Inspiring Low Achievers
So, here it goes…
When I first started at Worcester, a year into the degree being offered at all (and only in a joint-honour’s capacity), our external examiner Will Higbee (Will, I hope you don’t mind my name dropping here) noted an almost immediate improvement in the upper end of the work but that those students at the bottom of grading scale were still really struggling to even achieve a passing grade. I don’t think I’m alone in finding teaching intelligent and motivated students much easier than trying to inspire those who, particularly in our field, want to “sit around and watch movies”.
As I was the only dedicated film studies member of staff at the time, effectively I was solely responsible to raise that lower end at least to the passing threshold. But how to do this? In some ways, being the only member of staff enabled me to experiment with a number of approaches – some of which were more successful than others – and in this, I was very fortunate. I didn’t have to try and compromise with colleagues on standards and thresholds. I had my standards of what I wanted our students to be able to do, and worked to raise all students to that level.
To be fair, ego and my own arrogance was also a motivating factor in this: these students were graduating with my name on their degree. I wanted “Film Studies @ Worcester” to be meaningful and desirable. I wanted our graduates to be able to stand alongside graduates of any other UK film studies programme and not need to apologise for where they went to school.
So, how to do this?
I think my first thought was to think about what standard of work I wanted to see students submit in their third year. Back when I worked at Aberystwyth, Martin Barker and I were discussing student achievements. He asked me how do students know what I expected of them. If I expect students to be able to write essays in their third year with proper Harvard referencing, substantial secondary sources used, in Academic English, and supported by solid textual analysis, then I needed to ensure those skills were embedded in the programme at the earliest possible point so they can generate confidence in those skills appropriate to their progression level. At least to my standards.
1. I was asked by our Institute Quality Assurance maven why the fail rate in our first year modules was as high as it was (statistically it was high, but the class numbers were relatively small, thereby artificially inflating those statistics). I pointed out that we had a zero fail rate at Levels 5 & 6 (Years 2 & 3). Yes, our wise maven replied, because you got rid of all the dumb kids in the first year! I may be wrong about this, but why is that a bad thing? Surely those students who were able to do the work in first year, to successfully internalise those study skills we were developing with them, passed; if they didn’t successfully internalise them, they failed. I’m still prepared to fight this corner.
2. I saw our success in a different light recently. I was discussing certain grades in a second year module (not in from our film studies programme); grades which I would have failed but my colleague would have passed. For example, an essay which was less than half the required word count was given a nominally passing grade because the student “had tried their best”. Never mind about that – its a good story, but not entirely relevant. What is relevant is that although we include all the necessary tools for a student’s success in any module in each module’s handbook – including required readings, suggested reading, suggested viewing, focused essay questions, explicit criteria of assessment (a topic worth a separate post here!), and almost weekly discussions of what we expect from student essays in seminar classes, this can only work if the students are confident in using those tools in the first place. I can put my hand over my heart and say that we train our film studies students in the basic tools required to succeed in any given module. Not all of them will do well, but at least they’ll progress to the next level. These other students did not know how to use these tools, let alone succeed. I realised then what our programme did differently: we looked at the overall degree and explicitly embedded the development of those key skills in the various assessments as early as possible in order to increase the students’ confidence in using those skills. In other words, we trained the students in using the tools we expected them to use throughout the degree. Unfortunately, this other programme’s approach was simply to lower the passing threshold; and to continue to lower it, in order to ensure student progression. No wonder they were trying to hammer screws into a piece of wood using a hand-drill (if you catch my metaphor).
S0, how do we inspire lower achievers? By embedding in the provision the necessary skills development that we hope to see in their final papers. Students cannot be expected to progress (at least properly progress) if they don’t know what is expected of them in such assignments.