Lessons in how to get that first

July 6, 2007

High achievers are made more often than they are born. Harriet Swain investigates ways in which lecturers can both support and stretch their students to enable them to hit the top target

Let's face it, it will be enough if you can get some of your students to spell their names right at the top of the exam paper, so forget about helping them to achieve a first.

Not an attitude that's likely to do much for their confidence, is it? And one of the things that marks out an exceptional student is confidence, according to Thomas Dixon, lecturer in history at Lancaster University and author of a guide for students on how to achieve a first.

Nor should you believe that confidence is something your students either have or not, he says. He wrote the book partly because he wanted to dispel the myth among some fellow lecturers that reaching a first was a complete mystery - that students were either born with the ability to do it or they were not.

"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, says you have to explain to students the way the assessment system works and make sure you understand it yourself. They need to appreciate that they will have to put in a certain number of hours of work, so if they are having to spend too much of their time in paid employment this could be difficult. They also need to know that missing a piece of coursework is likely to jeopardise any chance of getting a top mark.

Do not assume either that they know about exam technique, says Whitby. Tell them about the best ways to impress an examiner, the importance of reading the question, of answering it directly and of making any crucial points at the beginning.

Dixon says a first-class essay has to have a clear line of argument, display extensive knowledge of relevant information and use that information to substantiate the argument. Often an argument won't be clear, or at all original, or the idea will be good but there won't be anything to support it.

Students must be told all this, he says. "They have to be clear right at the outset about exactly what is being asked of them." 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.

"Make it as un-mysterious as possible," he advises.

He tells his students to see the marking process through his eyes. That way, they will realise that when he is marking essays they will all seem very samey, and a particularly good argument or exciting statement will get them a long way.

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 use old papers, for reasons of data protection). They should all be the same length and look similar, printed on three different-coloured sheets. Give each student all three and ask them to work out privately which is which. Once they have (which, he says, they usually do), divide them into groups to discuss why. He then advises collecting some of the criteria the students come up with because they will often be particularly good ones. The whole process will teach them clearly about what is regarded as first class.

Race says that encouraging students to build purposefully on formative feedback is probably the most important way to help them achieve a good degree. One suggestion is that they develop their own feedback forms, so they can keep an ongoing record of how their work is developing. They should note down written and verbal feedback from both tutors and fellow students, what these comments really mean and how far they agree with them.

But first you need to make sure you are actually giving them feedback. 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 generally approachable and helpful over exams can make a huge difference. "It's a day-to-day openness that gives you the confidence that you can handle the material," he says. "University isn't supposed to be trial and error."

While being helpful and available to students will help boost their chances of producing first-class work, you also need to encourage them to use their initiative, says Dixon. He argues that you can make this easier for them by telling them what sort of primary sources to look at and directing them to particular chapters or sections. Once they have got the hang of what they really need to be doing you can give them a bit more slack. "Make that initial barrier as low as possible," says Dixon. "Those who have real aptitude and enthusiasm will flourish."

But Race also warns against encouraging top students to dig too deeply into the subjects they are really keen on at the expense of the other subjects they need to 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 probably 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 your 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.

Further information

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.

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