Silent post-Covid freshers need a spell of magical thinking

With first-year students no longer contributing to classroom discussions as they did pre-pandemic, we need to rekindle their pleasure and agency in their own education, says Sophie Scott-Brown

July 21, 2022
Dummies in a grandstand
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After two years of disruption and confusion, re-establishing a face-to-face programme was always going to be tricky. Like most scholars, my colleagues and I anticipated a certain amount of teething troubles. In some cases, we were pleasantly surprised. Our continuing students, even those who had known nothing but online learning, proved adaptable.

When it came to the first-year groups, however, we were shocked. Not only was attendance of lectures and seminars markedly low, but those students who did manage to come along could barely be persuaded to utter a word. It was impossible to tell whether they had prepared any readings or notes because they simply offered us nothing.

A period of acclimatisation is always to be expected with new students, but this was something notably different. There was a hint of something like defiance in the refusal to take part. The students were not, or not only, nervous: they seemed stunned or even sullen. We heard similar reports from others in different departments, faculties and institutions.

With my own seminar groups on a first-year philosophy course, I eventually took the decision to abandon the script and instead invite them to share their thoughts. Gradually, a few began to explain that what they had experienced at school had not only discouraged the sort of active participation that was now being expected of them but had left them in a state of what might be described as learning fatigue and intellectual disenchantment. As a result, every “stimulating activity” I came up with to entice them was experienced as just another chore to knock over or ignore.

Of course, this information was entirely anecdotal, but that does not automatically discount its truthfulness. Certainly, the facts regarding attendance and participation rates speak for themselves. And while it may well be that this does not affect attainment (we will not know until later), I would be surprised if it did not.

The pandemic is a major issue here. It is impossible to deny the pain and stress it placed on students, teachers and parents. At the same time, there are dangers in over-focusing on it and neglecting the extent to which it exacerbated existing problems as much as it created new ones.

In the many conversations that continue to take place about the pandemic’s effect on education, what is less commonly acknowledged is that many students experienced Covid as a release from a routine that they had come to find increasingly stultifying. As with all forms of authority, teachers rely on a set of oft-repeated rituals that, by marking control over time and space, help maintain order. With this spell now broken, part of the struggle some students have faced in returning is less about a personal developmental regression than about the fact that they just cannot face what going back means.

To make matters worse, in the rush to compensate for lost time and learning, the pandemic has proved a handy excuse for accelerating or extending the same factors some students were reacting against in the first place: namely, certain control measures and the marginalisation of any “non-core” subjects, particularly the arts.

There is much that has been said (and still could be said) about the current education system. Personally, I consider that the emphasis on narrowly defined outputs – chiefly, exam scores – has been catastrophic in terms of intellectual development and well-being. I find the “tough love”-style justifications absurd. At a point in our history when we need people to think independently and creatively, when we need them to be optimistic about their abilities to effect positive change in the world, we’re getting the absolute opposite. The grades are there, perhaps, but not the gumption. And if an education system does not equip the student to engage with their society, nor even their future economy, it cannot be deemed fit for purpose.

For higher education practitioners, however, there is a more immediate practical question of how to respond. This question is not simply about short-term remedies. It connects directly with how universities frame their understanding and delivery of higher education, which in turn informs how they picture themselves in relation to the current school system and, consequently, their position as a social institution. I am reluctant to say what university education “should” or “should not” be. It has had many guises over the centuries, and those debates feed through into today. Should the university be devoted to producing advanced technical knowledge or to nurturing future leaders and active citizens? Should it be sensitive to the practical demands of government and market, or should it enjoy relative autonomy from the fickleness of both? The reality is always some combination, with a slight emphasis one way or another.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that higher education should always imply a commitment to cultivating students as producers, not merely consumers, of knowledge, whatever form that knowledge takes. This requires taking thinking seriously as a complex, multifaceted activity, rather than as a preordained sequence of crude mechanical spasms.

Dummies in a grandstand

How, then, should we best support our first-years in acquiring the knowledge, and more importantly the mindset, to thrive throughout their university career?

In the various meetings I have attended on this topic, two main strategies seem to dominate. The first, which I call “heavy intervention”, tends to be favoured by learning administration and management teams. It advocates more: more “scaffolding” in the classroom, more intermediary steps (such as formative checks), more mentoring for struggling students, more resources and more explicit step-by-step instructions in assessment briefs.

This is combined with tougher engagement monitoring, discussion of which generally leads to the topic of student analytic tools and the idea of producing data-driven pictures of student success to incentivise non-attendees; in this paradigm, a student who attended at least 80 per cent of lectures and seminars, downloaded all course documents, and visited the library 12 times a term might be on course for a first-class grade.

Heavy intervention bases its rationale on learning efficacy theories, which often emphasise the role of teacher. Supporters argue that this not only achieves results, but also models inclusive best practice as the intensity of mediation helps mitigate some of the impact of social advantage. Even so, it must be said that it is hard to distinguish learning from obedience training in this account.

The problem with measuring success against outcomes is that the process will then always be orientated to those outcomes. In other words, I could coach students to write a high-graded essay on a given topic without being any more confident (and perhaps a bit less) about their general thinking abilities. Moreover, in terms of practical implementation, if students are already reporting a sense of weariness and resentment, adding more “touchpoints” and “support mechanisms” will only antagonise them.

