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

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From A-Level to University English: Some Thoughts on Transition

Monday, October 26, 2015

I recently had the opportunity to present a session at a Sutton Trust teachers' conference at Durham University, aimed at sharing strategies which might help students make the leap to university studies, especially those from from state schools that have lower than average rates of progression to Higher Education. My talk was particularly geared around encouraging independent study in students doing English Literature.
When planning the session I was very conscious that I could not simply talk through what HE teaching is like, and expect A-Level teachers to replicate this experience in the classroom. The A-Level curriculum, the targets and pressures that teachers are under, the diversity of the student cohorts they are dealing with, and the resources of an individual school or college make it impossible for teachers to follow what we academics might imagine to be ideal practices that would serve us with better students. Instead, I was keen simply to think through some of the pinch points and thresholds that students have to overcome as they enter university, and to reflect on these. Here is a very general summary.

Key Skills: Reading and Writing

I began the session by asking teachers what skill they thought their students required to be successful at HE English. As expected, they confirmed earlier research comparing A-Level and HE-Level teachers' assumptions: the most important requisite skills are critical perception and affinity with literature, essay writing, and reading. Both A-Level and HE-Level teachers are evidently on the same wavelength. The problem lies with the degree to which the A-Level curriculum (including the new format beginning in 2015) and teaching methods allow students to cultivate those skills which we widely recognise as essential.

Essay writing is a particular challenge because at A-Level the emphasis is on exams rather than coursework; students have little experience in writing longer essays expected at university level, although the new A-Level does include an independent critical study component. Whether essays are assessed or not, though, students are still expected to do their own research about a text as part of general teaching, and to come to class having read a text or investigated key issues for themselves using the internet. Depending on the examining body, some curricula also place emphasis on information skills such as tracking and referencing research. If students face difficulties in essay writing, it may be less to do with the research side of things, and more to do with expressing their ideas in accordance with academic conventions and rhetorical structures. It's notable, for instance, that weaker university essays often present introductory paragraphs that would be appropriately cursory for an exam response, but that lack the depth and engagement with the question necessary for a 2000 word term assignment.

Those students who do an additional Extended Project Qualification gain a great deal of valuable experience not only in research but also in writing-up research in essay form. In teaching widening participation summer schools, I certainly have noticed that those students doing an EPQ appear more confident and comfortable when we set them project or writing work, or do research tasks in the library.

In terms of reading, I was pleased to hear the teachers qualify their statements by suggesting students need to have a love of reading 'literature' rather than just reading generally. Without getting mired in arguments about literary versus genre fiction, and the appropriateness of the canon, this was a shorthand way of acknowledging that it's no good if students simply enjoy reading Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. At university they are going to be confronted with texts that are hard to get through, and that are intellectually stimulating but not necessarily entertaining. Students must have the perseverance to enjoy reading in general.

We might well question the extent to which the A-Level curriculum permits this type of engagement. In a marks-orientated culture, and with broad student cohorts in the non-selective sector, teachers quite naturally tend to choose texts that they think that the majority of students will enjoy and actually bother to read. Given the choice between The Mill on the Floss and The Great Gatsby, it's not surprising that the latter seems to be most prevalent among the A-Level students I meet.


I have always assumed that small-group work must be the most potentially exclusionary environment for students, because here differences between their peers' educational, familial and cultural backgrounds might be most apparent. By contrast the lecture hall - a space filled with anonymous faces and silent voices - might be expected to be a non-discriminatory environment. However, while preparing for the conference, and following discussions with the teachers, I had to question this assumption.

Lectures may in fact be the most intimidating environment for students, and one where prior educational experiences and differences are starkly exposed. Teachers below HE are expected to work in an active way, encouraging group work rather than talking at students from the board (the 20:80 rule). While this may be a positive teaching practice in the classroom, this does mean that students lack experience in listening actively for an extended period. Furthermore, in the classroom, because those moments when the teacher does talk are perceived to be especially important, students are used to taking detailed notes at these points. Consequently, when students are exposed to hour long lectures they similarly and dutifully scribble as much as possible without adopting the more detached and critical approach required, synthesising the information and looking for points in the argument which they might want to challenge. Undoubtedly, a lecture requires some high level cognitive skills that some of us (or at least myself) perhaps take for granted.

Yet is the problem less with the student and more with the form of teaching? Currently there's a lively debate as to whether lectures are actually of much value in the first place, especially in an era when students could just as easily watch a recording of a lecture on YouTube. These issues have recently come to the fore in a couple of prominent articles in the New York Times.

For Molly Worthen the lecture is valuable precisely because it is a space which demands attentive and sustained critical listening, of the sort that technology and social media habituates us against.

For Annie Murphy Paul, lectures may be exclusionary, and active learning in small groups is the best way not only to achieve learning outcomes but to raise attainment across all social groups.

There is an interesting piece of new research (cited by Paul) that suggests students from under-represented backgrounds benefit proportionately more from active teaching and structured courses, such as those where a class is set a pre-lecture quiz, given a lecture, and then given a post-lecture assessment. The traditional lecture system, where students are simply expected to have prepared any necessary groundwork (such as reading the text), assimilate the key points, and go away to investigate these further requires the student to have deeply embedded norms of learning and independence that are not cultivated in schools, which handhold students throughout.

