Talking Teaching

September 15, 2016

helping first-year students cope with the reality of university study

For many students making the transition from secondary school to university can be a difficult experience. Their teachers have probably told them that they can be expected to learn more & work harder, but the students don’t really know what that entails beyond doing ‘more of the same’. (They may also have been told that at uni it’s ‘sink or swim’, & that they’ll be left pretty much to their own devices – it was nice to hear from a group of our class reps that they hadn’t found this to be the case and that they felt their learning was well supported.)

Unfortunately doing more of the same, and just doing it harder, may not be a good coping strategy when it comes to self-directed learning. Certainly our experience in first-year biology this year was that many students simply seemed unaware of, or unprepared for, the need to do more than simply attend lectures (or watch them on panopto).  And as Maryellen Weimer points out in her excellent blog on The Teaching Professor, there are an awful lot of distractions: new friends, new social opportunities, new jobs… Plus students can find it hard to recognise when they do or don’t understand something, equating familiarity with knowledge, and are used to a lot more teacher guidance.

And as Maryellen points out,

Additionally, there’s the reluctance of students to change their approaches. When asked what they plan to do differently for the next exam, students often respond that they’ll do what they did for the previous one, only they’ll do it more. Dembo and Seli’s research shows that even after successfully completing developmental courses that teach learning strategies, students didn’t change their approaches. Finally, and even more fundamentally, strategies may be known and understood, but unless they’re applied, they’re worthless.

This is something I hear quite often, from students who’ve been asked to see me because their teachers have identified that the students are struggling. The idea that continuing to do the same, but more & harder, is a hard one to shift sometimes.

But over on The Teaching Professor, you’ll find some useful suggestions for turning this around. Some of these, such as moving to earlier assessment, are changes we’re already making, but there are clearly other tools to use as well. And as our student cohorts’ demographics continue to change (we’re seeing an increasing number of first-in-family enrolments, for example), there’s an urgent need for universities to adapt in turn. Expert teachers such as Dr Weimer can help us with this.

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