The most problematic aspect of this approach, however, is that it extends the school culture into the university space. It assumes that because this is what the students are used to, this is what they must now be given to ensure retention and success. It will only be a matter of time before it will be almost impossible to resist moves towards a more comprehensive curricular “join-up” between Year 13, or equivalent, and the first year of university.

Academics themselves tend to consider heavy intervention an unacceptable abandonment of purpose. They would prefer to stand by “traditional” principles and definitions of academic rigour and excellence. This means making fewer concessions for students and continuing to deliver lectures and set readings, exams and essay questions in the usual manner. Those requiring additional support should seek it from the appropriate support services. While accepting the likelihood of a higher attrition rate, students would be far better served in the long run, it is argued. They would be forced to develop a certain amount of self-reliance and responsibility, qualities essential for successful future intellectual development.

My concern here is that this position is attractive because it flatters a problematic meritocratic delusion: what and how we (lecturers) teach is correct, and anyone who works hard and is able can do well. Several decades of increased consciousness of the politics of knowledge production render this view implausible. In the current cultural climate, as universities confront the enduring imperial legacies implicit in their most routine practices, it is also undesirable. It is not too controversial to suggest that the likely winners in this scenario will mostly come from the Anglo-heritage and probably white middle classes.

Is there another option? I suggest we flip our thinking on the first year and ask some different questions. What do we need the first year of university to do? What is required but currently missing? Regarding the former, that is straightforward: it must adequately prepare students for further study. Regarding the latter, my answer is that a sense of enchantment is missing and, as such, I propose a year of magical thinking for first-years. What I mean by this is a year deliberately designed to promote students’ self-confidence and pleasure in education.

Let us assume that our students are all highly capable thinkers. They have opinions, interests and ideas about the world, but, for various reasons, many arrive at university feeling disconnected from or just plain exhausted with the learning process. We need somehow to reconnect them. One easy tactic is simply to allow them more space: to ask for less and to be more strategic in what we do ask for. Doing less may sound counter-intuitive when thinking about good practice, but busyness and effectiveness are different things.

In many cases, doing less would simply mean implementing already familiar practices more systematically, such as designing introductory courses around just two or three key ideas (what Jan Meyer, Ray Land and Caroline Baillie described as “threshold concepts”). A streamlined approach centred on key ideas avoids overcrowding, which often obscures core content, while still supporting students in progressing through later stages, regardless of the specific modules they go on to choose.

With a reduction in content, there is scope to rethink course architecture. Some lectures and structured seminar sessions might be replaced with less formal sessions where students and lecturers converse on more equal terms without a prescribed agenda. These might be on course-related topics, but, then again, perhaps not: as noted above, the only lively sessions I had this year were ones that strayed slightly off focus.

The value of this sort of direct personal attention for learning is well established. For students to take themselves seriously as thinkers, they need others to do so, and to show them that. Yet in the current school system, under pressure to achieve results, it has been one of the greatest casualties. Plus, building “check-ins” or “catch-ups” into the teaching programme also relieves some burden from office hours, which go neglected for three-quarters of the year before turning frantic during assessment weeks.

Assessments have an important role to play here, too. Ideally, they should be limited in number and size (and accepted in a variety of forms: essays, podcasts, blogs and so on). Where possible, they should also be reflective. In other words, they should prioritise a student’s subjective experience of the course, encouraging them to track their engagement with the material, but also, more importantly, to “observe” themselves as a learner within it. Granted, this may not satisfy the full technical knowledge or analytical skills that we ultimately want to impart in the higher education process, but we shall get to that stage a lot quicker if we first restore their sense of connection.

Naturally, a proposal like this faces certain objections. For some academic purists, it still amounts to a dumbing down of the university experience. Others may consider it naive in believing that any step back from a full and sustained programme of activity, accompanied by certain regulatory measures, will do anything but exacerbate the engagement problem.

Nevertheless, in all the mountains of studies and meta-studies about “what works” in education, one thing consistently rings true: the self-motivated student always has the advantage, and motivation comes from feeling a personal stake in the process. This is not the same as controlling the process: it is about learning how to be an active part of it.

Having survived a system that did not recognise their right to be a partner in their own learning, students need and deserve some time to recover.

Sophie Scott-Brown is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

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Reader's comments (3)

It may be because they are computer scientists, but our 'covid freshers' carved out their own routes - chiefly a Discord server to which I had the honour of being the only academic to be given an invite. They've kept that going since, also embracing that technology for a major group project module in the second year.
Maybe we are just heading into an age in which more students find engaging digitally more stimulating than the face to face teaching methods of old.
Like many aspects of tertiary education a key factor is context. What is happening at one particular department at one particular UK university might not represent the experiences of others. Some of teach large first year courses (with over 300 students) and generally speaking students want to attend lectures and are engaged. One can make lectures magical and using creative assessments ensure that students are learning important skills in order to become critical thinkers, skilled workers and good citizens. The challenge is often not the students but rather university administrators who do not require lecture attendance, mandate the provision of lecture recordings (which despite any denials has a direct impact on student attendance) and appears to be a longer term plan to reduce costs by eliminating faculty. The greatest gift we can offer first year students is high quality lectures that they are required to attend - this will ensure that we can gauge their health and wellbeing.


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