As BILT associates, we’ve spent the last year or so thinking about how we can help students with a diverse range of needs transition into university life. While others in the team have started to look at these issues at a university-wide scale, we’ve been more interested in transitions at discipline level – in short, how can we ensure that talented history students joining our department after their A-levels have the tools, knowledge, and skills they need to excel at undergraduate level? How can our discipline-specific approaches to teaching, learning, and assessment play a role in making sure our students are equipped for the ‘jump’ from school to university? By asking these questions we hope to provide new insights that can make our teaching even more accessible, and our programme even more robust and ambitious. We also hope our findings might be applicable more broadly, and might encourage other departments to think about the specific role they can play in supporting students transition between school and university.
Our research focused on two main areas:
- To learn more about the teaching of history at A-Level. We spoke to some teachers during our departmental teaching forum and also took a deep dive into a range of resources available to both students and teachers – revision guides and resources designed for student audiences, published syllabi from major exam boards, and a range of teaching materials.
- Analyse student feedback on our own first-year units to get a sense of their experiences of studying history at undergraduate level.
A large part of our work on the project involved looking for both links and points of disconnect between the two: what were students looking for and expecting? What did they feel particularly confident about? What did they feel they were missing, or were unprepared for?
A-Levels as Preparation for Undergraduate Study
Some of our findings suggest that students are being well-prepared to do historical work at an undergraduate level. Our analysis shows that the A-level courses undertaken by our students provide a really helpful and important stepping stone to university study. Some aspects of A-level study seem to be especially successful. The focus on analysis and emphasis on the need for critical exploration of materials, for example, plays an important role in setting them up for undergraduate study.
The marking criteria used at A-level and for first-year undergraduates are often remarkably similar. This suggests that students are already familiar with the language of ‘analysis’, ‘interpretation’, ‘understanding’ that we use on our programmes. Though the A-level criteria are often a little more basic than those used at university, students know what to expect from their discipline.
The Knowledge ‘Problem’
The major gap we’ve identified between school and undergraduate study relates to the acquisition of knowledge. A-level syllabi from all major exam boards indicate an emphasis on ‘knowledge by bullet point’ where students are provided with a list of ‘relevant knowledge’. Students’ job is to apply this knowledge in sensible, persuasive ways. While this is an important skill, we found that new undergraduates are less well-equipped to figure out and make informed judgements for themselves what ‘relevant knowledge’ might be.
Coming from a system in which ‘relevant knowledge’ and ‘key texts’ are provided for them seems to lead to students into having a very narrow idea of what knowledge is and where it comes from. They are not used to having to find out information for themselves and they are not confident when faced with the idea that there is often no such thing as a singular, possibly definitive ‘key’ text or textbook to consult. They also lean towards thinking there is a ‘right answer’ to any question they are given.
Our current focus on transition is often quite logistical – how to find books in the library, how to write an academic essay, how to reference, etc. What we are not doing (or at least are not always doing in explicit ways that make sense to students) is teaching them what it means to acquire knowledge for themselves; to move towards becoming more independent, more critical, and more rigorous scholars.
Indeed, some of our approaches actually seem to work against this. For example, the messaging around ‘key texts’ on some of our units (signposted in this way because students are increasingly reluctant to engage with a wide range of literature) means that some of them suspect there is a list of relevant facts and key readings somewhere, but that as tutors we are just not providing it to them.
These findings raise some key issues around how we deliver our programme in the first year of study. They suggest that we face a particular challenge when trying to encourage students away from writing history-as-formula. Instead, we need to work closely with them to move towards more active and independent forms of learning.
Ideas for Moving Forward
Our recommendations to address these issues are two-fold.
1. Method of assessment
In the first instance, we see merit in looking carefully at the way we assess students in the first year of their degree. While there is certainly a need for careful and robust support for new students, moving towards assessments that require more independent research may be helpful in allowing them to gain experience and confidence with acquiring knowledge and working out their own ‘relevant information.’ This kind of assessment could better prepare them to make judgements, select and weigh up evidence, perform critical analysis, and begin to construct independent and dynamic, rather than formulaic, arguments. By carefully crafting the messaging around what would be considered standard coursework essays to assert the importance of independence, or perhaps by setting broader, less ‘traditional,’ or more reflective questions which actively encourage students to choose their own case studies and pieces of evidence, we can better prepare them for the next stages of their degree.
2. Course design and assessment support
Assessment, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our second recommendation therefore relates to course design and assessment support. Lengthy online reading lists, for example, are certainly appreciated by students and appear to give them the impression that everything they could possibly need for an assessment has already been found for them. Shorter reading lists, bolstered by specific synchronous or asynchronous tasks dedicated to helping them find, select, and critically assess literature in the field, could be a valuable alternative for helping students manage the transition to university study. Not least, this would help them foster new and more independent approaches to learning from the get-go.
Our analysis of student feedback also suggests that new students often view lectures as a kind of replacement for textbooks or teachers passing down ‘relevant information.’ Careful consideration of the role of lectures in our programme – including the different kinds of lectures we could run, or the different approaches we could take to what we cover in lectures – could help address and challenge this misconception. We have recently run a series of more conversational debate or roundtable-style lectures on a unit for second year students, which were a great success. This kind of approach (especially when tutors discuss their different approaches and viewpoints) could certainly be helpful for students new to university, especially because it makes clear that there is no ‘right answer’ – even for ‘the experts.’ In short, our research suggests that we need to move towards modes of delivery that make it clear that we, as lecturers, are not there to provide students with ‘the answers,’ but rather to help them develop the tools, insights, and experiences they need to make arguments of their own.