How to put first-years on right track

September 7, 2001

Teaching students the skills and discipline of study at the outset can save a lot of trouble later on, says Chris Hopkins.

University can be a shock. Not only in terms of accommodation and finance, but because of unfamiliar approaches to learning. Some students are blase, confidently stating that "the level seems about the same as A level to me". But others ask: "Is that really all the contact time we get?" Some do not seem to notice that they have entered a different system until the exams, saying: "I thought I'd be OK if I just went to the lessons."

These students have many expectations of university and only vague notions of how it all works. But tutors have high and complex expectations of them that can get lost amid all the explanations of course procedures at induction meetings or in course packs.

The 1997 Dearing report recommended that universities ensure students have key skills to cope with degree-level study. Many new universities have traditionally run key-skills courses integrated into academic units or as academic introductory units running alongside skills modules. Old universities tend to assume students are already highly skilled in academic writing and communication and simply run academic introductory units.

There are omissions and difficulties in both approaches. The purely academic model gets on with the core business of degree-level subject teaching and assumes students can do what is expected of them. Even if essentials, such as the departmental referencing and presentation styles are covered, there is usually no discussion of how seminars, lectures and the library might work. But some students do not pick up the cues. This can slow their start, so they lose half of the year finding things out by trial and error. At worst, it leads to loss of motivation, failure and leaving the course.

The key-skills method makes explicit what an academic approach often leaves implicit. For example, it looks at what a degree essay is, what seminars are for what kinds of knowledge, study habits and skills are most needed. This can conflict with students' expectations. Many are put off by anything labelled "skills". Whether from A-level or access backgrounds, they regard themselves as already having demonstrated successful command of skills. To them, learning of "skills" is the antithesis of exciting and challenging degree-level work.

But all students have something to learn about how to study at university, and they are more likely to be motivated if a single module integrates introductions, the discipline and skills. Sheffield Hallam has adopted such an approach in the "Introduction to English studies" course that links together the following:

  • The practical details of being an English student here
  • Approaches to degree-level study
  • Ideas about studying English that are new to students.

The combination of literary theory, study skills and instructions on departmental procedure may sound unlikely. But there are productive links between local habits and larger questions. For example, "What should a degree-level English essay be like?" is both a theoretical and a practical question.

The course is taught in the first semester through lectures, seminars and IT workshops. The syllabus includes presentations, essays, feedback, reflection, improving learning, referencing, scholarship and plagiarism.

It introduces students to information technology, library and research skills. It asks what English studies is, what critics do and what genre is, as well as looking at language and literature, literature and history.

Then there is a trial exam, postmortem, revision and exam technique. Each topic involves students in tasks that require demonstration of, and reflection on, the use of subject and generic skills. For instance, in the early seminars on essays, student pairs are asked to mark a couple of essays donated by previous first-years, using the departmental assessment sheet. Each pair must give a percentage mark and say what feedback they would give to the essays' authors. We discuss the range of suggested marks and feedback and then compare it with the advice and marks given by a tutor. Students usually enjoy this, tend to be very accurate in their suggested marks and often given clear and insightful advice.

The exercise gives first-years a chance to see degree-level essays before they have to attempt one themselves. It encourages them to examine and use the assessment criteria, to think about how feedback might help them and to understand the significance of numerical marks. They are asked to use their knowledge of the subject to familiarise themselves with course-marking procedures, to consider what the department's criteria and values are and to think about how they can identify cues about the nature of degree-level learning.

The trial exam offers a similar opportunity. It is not formally assessed and is taken several weeks before actual exams. There are postmortem discussions in small groups immediately afterwards, and each student also gets written feedback from a tutor.

Assessment of the module is by a portfolio in which students are required to demonstrate a full range of skills.

Not all students love every aspect of this approach. There are still those who say they valued the subject-specific element in the module more than the reflective and skills ones. But student satisfaction and engagement has increased enormously since 1990, when we tried to teach a more generic study skills module. New - and higher order - ways of learning are part of being a university student. Students need to adapt and improve their skills, they need to be reflective, but they also need to feel that they are, indeed, university students - tackling the challenges of the subject that they chose, and feeling able to do so.

Chris Hopkins is a senior lecturer in English studies at Sheffield Hallam University. He has published Thinking about Texts - An Introduction to English Studies (Palgrave, 2001).

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