It would be wrong to expect A-Level teachers to devise ways to prepare students for lectures, when it may be HE itself that needs to do some fundamental rethinking. Nevertheless, at elite institutions lectures seem unlikely to go away any time soon. Students who have been exposed at school to extra-curricular activities, such as external speakers who do deliver a more passive experience, will no doubt gain a valuable insight into what to expect that moment they step into the lecture theatre. If teachers can help to inculcate listening skills in students, by delivering lessons passively rather than actively from time to time, students might learn to open their ears more, and their mouths less.

Small Group Teaching

In tutorial and seminar groups, formerly confident students may struggle to contribute when faced with a class of roughly equal ability to them. Students clam up when placed on the spot and when expected to engage in dialogue with others who seem 'so much cleverer' than themselves. We felt this might be a particular problem for students from non-selective state school backgrounds who, if they are aiming for a top university, will naturally find themselves towards the top of a broad ability class. When they come to university, they are no longer the voice the teacher automatically looks to, and when confronted with others at their same level for the first time and when taught by those who do not really know them individually this can be very daunting.

A report from the English Subject Centre captures a phenomenon any HE English lecturer will recognise, and advises:
If the first-year curriculum is considered to be preparatory, then it should carry an element of preparing students for this active approach, particularly if one wishes to avoid the often reported issue of ‘the same voices contributing in each class.
Mitigating this issue requires skill on the part of the small-group; the onus is on tutors to create a supportive environment for teaching and learning. Especially in a discipline like English, we know how valuable it is if students can use classes to challenge each others' and a teacher's interpretations about a text on the fly, and to advance their own ideas orally as a stimulus for further research in a written form of an essay.

At A-Level, though, it was heartening to hear just how much thought and energy teachers put into trying to encourage everyone to contribute, mitigating the 'same voices' effect. In our discipline, teachers can try to exploit the fact that there are not necessarily 'right' answers and to encourage even their best students to recognise that, although some people may be able to express things more articulately than others, the core ideas being presented by everyone may be valid and interesting. When the boot is suddenly on the other foot at university, and the good student suddenly feels weaker, they should be reminded that the difference is not one of 'cleverness'. This is merely their perception and not the reality of where others are at. In our subject, opinions count most, and everyone can assert theirs.

Working Capital

This was a theme that unexpectedly emerged from our reflections. Teachers pointed out how many of their students are forced to work and study at A-Level, thanks to the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. While from an academic point of view this may be problematic, it equips students with all sorts of skills in time management and motivation that students from better-off backgrounds, who do not need to work, may not possess. It also ensures students are exposed to a wider spectrum of society than those used to being just in the school and college environment.

If students from less well-off backgrounds feel put off when they meet students from more privileged backgrounds at university, perhaps we need to empower the former by reminding them of just what benefits they have gained by being forced to work to survive. This is something I see all the time at the Open University: the student who manages to study, work full time, and deal with family life possesses incredible powers of time-management and motivation that would be an asset to any employer. I'm always keen to stress that even if students get less good results because they have to fit study around work, their outcomes overall may well be stronger.

The Elephant in the Room

My session aimed to help A-Level English teachers think about how they might help their students to make the transition to HE. However, there is an enormous elephant in the room here, one which is lumbering inexorably towards us so that it cannot be ignored: we can expend lots of energy in helping students make the transition to university English - but this is wasted if none of these students want to study English in the first place.

Here is scary table number one, UCAS figures showing the number of applications to study English. Notice how this number has declined by about 5000 in 5 years since 2009, even as the total number of students entering HE has increased by 500 000.

This is bad news for English, though not as bad as the collapse facing some disciplines such as modern languages. Here is concerning figure number two, taken from a study in the US, showing that those who study English tend to be from higher and wealthier socio-economic groups:

Why should poorer students not want to study English, which is after all perceived as a 'traditional' discipline (not like newfangled media studies and the ilk) inculcating deep and transferable skills in language and critical thinking? Witness (but don't blab about it) chart number three, employment destinations of English graduates:

That's right, folks. Spend £27 000 to do an English degree, and you too could end up working in Pizza Express.

Leaving aside my facetiousness, and even allowing for the fact that my narrative above makes some broad sweeps over the underlying causes and effects, it's not good news if we are keen to widen participation in the subject. The previous chart is for those graduates in employment; what it does not show is that 20 percent of recent graduates are not in employment but taking further study, training or research. Doing an English degree is great preparation for numerous careers, with its broadly transferable skills - but it's not necessarily adequate preparation for one particular vocation. If students need to retrain, then it's not surprising that those who take up the discipline at HE may tend to be those who have the parental and financial resources to fall back on when they need to pursue further study.

Unless universities and academics can address the perceived irrelevance and skills gap of the non-STEM subjects, such as English, then attempts to widen participation in these fields, noble as they may be, are destined simply to chase an ever receding target.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:21 pm


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