Tag Archives: reading

Preparing Students for University … slowly

By Roy Peachey, Woldingham School

 

At the recent RGS conference, I drew on the principles of the slow movement to explore how schools can best prepare students for higher education, but the slow movement and slow education can be very easily misunderstood. Slow education is not speaking slowly or monotonously and it’s not interminable courses of study dragged out until students see sense and leave us alone. Slow education, like the slow food movement, is rather a response to modernity, to instant gratification and to omnipresent presentism. It is about breaking free from the artificial constraints of industrial and post-industrial time, from the time constraints created by and for the institutions in which students study. It insists that we give students the time they need, the time tasks take.

And, of course, the tasks we set as educators are often shaped by the needs and demands of the institutions in which we teach. The tasks I set my students are governed by the length of time our school allocates for homework, and by the (artificial) constraints of the school day, the school term and the school year.

But it needn’t be this way. Last year I visited a girls’ school in Hong Kong, where they had a cardboard cutout plane on display in their entrance hall. Why? Because students at that school, with a little help from a parent who was in the business, built a plane. A real plane. It took them seven years. It flew. It stayed up. It came down safely. But it took them seven years. Many of the students who worked on it had left before it had its maiden flight, but nonetheless they could say they helped build it.

Or to give another example closer to home: Charles Causley, who was both a poet and a primary schoolteacher, used to give his pupils a year in which to write their poems because that’s how long poetry takes. How many teachers would dare do the same today, I wonder?

But slow education is not just about the time we allow for particular tasks: it’s also grounded in how the brain works. In Elogio della Lentezza, Lamberto Maffei, Professor of Neurobiology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, quotes French Mathematician Jacques Hadamard on the three stages of mathematical creation: preparation, incubation and illumination, a perception that ties in well with Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument almost 200 years ago that “nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or the elevated portion of the sciences than meditation.”

Hadamard’s insight is as important in our contemporary situation as it has ever been. According to Josef Pieper in Leisure the Basis of Culture, “latent anxiety” is “the mark of the world of work”. Latent anxiety, I would add, also characterises the world of education. And latent anxiety kills creative thought. This anxiety can have many causes but an essential one is the dominant model of time that has emerged from what Pieper calls a world of “total work”, time as an economic principal. In the 19th century, we began to worry that we were wasting time. In the 20th century we started to manage it. In the 21st Century we are overwhelmed by it.

By contrast, slow educators give students the time they need to develop deep knowledge. They refuse to bow down before industrial models of time. They fight back against latent anxiety. Learning a language takes years. Learning an instrument or building a plane takes years. Learning anything that isn’t superficial takes years. And yet we rush our students as if knowledge could be acquired overnight.

So how do we actually prepare students for university using the principles and practices of slow education?

As part of my crusade against instant gratification, I keep copies of Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine, in my classroom at school. It is one of my weapons in a campaign for unintentional knowledge. I want students to stumble across it. I don’t want to set reading it as homework. Delayed Gratification is great because it deals with the news 3 months after it has happened – The Last to Breaking News is its strapline – but it’s not enough on its own. I also rescue books that libraries are offloading and have my own library that students can raid whenever they like. I deliberately pay no attention whatsoever to the curriculum and encourage idle browsing. What I want is for students to develop an interest in a topic because it’s interesting, not because it’s going to be tested.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time encouraging students to read, but my focus is gradually changing. I now encourage my 6th Form students not simply to read around their subjects, but to read two or three books really deeply. Preferably slowly and preferably more than once. I don’t want them to skim over the surface of knowledge but to really savour it. I want them to enjoy books as they would slow food, rather than as they would a Big Mac, because slow food – and books read deeply – taste better.

But slow education is not just about books. Any activity that promotes delayed gratification is to be encouraged. Growing vegetables. Using butterfly kits. Developing school ponds. All these help teach students that growth takes time. And intellectual work should do the same.

Intellectual work, Gilles Lipovetsky says, is “inevitably something done with craftsmanship and love.” This is not the language we usually hear, but it points us in the direction we need to go. If we are to prepare students for the slow university, we need to rediscover the value of craftsmanship, a topic both Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett have written about recently. We need to recover the importance of learning from the master craftsman over time. We need to recover the value of learning slowly – of refining knowledge and skills – through doing. We need to recognise teaching as a craft and we need to allow students to learn as apprentices learn.

