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Force-fed students flounder at college

Students are arriving at university unprepared for independent study because they are used to teachers spoon-feeding them towards exam success, research by a secondary head of department has found.

Some students confessed to feeling "perplexed" by the undergraduate experience, where self-directed learning is central, because they were accustomed to being force-fed facts in schools. Some blamed their teachers for misleading them as to the nature of the subject, though others sympathised with school staff, whose performance was judged on their ability to achieve results targets.

These were the findings of an investigation completed by Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate grammar, North Yorkshire, for her PhD thesis.

Dr Hibbert interviewed 29 second-year A-level students from six schools and colleges, then re-interviewed 12 of them in their first year of degree study, plus another 14 undergraduates.

Most had seen sixth form study as "the acquisition of a large body of uncontested knowledge". Many were then shocked by its different character at university, where historical interpretation was key. They were puzzled by tutors' refusal to be "providers of knowledge", which was what most understood the role of a teacher to be. Few understood the need to read critically and some struggled with the demands of research, having been used to being handed photocopies and a single textbook.

Dr Hibbert wrote: "This study highlights the fact that A-level history is an assessment-driven exercise with too much passive, results-fixated teaching, which leaves students ill-prepared for university."

She said that most students felt that teachers had done as well as they could to prepare them for university, given the constraints of the current system.

In the long term, the Government should consider the effects of its examination system on teaching. Universities could also work with schools to make the transition period smoother.

* For details of how to get hold of a copy of the PhD thesis, contact warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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