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

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The All-Nighter

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This end of the academic term, students and teachers alike are faced with a cluster of deadlines. No matter how carefully one has planned, the writing or marking of assignments seems to lead to a last-minute rush before Christmas. Even so, I was still surprised to read a recent tongue-in-cheek article on Guardian Education, written by a university lecturer of all people, that offers some tips on how to pull the infamous "all nighter" to get those last essays done. I was, though, sadly unsurprised by the comments on the post, many of which seem machoistically to advocate the idea of doing things at the last minute.

As a marker, I do not automatically worry about an essay written late at night (and believe me students, it only takes a glance at File Properties to figure that one out). I appreciate that some people genuinely do work better under pressure. Some students dare to do such unproductive, degree-distracting pursuits as charity fundraising, drama, arts, sports coaching - all of which are more likely to get them jobs than a standard 2:1 degree alone. Contrary to popular belief, many students do intense degrees with a full-time burden of lectures and assessment. And some students - not least those I teach with the Open University - have to juggle part- or even full-time jobs to fund their education.

However, for every well-intentioned student who is forced to work into the early hours of the morning through no fault of their own, there are far more for whom, I suspect, this is not only a bad habit but a required rite of the university experience. I do worry about a university culture where the ability to do an essay at the last minute is a sign of bravado or "working the system," as was implied by many of the posts on the Guardian article, or as I detect in my work with mainstream university students (by contrast, I know full well quite how hard my Open University students work, even if they too are, by necessity, forced to work late into the night).

Doing an all-nighter may focus one's mind to look at internet resources and hash together notes with great efficiency (which may indeed be useful for the harassed office environment), but this does not necessarily lead to a student developing a thorough and cultivated knowledge of a subject (and those three years before students step through those office doors are the only time when this precious opportunity will be available).

In my experience those students who plan their work well ahead may not automatically get better grades than the all-nighters, but they do perform better than they personally might if they were not so enthusiastic and capable of planning their work around other commitments; conversely, I mark many all-nighter essays which I know full well do not represent a student's potential, even if I still award them a decent grade. Whilst all-nighter essays are usually coherent, focused and well-written, they often lack the attention to detail, careful proofing, and editing needed for the first class marks - marks which I am certain more of my students could, but don't, achieve.

I sense that students are increasingly swayed by an anti-"geek" attitude, such that those who work hard are frowned upon by those who can pull things out of the bag at the last minute to get equivalent marks. Indeed, I have first-hand experience of good students who find it genuinely difficult to cope with the campus atmosphere where it is only the end that matters, not how hard one works to get there. From the point of view of a diligent student, it can be intensely demotivating if they "only" receive the same mark as someone who can churn work out at the last minute (even if, in the long run, the former student will likely turn out to be better educated).

The idea of doing assignments just to "get enough marks" is precisely the sort of utilitarian principle that underpins Browne: the sole measure of the value of a degree is how much money you can earn at the end of it (or the mark you get on graduation).

As I wrote in my post on the implications of Browne for teaching and learning, when the student becomes a consumer of their education this fundamentally changes the idea of what that education is about, namely an end product rather than a means. As a teacher, I know that the best thing for my students is to motivate them sufficiently so that they actively want to do their subject, rather than suffering its interminable assignment demands just to get the degree at the end of it. But this may become increasingly difficult to achieve in an education marketplace. Browne suggested that student-consumers should be required to sign a contract, which include "commitments on attending a minimum number of classes or completing a minimum number of assessments per term." Why should students who are paying for their degrees have to do any work at all? After all, you don't buy a happy-meal in McDonalds, only to be told you have to cook it yourself. Thus I can see that the culture of all-nighter bravado which, let us admit, has always been there in university life, is going to get more prevalent, as students seek - or are even encouraged - to do as little as possible to get the reward, the degree result, they have effectively purchased.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:50 pm


Anonymous Glam said...

Well i think it's pretty normal for us students who stay all night long just to finished each projects. I always enjoy–and am inspired–by your work. Very much looking forward to seeing what you and your students produce next.

12:58 pm  

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