Crucially schools and universities need to do this together. To misquote JFK, I want to ask not just what schools can do to prepare students for universities but what universities can do for us. If you are bothered by your students’ Maths or English, if you are concerned that your students can’t google effectively because they don’t know enough, if you think students aren’t prepared for undergraduate studies, then work with us in schools to change things. Work with our students so they can experience true scholarship. There’s no rush. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve got plenty of time.

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Take it home and do it: open-book exams

By Dr Lynda Yorke, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University and Dr M. Jane Bunting, Geography and Geology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull.

Context and rationale:

Traditional exams (e.g. write 2 unseen essays in 2 hours) are not popular with students, often described as irrelevant by pedagogues, and don’t reflect the realities of the working world.  As a result, exams are being displaced across the HE sector by a variety of coursework based assessments, where students have several weeks or months to produce demonstrations of their competence.  However, report production on deadlines of a few days is commonly required in a range of jobs, and requires particularly efficient research and synthesis skills.  Since assessment drives learning for the majority of students, giving them an incentive to develop these skills and an opportunity to demonstrate them is in their best interests.  Independently, we both addressed this situation by developing ‘take home exams’, with a 48 hour turn-around, for the final year modules Rivers and Environment (Lynda) and Quaternary Geoscience (Jane).  We both wanted to encourage students to read widely and develop a sound understanding of a complex and evolving literature; being able to interpret and synthesise reports produced by specialists is an important skill for GEES graduates.

 Format:

We have employed two different approaches: an essay and a report.  Both had a length limit of 2000 words.  For Lynda’s essay-based exam, students are given a choice of two broad questions that require them to draw on the module content and other resources, presenting evidence and critically evaluating paradigms in fluvial science. The format was chosen to complement the mid-semester, report-based assignment.  For Jane’s report-based exam, students are presented with a selection of data from a simulated Quaternary section and tasked with producing a report which identifies and describes stratigraphy units, proposes an interpretation of the environment present when each formed, and assigns stratigraphic ages.  The report format is familiar to students, through previous coursework reports on their own datasets from field and lab work, and the option to write a report on a different dataset for formative feedback was offered as preparation.

 Effects on learning:

Some students told us that the take-home exam format changed the way they studied throughout the module; they focused on collecting and organising relevant resources across the subject rather than reading a small number of selected items in detail, since they had less scope for ‘question spotting’ and knew the assessment would require them to use a range of ideas from the module.  This led naturally to them looking at more articles, as they sought to fill in gaps in their collections, and to creating their own ‘map’ of the subject matter as they worked out how to organise and label their notes, books, web links and electronic files for easy relocation during the 48 hour period.  The quality and range of references cited was at least as good as in a normal coursework essay, where students have up to twelve weeks to write about a single topic.

 Skills, employability and challenges:

Embedding employability and transferrable skills is increasingly important, and students want to be able to recognise that this is happening.  The take home exam format seems to ‘make sense’ to students in both the academic content and employability contexts, and clearly addresses some of their anxieties around the artificial but ‘high stakes’ nature of exams (“In the real world I’d just look that up!” is a common complaint).  The format requires students to draw on their knowledge from the module, and their skill in locating, understanding and synthesising information and key sources of literature. It does not rely on cramming knowledge for a 2 or 3-hour exam, but on students being able to use a range of resources efficiently to help them work through a problem.  One student commented to me (Lynda) that they “… learned about lateral thinking, applying skills and knowledge in new and different ways”.

A few students over the years have not liked the approach. One of Lynda’s students observed that “… even if you were asked to write a report in 2 days in the workplace you would not be asked to read, research and cite academic papers …”. Of course, this is exactly what you could be asked to do, and reflects some naivety on the students’ part, but also a lack of clarity on ours.  We have addressed this via pre-assessment review and preparation seminars.

Our advice:

  • Give clear instructions. For example, students are often concerned that those students that are able/happy to ‘pull all night-ers’ would be at an advantage; Lynda emphasised that students should aim to work standard graduate working hours* (9 – 12 hrs/day) on the task.
  • Timetabling the exam. Concerns about clashes with other assessment at the end of semester and during the exam period have to be clearly addressed.  We were allowed to tell the students which week the exam would be in, then wait until all the other assessment deadlines were out to identify the specific 48 hour period, avoiding clashes.
  • Alternate assessment arrangements. Since the take-home exam gives students control over their environment, it reduces the need for alternate arrangements.  One challenge we both encountered was the issue of students who would, under normal exam circumstances, be entitled to additional time based on their personal learning needs; university protocol required that a 48-hour exam be treated the same as a 2 hour exam in this case, and students were given individual deadlines with the appropriate percentage of added time.  Our experience is that most students submit within the 48-hour period even if they are entitled to extra time.

