University undergrads have “glaring gaps” in subject content and need lessons in basic grammar, shrieks the Mail.

Janet Downs's picture
“…60 per cent of universities run remedial classes for first-year students to fill glaring gaps in their subject knowledge and boost essay-writing skills, including basic grammar,” trumpeted the Mail in its discussion of the Cambridge Assessment Survey.

But a closer look at the survey does not paint such a negative picture about undergraduates’ “basic grammar” and contradicts the Mail’s assertion about “glaring gaps” in subject matter.

The research found that additional support classes often focused on independent learning skills (not mentioned in the Mail quote) as well as writing which included spelling, punctuation, grammar and structuring essays – the Mail was correct there. But writing classes also included building an argument, using language creatively and constructively, and referencing and citing*.

The Mail’s claim that universities offered “remedial” classes to counteract lack of subject knowledge was not upheld. The research found that Mathematics was the only department where half of lecturers said additional classes were needed to address subject weaknesses. Many Maths lecturers thought modular Maths A level was to blame because bite-size exams only “asked certain artificial questions that don’t link together the knowledge”. Dr Wendy Platt, director general of the Russell Group, also expressed concern about weak numeracy skills. However, the number of lecturers saying lessons were offered to tackle deficiencies in subject matter slumped in other departments: only a tiny number of lecturers in other subjects, Biology and English said extra lessons filled gaps in knowledge.

The Mail saw no contradiction in these sentences which appeared in its article: “The Department for Education would have no role in deciding the structure and content of A-levels” and “Education Secretary Michael Gove has written to the exams watchdog, detailing the reforms to courses starting in 2014.” So the DfE will have “no role” but Mr Gove is “detailing the reforms”. Perhaps the Mail exhibits Doublethink – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas simultaneously and believe both to be true.

Universities will “get control” but it’s Mr Gove who wants to “shake-up” the system. His detailed letter to Ofqual lists his desired changes. He was “particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content”. However, the majority of lecturers responding to the survey didn’t think A level content caused difficulties. What concerned them was teaching to the test – this was cited by 90% as the main cause of undergraduates’ unpreparedness. And Dr Platt told Newsnight that some subjects didn’t foster critical analysis.

So perhaps universities don’t want to “shake-up” A levels. Perhaps what they want is for the exam to be regarded as not just a test to be passed which is used to rank schools but a two-year programme which encourages pupils’ deeper learning. In any case, Mr Gove’s idea that universities, particularly the Russell Group, remodel A levels brought a lukewarm response from Dr Platt who warned that the group did not “actually have much time and resource spare to spend a lot of time in reforming A levels” although it was willing to advise exam boards.

Mr Gove’s intervention resulted in approving headlines and much publicity. But little of it addressed the root problem – a target culture which encourages superficiality and undermines deep learning.

*Anyone who’s ever written an academic essay knows that referencing rules are complex. That’s why universities issue guidance which MUST be followed to the letter. An example of one university’s rules is here.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 11:35

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of million+, a group which represents 26 of the new universities, told the Guardian that academics had informed ministers that the A-level system was "not broken" at a meeting earlier this year. "Ministers appear to have ignored this advice," she said.

Now there’s a surprise!

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.