Problems Communicating With: Students

Students and I very often have different conceptions of what Sixth Form study is about.

In my mind it is about getting to grips with a subject at a conceptual level, understanding the links and implications, and learning enough facts and skills to be able to be able to demonstrate that understanding.

The bulk of my students naturally see the lessons and exams as tasks to complete with as little effort as possible. I say naturally, because that is how they have been trained for years to see their education: bite-sized chunks to reproduce in modularised exams since primary school, ideas that are so simple that a bright pupil can learn without any effort and a less bright one by rote memorisation. These students who have made it onto my Physics course have been successful in that environment, and it is often hard for them to adapt to the holistic demands of A level that are more suited to their abilities as clever sixteen-year-olds.

The Paradox of Hard Work

The biggest problem I find with students is not that, under pressure for the first time, they don't work, but that they don't make the effort to learn. I get asked by parents why their child is not getting the grade As in A level that they got at GCSE the year or two before. Their child, they tell me, is spending hours working at home to improve their performance, downloading past papers from the exam board and doing more and more exam practice.

The reason, perhaps, is that they have been spoiled. All their teachers for the previous three years were working under the Damocles Sword of national exams, the results of which are naively used to rank schools, and to judge whether teachers deserve their annual pay rise. Many (but by no means all — a topic for a future post) know that teaching the subject is the best way to produce deep learning. But everyone ends up teaching to the test, with weeks to months every year taken up with exam practice and mock exams. There are exam papers for homework and past exam questions for revision exercises and class tests.

Eat, drink and breathe the exams. Technique is everything.

So of course, in my classes, the first time a topic gets difficult, students resort to one of three actions: conscientious study; blinkers or extreme hope.

Conscientious Study

The recommended route to success. It involves a full commitment to learning what is taught and thinking about it in a structured way, supported by a revision schedule and a small amount of exam preparation work. Rarely attempted.


The second action is worrying, since this represents a large group of rather well motivated students who expect to be successful. Mathematically strong students, finding grades slipping as the course progresses, decide that what is needed, and what worked last year, is to practise answering exam questions. Again and again and again. After an initial boost to test scores, improvements stall and further efforts produce diminishing returns and the pressure to `work harder'. Problem solving skills (really, just learning a few standard techniques) are shallow and can not remove the need for deep conceptual understanding.

Extreme Hope

The most common action by far is to do nothing and hope that everything will sink in eventually. Students are discomfited by the nagging feeling that they ought to be doing something, but prefer to do something else out of class. This has ever been so with students, and there is little to be done short of compulsion. My own College is caught between an official policy, of encouraging students to be responsible for their own learning, and the need to hold teachers accountable for every student's under-performance. We tell them to take responsibility, then deny them their just deserts and their chance to learn a life lesson.

The more they fail, the harder they hope.

But we can't let them fail, can we?

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