Overall, we find that this kind of assessment is popular with and makes sense to students, creates desirable learning behaviours, directly addresses employability concerns as an embedded part of the module rather than an add-on or a checklist, and is rewarding to mark, since we have both seen very high levels of performance as students rise to the challenge of the task.  We strongly recommend it as part of the designer’s tool kit for GEES curricula, and would be happy to discuss our experience with any interested colleagues.

*http://www.thejobcrowd.com/employer/pwc/working-hours

Level Up: Writing Strategies for New Undergraduates

By Desiree Fields (University of Sheffield), Matt Finn (University of Exeter), and Yvonne Oates (Cornwall College)

As an undergraduate just starting out at university, you already have loads of writing experience, but university requires some new and different writing skills. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that your task will often be to use your writing not only to demonstrate that you can find relevant information and report it back, but that you can use the information you find to offer new insights and raise critical questions. In other words, you will be producing knowledge yourself by drawing on existing research. At university you will likely write more, and more often, than at school, and you will have to work more independently. This entails developing the ability to self-direct your writing, from breaking down the essay question to searching the academic literature, planning your essay, and organizing your time to write (and edit, proofread, and polish, plus prepare a reference list or bibliography).

 

Here, we offer some strategies to ‘level up’ your writing for university. Becoming a stronger writer is important for practical reasons: employers desire workers who can communicate effectively and think critically, and postgraduate opportunities will hinge to a large extent on the same skill set. But strengthening your writing will also help you become a more articulate person, one who knows what they think and how to say it effectively.

 

Developing your ideas

Whereas lecturers want students to develop original arguments based on academic literature, in their essays students often rely too heavily on reporting what the literature says, with little of their own voice coming across. It can be tempting to try and sound ‘academic’ but it is often better to write in a straightforward way, using short sentences and aiming to be as clear as possible. To develop your ideas and write essays that show more independent thought, we recommend taking some time to try to answer the essay question in one sentence before you even start reading, reviewing your notes, or researching it further. This can be the kernel of your argument and help you identify where there are gaps in your knowledge or understanding (and therefore where you need to read more). Starting with what you already know (or think you know), rather than going straight to what other people have said can support you in finding your own voice. Once you have written a sentence in response to the essay question and developed a plan for what you need to read to build up your argument, come back to your sentence after each text you read: what do you need to add or change? We should caution that ‘confirmation bias’ is a potential limitation of this strategy; that is you run the risk of only reading texts that support or confirm your initial thinking. However reading should change how you think. If your argument does not change after reading, you probably want to seek out some texts that explicitly challenge your argument. After all, acknowledging alternative views is a crucial way of strengthening our own arguments.

 

Understanding plagiarism

Plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work—not only their words, but also their ideas—without properly attributing it to them. Most undergraduates are fearful of committing plagiarism, yet many of them will in fact do so, often inadvertently rather than as an act of deliberate deception. The consequences of plagiarism can be severe both in terms of official penalties that affect your marks and in terms of the respect lecturers accord your future work. A recent study at the University of Otago found that while university policies frame plagiarism in moral and legal terms of dishonesty and intellectual property, students were often confused about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. The skills needed to avoid plagiarism include proper referencing and the ability to paraphrase the work of others, both of which take practice and will grow stronger as you become more familiar with your discipline and with reading academic texts and preparing academic writing. In other words, avoiding plagiarism is not simply about what happens (or does not happen) on the pages you submit, it is bound up in the broader process of becoming a geographer. Academic writing is about producing knowledge, and knowledge is not created ‘from scratch’. Instead, it is about how you combine the ideas of others to raise new questions or create insights of your own. As an author, you should therefore be able to trace the lineage of your work back to the ideas and authors that inspired your own thinking.

 

Conclusion

 

Writing can be a challenge and, given the other priorities you will have at university, it is easy to think, ‘just get it done’. However, writing, and writing well, can be very rewarding and many students find their understanding of an issue increases not just through listening to lectures or their own reading but as they write. To write clearly you need to think clearly so allow yourself the time to work through the challenges of how to order your thoughts and how things fit together. Everyone, including academics, can learn how to write more effectively and there are a wealth of underused books and resources available to you about how to improve your writing. The promise of writing is that over time and with practice it will allow you to know yourself and the world around you better as your thinking develops but also to know how to communicate in an engaged, informed and persuasive way.

