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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Open University: Impressions of Unique Students

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Earlier this year, I blogged about my first impressions of teaching for the Open University from an institutional point of view. Now at the end of the year, it seems appropriate to reflect on my sense of the students I have taught, again especially with a view to the differences I perceive between OU students and those at the mainstream university at which I also teach.

As I said previously, I did not really appreciate the uniqueness of the OU until I was inside it, and the same goes for understanding the type of students it attracts. At the risk of promoting a prospectus cliché, the diversity of the students is remarkable. My groups have included young single parents juggling childcare and work with study, and retired grandparents looking to maintain their intellectual energies. Some of my students have PhDs, whilst others have only basic school leaving qualifications. Some are studying for personal interest, others to further their careers and skills. Some of my European students want to improve their standard of English language, whilst some of my UK students living abroad want simply to keep in touch with English.

The common theme uniting this disparate band is motivation. Not treading the conveyor belt of education from sixth form to university, all have opted to study at the expense of money and, more significantly, of time. Of course, keeping up their motivation has not always been easy. For some, the pressures of personal or work circumstances have forced them to stop in spite of their best wills; for a few others - who have prompted me to reflect on my own practices of support - their lack of self-confidence has outweighed their determination to continue in the face of a low essay mark. Whilst those who actually do not complete or opt to defer their course are in the minority, the motivational factor of those who remain builds a substantial quality of trust between tutor or student.

When someone struggles to submit an assignment because they are full-time caring for a disabled relative, this seems in contrast to my mainstream students who seem systematically to fall ill or break their printers at 2.00 in the morning on essay deadline day. Of course, one has to give these students - who are, I stress, the minority as well as the stereotype - the benefit of the doubt. But doubt is something I rarely have when an OU student contacts me to discuss their troubles. Having actively chosen to do the course, failing to meet its deadlines is unlikely to be a conscious choice, but one that must be viewed sympathetically and flexibly.

On the more positive side, I feel very involved in ensuring that their motivation to start the course sees them through an incremental learning process that may start slowly, but that has built to a really positive conclusion and high marks in most cases by the end of the academic year. This sort of trajectory is not one I have really encountered before in my mainstream teaching. Whilst my mainstream university students are intellectually exemplary - they are, indeed, among the very best in the country - their existing abilities sometimes make me suspect that my role is more to encourage, enthuse, and probe than actively to teach. The acquisition of knowledge is something that these students can do independently in a library, and although they respond thoughtfully to my feedback on their essays, it is the practice of writing regular essays itself that has the biggest influence in the immersive university culture. By contrast, OU students bring very different backgrounds and skills to bear, albeit driven by a motivation to succeed, and my greatest personal reward has been that I feel that I am actually teaching, exploiting their motivations to learn by making suggestions to which they will definitively respond. And although they, too, study independently of me, I am their only point of formal contact when they genuinely need help to understand something that they cannot work out for themselves.

Most evidently, my teaching impact is directed through their assignments, which I try to mark thoroughly (even, I heard one student say, jokingly, "tyrannically"!). Where an aspect could be improved, I say so. Where an essay is weak, I point this out. Where an essay is strong, I commend it. So many of my mainstream university essays are good but ultimately unspectacular pieces of work, such that is hard to pinpoint just what is needed for that elusive first which should, in principle, be within reach of any of my mainstream students given the top grades with which they arrive at university. By contrast, I rarely have difficulty pinpointing to my OU students what they could do better and, when they respond directly to that feedback in subsequent assignments and receive a higher mark, a virtuous circle is closed between myself and them. Looking at the average marks across my group, there has been a steady progression from the mid-50s in the first assignments, to the mid-70s by their final ones. This bears out my general sense of the comments I have found myself making on their scripts. At the start of the course, I was regularly explaining the need for coherent sentence structure and smooth integration of primary quotation with arguments; by the end, I find myself discussing the finer points of apostrophisation and pointing out how they could engage dialogically with secondary criticism.

Which brings me to their literacy skills which are, I suppose, the one area that has most surprised me, because I did not know what sorts of standards to expect. Of the mainstream university students I receive from A-level, I know to expect that they can write a good, structured essay, but may well have flawed punctuation and grammar - especially the dreaded spliced comma - because they have never been actively taught to use the language correctly. The literacy of my OU students does range more widely, but on the whole, I would say that they are not far behind my mainstream students in terms of their ability to structure a coherent argument in a syntactically rigorous way. Oddly enough, some of my students who speak English as a second language are better than many native speakers in this regard, since they have actually been taught the underlying rules from the ground up.

A further distinction between my OU students and my mainstream ones is that the former actively respond to my comments about their writing style, working hard to correct infelicities the next time around. It may take a while for the improvements to show through, but their increasing scores testify to the fact that the lessons I teach through marking are actually being learned. A similar sense (though this must be shared with the course teams who craft the written teaching materials) comes across in their development as literary critics. Often starting off by falling into the old trick of re-narrating or summarising the "story" of a literary work, by the end of the course most of my students approach assignments in an analytical frame of mind, able to decipher questions of style and form rather than plot and content.

This, however, marks the one predominant frustration of teaching for the OU. At this end of the course, as well as instilling a degree of critical competence across the board, I have some students who I know would excel at higher levels and into postgraduate study, whose baseline literary critical skills could (or should) be driven even further. However, the OU's modular system being as it necessarily is, my students who have more to give in English studies might next year find themselves studying the fundamentals of stellar mechanics.

One pleasure with my mainstream students is to inculcate them in level one courses that introduce them to the major genres, and then to take them to level two where they specialise in more niche areas. By this stage, they actively challenge my own views, and conduct their own research that, via essays, reciprocally educates me. With the OU, I hope I have helped students to realise their potential as writers and critics, but whether they choose to employ these core skills on more advanced work is, sadly, not a journey I get to make with them. This, then, is the end of the road - at least until a new intake comes to me in October.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:03 am


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