Academic conductors needed on the syllabuses

Scholar echoes Cambridge Assessment's call for A-level intervention. Paul Jump reports

July 7, 2011

There were further calls this week for academics to become more involved in designing A-level syllabuses after a joint report by two universities highlighted incoming students' lack of preparation for academic writing.

The report, Flying Start: Practices, Communities and Policies to Ease the Transition to University Writing and Assessment, was published on 7 July by the University of Derby and Liverpool Hope University.

It says that modern A levels' emphasis on short answers and the opportunity given to candidates to rewrite assessments multiple times meant that new entrants often struggled to compose essays that showed evidence of independent thought.

One of the report's authors, James Elander, head of the Centre for Psychological Research at Derby, said the problem was particularly acute at new universities, but was not confined to them.

He said A-level students were taught to write descriptively and to recite textbooks but did not "get a chance to develop skills in critical thinking and organising evidence and thoughts using language".

He said one solution would be for universities to become involved in setting A-level syllabuses.

His call echoes that of a report last month by the examination board Cambridge Assessment, which suggested that academics could be paid to devise A-level courses.

Flying Start also describes a number of trial programmes, carried out over two years at several universities, to help students bridge the gap between school and university. One involved meetings between teachers and academics to promote mutual understanding of how students were assessed.

"(Academics) say 'Students are writing these shocking essays: why haven't they been taught better before they came to us?' If we appreciated better how A levels worked, it would be easier to provide the kind of learning environment that would enable them to latch on more quickly," Professor Elander said.

Another "quite successful" programme employed existing students to "mentor" entrants on essay technique.

Professor Elander suggested that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service could notify universities about which of their applicants were likely to struggle with academic writing so that the institutions could organise preparatory mentoring sessions prior to their arrival.

He also called for the teaching of writing skills to become an integral part of each degree course, rather than being confined to "remedial" courses run by special units within universities to which struggling students were referred.

But he said he was opposed to the recent trend for written assignments to be substituted for other forms of assessment at university, such as oral presentations.

"Through learning to write effectively, students learn to think and question knowledge," he said. "It is not a question of dumbing down, it is about appreciating where your students are coming from."

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