 

Reading Landscape – a collaboration between Geographers and Artists

By Hope Barraclough, Anna Bond, Felix Hall Close, Lucy Ewers, Alexander, Hitchinson, Joanna Hooper, Anna Monkman, James O’Connor, Flora Parrott, Leonie Rousham, Greta Sharp, Dr. Mike Smith, Robin Tarbet, Issy Veysey, Anna Vlassova-Longworth, Stanley Welch, Natalie Wyle

‘Reading Landscape’ is a collaborative project between Kingston University Geography and Fine Art students.

Picture Flora Parrot

Dr. Mike Smith (Department of Geography and Geology, Kingston University) and Flora Parrott (Artist in Residence at the RGS-IBG Collection 2016 and Fine Art Department Kingston) invited students from both departments to respond to the concept of ‘Reading’ a landscape or an environment and to develop an individual method of collecting data.

Central to the collaborative work was the use of a site or location as a focal point: it would be viewed and analysed through the “lens” of each discipline. In doing so the group would have a new perspective on their methodologies, recognise parallels between what initially appear to be polar disciplinary approaches and understand how methods of teaching and learning can be expanded and challenged through collaboration between fields.

After an introduction to the brief in the Fine Art studios, selections were made from proposals submitted by the students and in March 2016 the group began to meet regularly to discuss methodologies and definitions.

A selection of potential sites were proposed and the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe selected. This chamber, on the banks of the Thames, was designed by Marc Brunel and opened in 1843. It is a space with visible traces of it’s past on the walls, an evocative interior, suburban, location starkly different from the surface level at which it is accessed. The group developed plans outlining how the wide-ranging ‘data’ might be collected and pooled in order to develop a collaborative response to the site.

On the field trip to the Grand Entrance Hall the group had limited time to collect their data. The techniques used included sound recording, frottage, pin-hole photography, plane tabling, photogrammetry, poetry and drawing.

“Whilst in the shaft I observed and recorded the different range of activities going on in the space. It seems the breadth and depth of different people’s interpretations and readings will be vitally important when reviewing our time there and trying to retell and interpret the space as we remember it.” Anna Monkman, Fine Art student

The day was energetic and dynamic, the students were fascinated and possibly slightly intimidated by each others’ techniques. The results were recorded on a blog (http://rotherhitheshaft.tumblr.com/) which became the foundation for a follow up workshop in the Stanley Picker Gallery in May 2016.

During the workshop we had the opportunity to reflect on the site visit. The students had become more familiar with each other by this point and felt more able to ask direct questions about the processes used in the space without feeling that lack of knowledge in another field was a barrier.

Fine Art practice encourages ‘thinking through making’ and so in this spirit the students worked on small tasks in break out groups for the afternoon. The tasks had no specific rationale but in carrying them out space for discussion was created. For example, one group took the results from the plane tabling and used them to map the Grande Entrance Hall at 50% scale in the gallery car park. During this time we overheard conversations between students about the importance of practical application and field work in both disciplines. Another task was to map a section of the 3D photogrammetretric model on to the wall in the gallery space using the point cloud data. The pipe from the wall was detached from the model and simplified – this became a pivotal discussion in the making of the final short film and also presented a challenge for PhD student James O’Connor who found new ways in which to work with technologies that he uses on a daily basis.

“Within computer science a very typical task undertaken is to try and structure data by dividing it’s contents into various groups sharing some common information (classification). In the case of the shaft, this task can be done manually as it’s not a huge amount of work, but during the discussions yesterday I noted a few people interested in the fact that science looks to always patch out errors, whereas artists can embrace them.” James O’Connor PhD Geography

This type of exchange, although difficult to quantify, helped both staff and students to deepen their understanding of their own approaches.

One of the most profound conversations to emerge from the site visit was around our own personal metrics and gauges and how they alter our perceptions of space. Leonie Rousham (Kingston Fine Art Foundation) instructed us all to measure our bedrooms prior to the field trip and to then reapply these dimensions within the Grand Entrance Hall using tape on the floor.

The non-exacting and elusive ways in which we a perceive space as individuals is the central theme of the short film. The ideas that we bring to bear, employ consciously and sub-consciously and merge to form our own set of parameters are key to our response at each and every location and that this is uniquely formed encompassing and employing the historical dimension that is embedding there. The tensions between these streams of information are what the project attempts to make transparent.

In the final meetings about the film, the group discussed the site and how to combine the readings; there was no sense of hierarchy or of ownership, it was simply about how best to communicate the sense of place and to include as much of the information as possible. There was very little discussion about the differences between Geography and Art practice, instead there was a sense of symbiosis and shared intent.