Mind the gap


In Short

Minimising the gap between school and university education will not occur overnight and a structured, collegiate approach has to be undertaken

John Carroll
Endpoint - John Carroll has the last word

As the effects of fresher's week begin to wear off, it is the time of year when new undergraduates start to settle into their university courses.

The change from school to university is a liberating experience for most, studying a subject they are passionate about. However, as many universities have expressed concern about the lack of key skills among undergraduates, can anything be done to help facilitate this transition? Is it possible that schools could take more of an active role in preparing post-16 students for higher education?

Spoon-fed learning

The pressures on school teachers are many and varied. After addressing on-going changes to the curriculum, the ever present threat of Ofsted, not to mention the expectation of year on year improvement in examination results and league tables, is it any wonder that many teachers resort to practises of spoon-feeding - teachers doing the legwork and the students just regurgitating information when required? This can lead to some students achieving high grades, but is this really teaching and learning? If and when a student moves onto university, does it simply become someone else's issue and we continue to brush it under the carpet?

On entering the teaching profession, I was surprised by how few students managed to think critically or demonstrate independence in their work. For example, when a problem was delivered in an unfamiliar format using past questions from a different exam board, students often struggled with the application of their knowledge. When it came to exam time however, the students still managed to achieve good grades as the current curriculum relies on recall and less on the application or usage of key skills. 

Empower to learn

Schools are currently using a variety of methods to help address some of these concerns and many are doing a remarkable job in preparing their students for further study. In an attempt to develop higher order thinking and questioning skills in post-16 students, a number of schools have started entering all students for the AS Critical Thinking qualification alongside their own choice of subjects. Other schools are now using the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to help develop independent study skills. 

The EPQ allows students to undertake research in an area of interest outside of the constraints of the curriculum. This has proven to be a successful way to empower students and has been well received by university admission tutors, as well as having the benefit of attracting a UCAS tariff equivalent to an AS grade. Once set up within a school, the level of support from staff is reduced as the onus for the development and direction of the project is upon the student. 

Develop practical skills 

Chemistry is a practical subject, yet the lack of time allocated in schools to practical work is cause for concern, as a lack of practical skills among new undergraduates has also been highlighted by universities. It is encouraging that some, but not all, post-16 chemistry courses include a major practical investigation as a pre-requisite element. 

Resources have recently been created to assist students in developing a deeper understanding of the practical aspects of school chemistry. RSC teacher fellow Catherine Smith has devised a collection of problem-based practical activities for post-16 students, which schools can incorporate into schemes of work. These have the benefit of developing both practical and independent study skills required for university. 

As chemists and educators, there would be great benefit in publicising and sharing our ideas more widely across the community and adopting a more formalised approach to school-university collaboration. This could build on the existing work of bodies such as SCORE and the RSC, with representation from all types of schools to further support widening participation.

Close the gap 

Minimising the gap between school and university education will not occur overnight and a structured, collegiate approach has to be undertaken. This of course is a step-wise process and all stakeholders could play an increased role. There are lots of excellent practices and many teachers produce outstanding results despite the on-going pressures of school life.

It should be remembered that schools and colleges who start to address these issues might not see all the fruits of their labour first-hand, but should take satisfaction in the fact they are producing students well prepared for the challenge of university and their future careers. In fact, why not point a few in our direction! 

John Carroll is senior lecturer in secondary science education (chemistry) at Nottingham Trent University.


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