How deep is your learning?

February 26, 1999

Noel Entwistle, professor of education at Edinburgh University, believes the Southampton findings are "inevitable", writes Olga Wojtas.

He has been investigating the difference between "deep learning" and "surface learning", and says students adapt their approach in light of the way courses are taught and assessed.

"The evidence is absolutely clear-cut that the less time students have to reflect before taking any exams, the more they are forced, or feel they are forced, into the surface approach."

At the beginning of a course, students say they like the curriculum being built out of small units, since they feel they then get rid of each piece once they have studied it.

"But by third and fourth year, they're saying something very different: 'We don't have an overall grasp of the subject because we've been taking these compartmentalised courses'," Professor Entwistle said.

"There's a whole range of reasons why, had universities been looking at the research evidence rather than government pressures and the neatness of having modular systems where you can gain credit and transfer, they would not have been so ready to abandon traditional systems."

But George Gordon, Strathclyde University's director of academic practice and convener of its academic quality assurance group, said it would be extraordinarily difficult to "prove absolutely" that semesterisation was leading to a drop in passes.

"The failure rate does tend to go up a bit, but it is complicated by other factors," he said.

"What would certainly be my experience is that when you semesterise, there tends to be a substantial increase in the number of exams, instead of one end-of-year exam. In that sense, there are more opportunities for students to fail."

There is also evidence of students strategically deciding not to sit an exam, or to fail it, to give themselves longer to revise the subject in a resit. This is no different from students avoiding options in traditional exams, which examiners could combat by requiring an answer from each section.

"When you break it into units, the student can say in effect 'I won't do section C' which is now a separate chunk of work."

Professor Gordon warns that there are likely to be problems if a department artificially splits what it used to do in a year.

"You have to consider very carefully how you're organising and managing the curriculum, and don't fall into the trap of seeing it as largely a timetabling device," he said.

"I think every subject would have reservations about carving knowledge up into very small pieces, and there are real dangers of overfragmentation. What you've got to do is think how you address that challenge, and it may require you to create some larger credits that give better coherence."

Professor Gordon stresses the importance of monitoring the revised courses.

"It's about developing easy-to-administer diagnostic tests that give you quick feedback early on about whether students are grasping or not grasping something."

Teaching, pages 33-37

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