek’s behaviour. As one ADHD parent said to me once, ‘When I’ve made a lot of money, I get bored and let things slide.’ (At that point, he had suddenly found he had two boys at an expensive school and needed to hyper-focus on paying the fees.)
If Marek has not been assessed as ADHD, one possibility is that he has mental health problems and the ADHD has been missed, which is not uncommon (Asherton, 2019). ADHD students may suffer from low self-esteem and – paradoxically – anxiety; their sleep problems are likely to be remediated only with drugs. You may not know about the mental health problems either because only 1.5% of students are likely to disclose their difficulties to their HEIs (Abrahams and Chappell, 2017).
Keep your inclusivity goggles on at all times – it may be that Marek really can’t do much about the roller coaster he’s on, but he and his support tutor may be doing their best.
Abrahams, H. and Chappell, M. (2017) Mental Health in Higher Education for Students with SpLDs (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)
Asherton, P. (2019) ADHD in Higher Education (Lecture at Bloomsbury Institute, 21 Feb. 2019)
Brennan, L. (2017) Understanding Mental Health in SpLD Learners (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)
Brown, T. (2014) ADHD (Lecture at the Dyslexia Assessment Centre, 4 Mar. 2014)
Colley, M. (2009) in Pollak, D. (ed) Neurodiversity in Higher Education: positive responses to specific learning differences Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.169-194