P is for Preconditioning

How to support your HE students to ‘unlearn’

“All they ever want to know is how to do the assessment task!”

“They’re not interested in my feedback, only in their grade.”

“They never volunteer answers in class, and I’m not even supposed to ask them direct questions!”

“It would be great if they could even turn up to my lectures.”

“They insist on keeping their cameras off for the whole session! It’s really off-putting!”

Ever heard comments like these from your colleagues when they’re talking about their undergraduate students? Perhaps you’ve had a few similar thoughts of your own about the groups you teach at university. Sometimes we all need to have a moan about the job of teaching and lament how much easier it would be if the students would just show a bit more interest or initiative. It’s worth taking a few moments, however, to reflect on the prior learning experiences of those individuals, in particular those who have passed through the English education system (note that a wider array of student backgrounds is explored in the recently published new edition of our book, An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education).

Primary and secondary education in England is characterised by high-stakes assessment: ‘assessment’ meaning the systematic collection of data evidencing pupil achievement, and the ‘high-stakes referring to the fact that the results can impact on the status of the school. This has resulted in a shift towards testing as a main means of assessment, it is cheap and easy to administer, with a number of tactics increasingly being employed by schools in order to ‘game’ the system (sadly this is still the case even with the move to teacher-led-assessment by schools following the pandemic).

Those of you who have been involved in the English system over the last 30 years or so will be aware of a narrowing of the curriculum and a growing focus on maths and English (including, for example, extra tuition in these subjects being prioritised following lockdown). A ‘backwash’ effect is apparent, where lesson content is tailored to ‘the test’, and transmission teaching is the dominant modus operandi in order to ‘cover’ what is needed for the impending exams. Arts subjects, creative content and learning for the sheer joy of it are all side-lined in favour of rote learning, while the focus is on the technical aspects of the content.

It gets worse, with some schools ‘off-rolling low achievers from its registers in order to improve results, grade inflation becoming rife and the Test becoming the rationale for all classroom activity. This process is beautifully captured by Michael Rosen in his Guide to Education.

How is this relevant to the university entrants we encounter with each new intake in HE? In fact, the impact on students who have been through this system is startling. The effects include: being ‘turned off’ learning, having only a superficial understanding of the subjects studied, focusing on ‘performance’ rather than ‘process’, being given little opportunity for developing creative and critical thinking skills, lacking a holistic approach to problem-solving or composition, and gaining little in the way of general, background or even useful knowledge. Perhaps more important than anything else is the increase in pupil anxiety as a result of the testing regime. Those who have experienced repeated ‘failure’ or been relegated to ‘low’ sets may be lacking in motivation and struggle with their sense of self-efficacy. Furthermore, a ‘fixed’ mindset might prevail, where you’re either ‘good’ at something, or you’re not.

So, when your home students don’t seem to be able to grasp that they have to attend all the sessions in order to learn the subject, or they are reluctant to speak out in class … when all their attention is focused on the assessment and the grades … when learning for its own sake is seen as an irrelevance, perhaps it doesn’t have to mean that they’re ‘shallow’, ‘precious’, ‘scheming’ or even ‘lazy’. Perhaps they’ve never been taught that there is any other way of learning.

When I see a student with a learning contract stating that they must not be asked to speak in front of other students, for example, it makes me wonder how that student has managed to complete 13 years of previous education without this issue ever being addressed. When students tell me they’re overwhelmed by being presented with content that doesn’t link directly to their assessment, I try to remember that they may have been ‘taught to the test’ for much of their school lives. When I see students who appear to have no expectation of actually enjoying learning about their subject or ones who feel they’re not important enough to engage in taught sessions or that it won’t matter if they slip under the radar, I try to think about what experiences they might have had that have led them to this point.

We need to invest time in our courses in rebuilding our students’ concepts of themselves as dynamic, creative and autonomous learners. This involves structured opportunities for them to reflect on their learning journeys thus far, to critique the systems of education that they have passed through and to begin to articulate the type of learner they’d like to be, including what ‘authentic learning’ might look like in their chosen subject discipline. We also need to unpack our new students’ expectations of university life alongside our own assumptions about these. This of course applies to all of our students, whether educated in England or not. Research shows that some students have a stronger sense of entitlement when at university, pro-actively seeking tutor support, while others simply melt into the background and struggle on alone. Our students need to tell us their stories, hopes and fears, and we in turn must respond in ways that develop them as scholars and as active citizens. Not least, in many cases, this means ‘undoing’ years of ‘exam factory’ education.

This content is developed and adapted from the new, revised edition of An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education by Sylvia Ashton and Rachel Stone, published by Sage. Please come to our online book launch on 15th July 2021!






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