Overwhelmed undergraduates

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

Some students confessed to being "perplexed" by the undergraduate experience, where self-directed learning is central, because they were accustomed to being force-fed facts in schools, according to Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate grammar, North Yorkshire. Her findings chime with an unofficial survey by The TESS (January 5) of academics' views on how well-prepared first-year university entrants were for their subjects.

Emma Macleod, co-ordinator of a 19th century British history course at Stirling University, said pupils tended to be presented by the teachers with primary sources in school and had difficulty finding sources themselves when they entered higher education.

Some of Dr Hibbert's interviewees 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. She 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 university tutors' refusal to be "providers of knowledge" and provide handouts, which was what most understood the role of the 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.

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