A lecturer’s negative attitudes about his or her students’ potential will do little for their confidence. And confidence is one of the things that marks out an exceptional student, according to Thomas Dixon, lecturer in history at Lancaster University and author of a guide for students on how to achieve a first.
Dixon wrote the book partly to dispel the myth among some fellow lecturers that reaching a first was a complete mystery.
“It is possible to specify very clearly what constitutes first-class work, and there are things you can do to achieve it,” he says. “Stop believing that only geniuses get firsts.”
Blay Whitby, head of teaching in the department of informatics at Sussex University, urges lecturers to explain the way the assessment system works. Students must appreciate that they will have to put in a certain number of hours of work. They must also know that missing a piece of coursework will jeopardise their chances of a top mark.
Do not assume that they know about exam technique, Whitby adds. Tell them about the best ways to impress an examiner, the importance of reading questions carefully, answering directly and of making any crucial points at the beginning.
“Students have to be clear about exactly what is being asked of them. Make it as un-mysterious as possible,” says Dixon. He suggests spelling out at the beginning of a course what it is all about, what key questions it will tackle and why they are interesting, what the key texts and websites are, and how students will be judged on their ability to answer the key questions through well-argued essays.
He tells his students to see the marking process through his eyes. That way, they will realise that when he is marking essays, a particularly good argument or exciting statement stands out
Phil Race, assessment, learning and teaching visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, suggests preparing three specimen exam answers — a first class, second class and fail. (Be sure to concoct these answers rather than using old papers, for reasons of data protection).
Give each student all three and ask them to work out privately which is which. Once they have done so, divide them into groups to discuss why. The process will teach them clearly about what is regarded as first class.
Mark Black, a recent graduate and author of a book on getting a good degree, says making yourself available to students for ten minutes at the end of a lecture and being approachable and helpful can make a huge difference.
“It’s a day-to-day openness that gives a student the confidence that he or she can handle the material,” he says. “University isn’t supposed to be trial and error.”
You also need to encourage them to use their initiative, says Dixon. You can make this easier for them by telling them what primary sources to look at and directing them to particular chapters or sections.
But Race also warns against encouraging top students to dig too deeply into the subjects they are keen on at the expense of other subjects they must pass to get a first. The time to delve deeply into a favourite topic is postgraduate study, but they will need a good degree first.
And for this, they will need a good command of English. Dixon advises directing students to the relevant university support services or taking it on yourself to improve their grammar, spelling and clarity of argument.
Finally, do not let your own ego get in the way of students’ ambitions. Whitby says he tells his students that he is only prepared to give a first for work that is better than he could do himself.
• How to Get a Good Degree, by Phil Race, Open University Press, 2002
• How to Get a First: The Essential Guide to Academic Success, by Thomas Dixon, Routledge, 2004
• The Insider’s Guide to Getting a First (or Avoiding a Third), by Mark Black, White Ladder Press, 2005.