In the mix: BAs benefit from the PhD example

US-style mixed courses give bachelor's boys and girls a head start in research. Cat Davies reports

September 9, 2010

As fresh cohorts of undergraduate and postgraduate students take their places in separate seminar rooms in universities around the world, many of their peers in the US are sharing benches and projects on mixed- level courses.

Proponents of the approach argue that it improves the student experience for both groups, aids learning and would be equally applicable in other countries.

Diane Nelson, senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and phonetics at the University of Leeds, said that she had benefited from mixed-level teaching as a student at Columbia University in New York.

"I remember that in the second semester of my first year as a BA student, I did a postgraduate-level class that contained mostly PhD students, with a smattering of MAs and other undergraduates. This was totally normal and I loved it," she recalled.

Under the US system, different learning outcomes and methods of assessment at each level are accommodated within the sessions.

Jorge Valdés Kroff, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, explained: "There's a tacit understanding that different year groups have different aims and learning styles. Professors have different expectations depending on what level you are at."

While students at UK institutions often learn alongside their peers from different levels in lectures, smaller discussion classes tend to be separated by year group or degree.

However, there are signs that there may be a growing trend for integration, with the rise of undergraduate research schemes at institutions including the universities of Cambridge, Lincoln and Warwick.

Jayne Mitchell, director of development and enhancement at the UK's Quality Assurance Agency, said the way in which courses were delivered was up to individual institutions, as long as they employed the "most appropriate methods to support students' learning".

Dr Nelson argued that the US approach of mixing levels could be helpful across the board, as postgraduates could keep in touch with the fundamental questions within their disciplines while undergraduates could experience higher-level discussions.

"You get a taste of what advanced-level study is like in your subject area," she said.

She added that since many students convert to a particular discipline at the postgraduate level, there is often little difference in subject knowledge between the two groups.

However, Bert Vaux, a reader in linguistics at the University of Cambridge who has taught in the US and the UK, said that the impact of such an approach was less noticeable at elite institutions.

"At Harvard and Cambridge universities, it doesn't change anything. Undergraduates can be more talented than the grads, but can also be less motivated since they haven't made a career choice of studying linguistics, for example, so the two cancel each other out," he said.

Nevertheless, Patrick Rebuschat, visiting assistant professor in linguistics at Georgetown University, argued that the benefits for talented and ambitious undergraduates were clear.

"They benefit not only from taking graduate-level classes, but also from working on projects with someone who is more experienced in research skills. They can get a head start in research," he said.

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