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A math guy's random thoughts.
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#849579 added May 15, 2015 at 10:22am
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Standards Based Learning and Contests
Standards Based Learning and Contests

Running a contest is a lot of work. It requires a big investment of time and resources. Why would anyone do that?

Everyone will probably have a different answer. Maybe it's payback to the community for the help we all got as newbies. Maybe it's a marketing strategy for our published fiction. Maybe it just feels good to provide a service to the others. You'll notice a theme that runs through these reasons. They all involve being helpful in some way to the people who participate in the contest.

Now, you might argue that the marketing motive is pure self-interest and "helpfulness" isn't required. That's true, but only in part. A writing contest involves judging, which in turn involves standards. Whether intentional or not, holding contestants to standards is a learning experience for them. All publishers have expectations. Readers have expectations. Part of our job as authors is to learn how to write to meet those expectations. Entering contests teaches how to do that. That's helpful to the contestant. Eventually, as our skills increase, we can even learn how to stretch expectations.

The point is that all contests involve setting standards and judging entries, and this in turn involves learning for the contestants. Well-conceived contests will connect the standards--the contest rules--to the judging in clear and unambiguous ways.

In doing this, we can benefit from the experience of professional educators. There is a comprehensive body of practice and knowledge about standards-based learning that has evolved over the last few decades. It started at the elementary school level, but today it's an accreditation standard that applies to even the most advanced doctoral programs. At the fundamental level, those responsible for academic programs establish learning objectives and then design activities through which students acquire knowledge and skills. In doing so, students accumulate evidence that they have learned. Under this scheme, grades connect to levels of learning in a direct and clear manner.

In this context, a contest can--and I would argue should--have learning objectives. These can be pretty simple: for example, "write a horror story between 1000 and 3000 words long." That establishes clear objectives. In fact, this is the editorial direction many publications provide authors. Other common directives from editors might include proper grammar and spelling. Many say they want something "new," which in a contest might translate to "creativity" or "originality."

Experience shows that editors also pay attention--at least for beginning authors--to basic elements of craft. These might include starting in media res,, avoiding passive voice, not over-using adverbs, or not starting with a disembodied voice. Point of view is another difficult thing for beginning authors to master and might be a contest element. In the case of my own contest, "Just One Point of View Contest, third person limited point of view is the focus.

The point is that in creating the judging standards for a contest, we are establishing external objectives for the authors. When we actually assess the entries, we are evaluating how well the contestants have demonstrated mastery--learning--of the contest objectives. The contest, then, is an opportunity for contestants both to learn and to demonstrate learning.

Finally, in a well-run contest the entrants should all be treated with respect. Among other things, this means that every entrant should receive some kind of feedback. In providing feedback, especially to newbies, respect means taking the work seriously and providing an honest evaluation. Believe, me, I know how annoying it can be to have contestants disregard the rules. But an "honest evaluation" is not an invitation to be mean-spirited or petty. In fact, I'd go so far as to say feedback to contestants should be nice. Following the "standards-based" principle, what I mean by "nice" is that the feedback should do the following things: it should
         Nurture talent;
         Inspire excellence;
         Celebrate creativity; and
         Encourage improvement.
It's a scary thing to put your fiction out there in the cruel world. If you want to be helpful to your contestants, you'll be honest, but you'll also honor what they have done. Providing feedback that aligns with the above simple rules will have better effect than any harsh scolding.

So, whatever your goal for your contest, my advice is to establish what kind of standards you want to apply to the judging. Be clear about those, and connect the actual judging to the standards. Provide feedback to your contestants. Above all, be nice.

Max Griffin
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