Explicitly prepare students for learning and assessment tasks
A basic adage of scaffolded education is that if students are required to know, understand or be able to do something, then this must be explicitly taught, and space and support provided through which students can learn (1-2). It cannot be assumed that all students possess the knowledge or skills required by a programme of study unless they have explicitly had the opportunity to acquire those skills. As school systems, both in the UK and internationally, move towards more performance focussed approaches, it is inevitable that some students will arrive at university without some key skills in place - such as the ability to research or filter knowledge claims (3-4).
There are significant equality implications in this arena (5). Any assumption of knowledge or skills rewards those who have been lucky enough to have received previous preparation and punishes those who have not had the same luck. We therefore need to ensure that the teaching and learning experiences we provide for students incorporate active opportunities to learn, and resolve any uncertainty, about the tasks they are engaged with.
In addition, some students may also lack the underlying skills and understanding necessary to engage productively with unfamiliar tasks or the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills independently (6-7). Academics have assimilated such a level of expertise that it can become invisible to them I.e., tacit knowledge. This is a common psychological phenomenon – people normalise their own experiences. As a result, academics can regard high levels of skill and conceptual knowledge as simply being common sense (such as the ability to investigate, problem solve and integrate new learning into existing understandings). Learning processes can appear to be obvious to academics, requiring no explanation. While for novice students those same processes can be opaque and impossible to discern (7). It is therefore important that disciplinary knowledge and skills in learning are unpacked with students and account taken of the diversity of prior learner experiences.
When students encounter a gap between their knowledge or skills and a particular task in learning and cannot clearly see a way to span that gap, it can impact negatively on their wellbeing. Students may experience self-doubt, imposter syndrome, worry, dissatisfaction and low mood, which can in turn lead to avoidance behaviours, loss of motivation and academic disengagement. They are also likely to take a survival approach to the relevant tasks, reducing potential learning and the meaning they gain from the activity.
Some programmes and universities have attempted to address this inequality of preparation by providing additional classes to help students catch up. However, work for this project, with practitioners and lecturers, has identified that the students who seem to need these interventions can also be the least likely to attend. While this may seem counter-intuitive it does align with research. The least prepared students are also those who are most likely to work longer hours in paid work or to have caring responsibilities (8). Equally, being aware of a gap in current knowledge can lead to feelings of anxiety, which in turn can lead students to avoid engaging with any practice that reminds them of this gap (9). We have long known that study anxious students tend to avoid practices that would address gaps in their skills (10). Some students may also not recognise that a gap exists because they lack the meta-cognitive ability to identify it.
This, therefore, means that students must be explicitly prepared for assessments and tasks within their taught curriculum. Focussing on the development of core skills and knowledge, can draw students’ attention to their importance, demonstrate a path to acquiring them and highlight a student’s increasing ability overtime. In this way, students can build self-confidence, genuine competence and create a platform for future deep learning.
Examples of how this can be addressed might be in providing clear guidance in the difference between an essay and report; training in referencing and the importance and value of academic integrity; teaching students to present well for public speaking assessments; and preparing students to work in groups. Research clearly shows that simply asking students to take on these tasks, on the assumption that they will work them out by doing, often results in widening inequality gaps and students mis-learning and adopting unhelpful habits.
- If we want students to know, understand or be able to do something, we must teach it and provide structured opportunities for students to learn. We cannot assume that all students possess the knowledge or skills required by a programme of study unless they have explicitly had the opportunity to acquire those skills.
- Some students may also lack the underlying skills and understanding necessary to acquire new knowledge and skills for themselves.
- Any assumption of knowledge or skills rewards those who have been lucky enough to have received previous preparation and punishes those who have not had the same luck.
- Additional classes tend not to attract those students who most need the intervention, because of other commitments, lack of awareness or anxiety, necessary knowledge, understanding or skill must therefore be taught and embedded in the curriculum.
- Provide students with a glossary of common terms – both disciplinary terms and terms related to the language of learning and assessment.
- Use learning outcomes to identify the key knowledge, understanding and skills students will require to achieve these outcomes, then ensure these are explicitly taught within the curriculum.
- Use worked examples in the classroom to demonstrate how students can complete academic work successfully.
- Embed meta-learning into the taught curriculum.
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