Universities Writing A-Level Exams Won’t Create Super-Human Students

3rd April 2012

Each year students leave my classroom fully capable of researching topics, writing essays and defending their views. Five months later those same students sit in my classroom, as a quivering wreck, because they are one week away from the due date of their first university essay and they don’t know what to do.

Universities and Michael Gove argue this is my fault.  For a variety of reasons A-Level teachers are not preparing students for the demands of graduation.  But my question has long been this: What the heck do universities do to students so that they lose all confidence between my classroom and their first handing in date?

Here are the things my students say:  First, they haven’t been able to speak to a single adult about their essay – what its purpose is, the level to pitch it, how they should use information.  Tsk, you may say, don’t they know these things by now.  Yes – they probably do – but when you are in a new environment, whether that’s at work or education, needing reassurance is fairly normal.  In my most recent Masters I was exasperated by the amount of questions my fellow students demanded tutors answered before beginning their first marked essays – and most were very qualified 30-odd year olds.  Even where my students have emailed tutors the responses they get are lacklustre [I know this because they often forward them to me and ask me to translate].  Among this they began to doubt themselves, especially if they feel they were ‘lucky’ to get into university – a common emotion for many students from non-traditional backgrounds – and hence, essay paralysis starts setting in.

Secondly, my students aren’t always clear on the purpose of the university essay.  In A-Levels the purpose is clear.  You have a series of ‘Assessment Objectives’ that you meet which, for social sciences at least, tend to be: ‘describe a theory/method/event’ and ‘evaluate’ it.  But at universities this is more complex.

I recently asked a friend who is running the first year course of an undergraduate degree what he wanted students to do in their essay: inform, persuade or entertain.  He couldn’t answer.  “It’s not that clear is it,” he said, “I want all three.  But maybe not too much of one or the other.”  Pushed further he said “All they really need to do is repeat the lectures”.  He then complained that the essays he got were boring and didn’t say anything new. Brilliant.  I couldn’t even understand what he wanted, how is a room full of terrified 18 year olds supposed to know?

Finally, the thing I have noticed is this: No-one in life is ever fully prepared for the next stage of education.  That is the point of the next stage.  I have studied with postgraduate students who struggled just as hard as my ex-Alevelers. That’s not because universities are failing. It is simply because they are doing something harder than they were doing before.  If everyone arrived at university pre-formed there would – after all – be little point to it.

Having universities create A-Level Syllabi is probably sensible, but it will matter little for the issue of student under-preparedness.  Changing the words on a piece of paper won’t springboard super-human late adolescents into your lecture theatres.  If you really want to resolve the problem, the true solutions line in: improving lecturers’ understanding of teaching & learning, providing university writing centres to help improve student writing, and creating a culture of talking about what essays are and how lecturers will be marking them.

Unfortunately those solutions aren’t quick, the public won’t understand them and it would require some parts of the Russell Group to take the planks out of their eyes.  Still, it would give me an alternative to spending hours each year with students who are often paying a huge amount to become very, very confused.