Working from first principles

September 4, 1998

How can your students get first-class degrees? Successful graduate Peter Tolmie reveals how it is done

Easter vacation. The middle of the night. All the heaters have gone off. The weight on your eyelids drags your whole face towards the table so that you startle back to life only as your neck begins to snap. Then something warm slides into your head.

Some pale worm of inspiration has slithered up your spine to coil itself tightly about your brain-stem. For four solid hours you write: breathlessly; the rattle of the keys just a trickling echo of rapid, percussive thought as it leaves your head and paints itself on the computer screen. Then the first sleepy child staggers through the kitchen door, demands its breakfast, and, while you are distracted, the worm of a thought slips away.

In this experience - my own while working towards a degree in sociology at Lancaster University - there may be something of what it takes to get a first-class degree: long hours of work and frustration; sudden flashes of insight.

But everyone has a different story to tell about how they got their first. To try to piece together common elements I asked several recent graduates to relate their accounts.

Looking at their descriptions, I realised that their explanations of how to get a first were not just different but were sometimes in open disagreement. While some applied themselves equally to all their courses, others focused only on courses likely to gain them the maximum marks. Some felt that practising examination answers was essential, others believed it cramped open thinking. Yet, behind it all, certain assumptions prevailed.

* One is the importance of the written word. Even the scientists I contacted, renowned for their horror of writing, displayed an excellent command of language. Chris Waind, a dyslexic, found the writing of his account a tremendous ordeal, yet it is eloquent. Academia is built upon the written word.

* More than half of the graduates I talked to listed communication with tutors as one of the most important reasons for getting a first. Several others highlighted the importance of discussing their subject with friends. Learning, it would seem, is promoted through discussion: even apparently unrelated informal conversations among friends in coffee bars or down the pub.

* Some of the assumptions people make about what it takes to get a first might be thought of as rather obvious. Determination, or the need for revision - widely considered to be an inevitable part of doing a degree.

* Finally, those who get firsts have certain expectations. They expect to be able to choose to do the courses they want to do to make up their degree. Most of them take it for granted that such choices can be made, and they do so with consummate efficiency. And the guiding force behind those choices is their own interest. They do not allow themselves to be bullied into doing something for which they lack enthusiasm.

Peter Tolmie is a research assistant at Lancaster University and editor of How I Got My First Class Degree, published by the Innovation in Higher Education unit at Lancaster University in association with The THES, price Pounds 7.99.

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