Spoon-fed feel lost at the cutting edge

February 6, 1998

Alison Utley looks at how school pupils are often ill-prepared for university study

Before arriving at university students will have been powerfully influenced by their school's approach to learning particular subjects. Yet this is only rarely taken into account by teachers in higher education, according to new research carried out at Nottingham University, which could explain why so many students experience problems making the transition.

Historian Alan Booth says there is a growing feeling on both sides of the Atlantic that the shift from school to university-style learning could be vastly improved. But little consensus exists about who or what is at fault when the students cannot cope. "School teachers commonly blame the poor quality of university teaching, citing factors such as large first-year lectures, the widespread use of inexperienced postgraduate tutors and the general lack of concern for students in an environment where research is dominant in career progression," Dr Booth said.

Many university tutors on the other hand claim that the school system is failing to prepare students for what will be expected of them at university. A-level history in particular is seen to be teacher-dominated, creating a passive dependency culture.

But while both sides are bent on attacking each other, little is heard during such exchanges from the students themselves, according to Dr Booth, who has devised a questionnaire to test the views of more than 200 first-year history students at Nottingham over a three-year period. The students were asked about their experience of how history is taught at the outset of their degree programme. It quickly became clear that teaching methods in school were pretty staid.

About 30 per cent of respondents claimed to have made significant use of primary sources (few felt very confident in handling them) and this had mostly been in connection with project work. Only 16 per cent had used video/audio; 2 per cent had experienced field trips and less than 1 per cent had engaged in role play.

Dr Booth found students and teachers were frequently restricted by the assessment style which remains dominated by exams. These put obstacles in the way of more adventurous teaching and active learning, he said. Of the students in the survey just 13 per cent felt their A-level course had prepared them very well for work at university. Three-quarters felt it had prepared them fairly well.

One typical comment sums up the contrasting approach: "At A-level we tended to be spoon-fed with dictated notes and if we were told to do any background reading (which was rare) we were told exactly which pages to read out of the book".

To test this further the students were asked how well they were prepared in specific skills central to degree level history study. The answers reveal that the students felt most confident at taking notes from lectures and organising their notes. They were least able to give an oral presentation and there was no great confidence in contributing to seminars,knowing how much to read, using primary sources and searching for texts. Even reading and taking notes from a book were often problematic. Just 6 per cent of the sample said they felt competent at writing essays, the staple A level assessment activity.

The personal influence of the teacher was paramount. In fact individual teachers were the centre of students' learning at A level with some 86 per cent of respondents reporting that their teachers had been more influential in their development as historians than the students' own reading and thinking.

The ideal teacher turned out to be someone who was enthusiastic about the subject; a good clear communicator who encouraged discussion. The ideal teacher was able to develop students involvement and independence. He or she was approachable and willing to help. The bad teacher, according to the survey, dictates notes and allows no room for discussion. He or she makes students learn strings of facts; appears uninterested in the subject and fails to listen to other points of view.

No matter how poor the students judged their preparedness for degree-level study, however, there was a fairly widespread optimism that the experience would change them significantly, particularly in terms of their open mindedness and ability to cope with people.

But it was clear, Dr Booth said, that the importance attached by many departments to third-year teaching could be misplaced. "Very often tutors regard the third year as the crucial time, allowing postgraduates to do a lot of the earlier teaching. But I am coming to the conclusion that the first year at university is the critical point of intervention"


"The first term was a complete shock. At sixth-form college the teacher talked, we took notes and were referred to a few books. But I've been completely overwhelmed because everyone said the first year at university was easy. It's not. The lectures are different, you can't really ask them to go over things you don't understand. And I can't believe the amount of work. Everyone is very competitive, it's like dog eat dog.

I've hardly been out with my friends at all. It would be really helpful if we got an overview of the subject first with headings of subjects to be covered. Then we could get in to the detail and it would mean a lot more."


A former Btec student: "I don't find it easy reading books and writing essays. I like to work with video, diagrams even. Learning was so much more practical at college, it was probably two-thirds practical to one-third written work.

Now that is reversed at university and most of the assessment is essay-writing.

The tutors expect we all know the same stuff when we start. I know how to use the audio visual equipment but I don't know much about essay writing."


"Essay writing is not a problem because I had very good A-level teachers but the learning at university is so much more independent than school and I hate it. I feel very by myself and wouldn't have a clue who to go to if I had a problem.

Lecture handouts would be really useful, and sometimes we are split up into groups to discuss work which can be good."

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