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Balancing theory and practice

New A-level and GNVQ courses are on offer for media studies. What do they have that's different?

Rather than a plethora of complex aims, the new A and AS-level media studies syllabuses from the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB) have one objective one which is so simple and fundamental as to be platitudinous: to encourage students to become more critically informed "readers" and users of the media.

More precisely, the syllabus aims to develop what we have called students' "critical autonomy" a high-flown phrase that refers to a vital component of media literacy: the ability of students to learn to stand on their own two critical feet, so they gain the confidence and competence to ask critical questions of any media text.

Critical autonomy entails a capacity for independent thinking far removed from the regurgitation of second-hand opinions and ideas which still characterises much A-level learning. For teachers, it will require not the transmission of large volumes of information, but the development in their students of higher thinking skills: an understanding of critical concepts, principles and ideas and an ability to apply them to new situations.

If students cannot transfer what they do in the classroom to the media they will encounter in the future, then media studies will have failed. It is not just another academic subject, but one which should consistently inform and be informed by the experiences of its students. This is reflected in the marking of the course, with a three-hour practical criticism of two unseen media texts accounting for 25 per cent. Practical criticism is a key method of assessment in this syllabus, since it can provide direct evidence of critical autonomy. As such it should also be regarded as a core classroom activity on which teachers and students will need to spend a good deal of time.

An innovative aspect of the NEAB syllabus is the "studies in depth" element, representing a radical break with existing media studies syllabuses. Here students choose four or five topics for specialised research from a list that includes the production and manufacture of news, newspapers, advertising, film, radio, representation and genre.

The studies in depth examination, accounting for 35 per cent of the total marks, will also be innovative, bearing only a superficial resemblance to the standard three-hour A-level essay paper.

Set-piece answers and the reproduction of large quantities of information will be discouraged. Instead, as with the practical criticism paper, this examination will seek to evaluate candidates' critical autonomy, by testing their understanding of the issues, principles and arguments at stake in their specialist areas of study, supported by examples that come preferably from their own experience or independent study.

What is being sought here is evidence of a relationship between candidates' academic studies and their own media consumption. There is also a component of practical work, representing 20 per cent of the marks, in which candidates will be asked to produce a "media artefact".

We think it important that this piece of work should say something of importance and significance to the candidate. It is important for candidates to get the relationship between content and technology the right way around, so that the practical work is not simply technology-led.

As such the media artefact will be linked to one of the studies in depth, with the practical work investigating the questions and issues that arise from the topic. This should help candidates to produce a piece of work which deals with a clearly defined topic of particular interest to them, in an informed way, and using an appropriate technology.

Again linking students' own experience of the media with the syllabus is the "durational study", an extended essay that has 20 per cent of the marks. It is based on the assumption that at the same time as students are engaged in the formal study of the media, they will continue to enjoy their own media enthusiasms.

Most people become mini-experts on some aspect of the media: they may read a magazine or watch a television programme on a regular basis, and become very familiar with its conventions and the ways in which it evolves and develops over time.

We wanted to validate this kind of experience by encouraging students to use the ideas and analytical skills they had acquired in their formal studies upon material with which they were especially familiar. Students will be expected to monitor, describe and account for the process of development and change which they observe in a media title of their choice.

The study will be approximately 3,000 words, and the precise duration of the study will be open to negotiation, altough the longer the period of time involved the better.

Len Masterman

Dissemination conferences on the NEAB A and AS media studies syllabuses will be held later this term. Details of the conferences and syllabuses from Jim Taylor, NEAB, Devas Street, Manchester M15 6EX.

Len Masterman is Chair of Examiners, AAS Media Studies, for the NEAB

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