How to put Oxbridge within your students’ grasp

Cambridge undergraduate Molly Bolding says that, coming from a comprehensive, she secured a place at her dream university only through a lucky break. She explains how she developed practical criticism classes for sixth-formers at her old school to assuage their fears about applying to elite institutions
15th November 2019, 12:05am
How To Put Oxbridge Within Your Students' Grasp
Molly Bolding


How to put Oxbridge within your students’ grasp

I was never meant to get into the University of Cambridge. I attended a comprehensive school, I was living in an area where few went to university and I experienced difficulties throughout my education - including inconsistent quality of teaching. I had always dreamed of receiving an Oxbridge offer, but it did not seem likely.

However, I was exceptionally fortunate: I did get an offer. And, after missing my A-level grades and conditional offer from Trinity College, I was plucked from the "summer pool" by the director of studies for English at Sidney Sussex College.

I'm now in my second year, and it has become even clearer to me that more needs to be done to ensure those from challenging beginnings do not have to rely on luck to get into top universities. They also need more preparation so that they can thrive once they get on to those courses.

I was keen to be a part of that process so, after a conversation with my sixth-form English teacher, I decided to teach a series of classes to Year 12s and 13s at my old school in the hope that reaching Oxbridge, and university in general, would seem a more accessible and realistic goal for them.

I decided to base my sessions on a particular Cambridge class known as practical criticism. Prac crit, as it's referred to, forms a standard part of the English course. It's made up of a compulsory exam paper in which candidates are tested on their close-reading and inference skills, as well as on their understanding of how specific texts fit into the broader literary landscape.

Texts' message

The course is "taught" as weekly contact hours spent discussing unseen texts with our supervisor (the Cambridge term for a tutor), looking to expand knowledge of the literary canon through clues in the text. These sessions are also designed to equip us with the vocabulary to discuss the effects of a text on its readers.

For those with less cultural capital, these classes are a huge release of pressure: students are not expected to bring any previous knowledge about historical context, authorial tropes or anything else, and any gaps in their understanding become avenues to explore rather than roadblocks. They are also a good grounding in the deductive and critical skills that are crucial for success at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities.

So, my expectation was that these classes would help sixth-form students begin to feel more confident about the idea of applying to Oxbridge - to see it as something for them and something that they were capable of doing. In addition, I hoped it would help to demystify how teaching works at these institutions.

I planned three lessons. One was specifically centred around prac crit; the others covered more general aspects of Cambridge life, such as the collegiate system and some essential revision skills.

Prac crit is usually taught using pairs of texts, based on the structure of the final exam paper that asks you to compare and contrast two (often surreptitiously) linked texts. When I was planning the lesson, I wanted the students to feel challenged, but I didn't want to throw them in at the deep end without a life jacket. So, for my first pair of texts, I chose an extract from the final scene of Othello - the play they were already studying - and paired it with an extract from the first chapter of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, in which the eponymous character and his Russian princess stumble upon an open-air performance of this same Shakespeare play in a crowded marketplace.

The second set of texts I selected again featured something familiar - Robert Browning's My Last Duchess, from the latest update of the GCSE anthology - and something new: Wallace Stevens' iconic 1923 poem Sunday Morning.

With each pair of texts, there were obvious comparisons to draw, but there were also some more complex words, themes and grammatical structures that I hoped would push the students to ask questions and discuss their ideas.

The lessons were structured around question prompts, which were designed to get the students to consider their instinctive ideas on nature, origin and historical context, as well as to get them to use the evidence they could pull from the texts.

Prac crit is usually taught in small groups of perhaps five or six to facilitate a comfortable environment for discussion - the idea is to analyse and debate the texts. Finding a way to increase the class size to double digits and still maintain the quality of discussion initially seemed daunting.

However, by splitting the class into tables of roughly four students and switching between whole-class conversation and group work, I was able to encourage conversation at the tables as well as answer questions for the benefit of the whole class.

Open discussion is crucial to the process of learning these types of skills, and the entire Cambridge teaching system seems to me to revolve around the key focuses of the Socratic method and Bakhtin's dialogic space - in other words, creating spaces where voices of equal status can question each other.

From aspiration to application

So what does all this look like in practice? To use the Othello versus Orlando pair as an example, I allowed a few minutes for the students to read through the pair of texts and ask any initial questions they might have for the benefit of the group: who is this character? How do I pronounce this? What does this word mean?

I then asked them to discuss among themselves when they thought each text might have been written, where it was set and what they thought of the relationship between the characters. Interestingly, the students tended to focus on the text they were less familiar with, using their understanding of the more familiar one to make inferences about how they were connected, so my role as I visited each table was to ask them to think about the specifics of each text.

I encouraged students who were struggling with this unfamiliar process to compare themes. Meanwhile, I pushed those who had a more developed grasp to make comments on how form and grammar had an effect on a reader's perception of the action.

In order to accurately discern whether these classes were successful, I used feedback forms at the beginning and end of each one. I was hoping that by creating a form rather than asking students in person, I could get their honest opinions about the classes and find out if I had helped anyone to feel more confident about applying to Oxbridge.

I used a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (a lot) for each question, and an examination of the results revealed the following:

  • More than 80 per cent of students enjoyed the classes (recording a 3 or above).
  • All the students (100 per cent) felt that they had a better understanding of how teaching at Oxbridge worked after the classes.
  • Some 12.5 per cent of students reported a greater desire to apply to Oxbridge after the classes, while the rest remained at the same level as before.

I also left space on the form for any feedback on what the students thought went well and how they felt the classes could be improved. To my surprise, six students enjoyed it so much that they wanted the class to be longer.

It would be folly to suggest that prac crit could be the solution to all Oxbridge-related issues in terms of accessibility and aspiration, but it certainly seems as though the group I worked with responded well to the structure of the work.

If we could build more lessons of this style into the school experience, I think there would be a real impact on aspirations and, consequently, applications to top universities from students who might otherwise be reluctant.

Molly Bolding is a second-year English student at the University of Cambridge, editor-in-chief of The Cambridge Student and editor of MANARA, the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENAF) magazine

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "A practical way to put Oxbridge within your students' grasp"

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