Their requirements or ours?

It’s that time of year again. Students (to varying degrees) are occupied with the dreaded end-of-year exams. And, quite rightly so, one might add.

A recent conversation in class with one of my examinees brought home to me (again!) that student motivations with exams can vary significantly from that of their lecturers.

The exam in question is predominantly a hands-on-keyboard computer exam with a lower weighted written component. The written component is aimed at testing what (and to what depth) the student really understands about the computer-based work completed. The particular student in question wondered what was the point of the written component given that he would be demonstrating how-to knowledge of it in the hands-on component. He commented that he could still pass comfortably by omitting it and leaving the exam early.

I didn’t even try to hide my cringe factor. Pointing out all the marks that he would lose out on was not enough to change his mind.  A reminder that he would be depriving himself of the opportunity to show off his learning met with equal dismissal.  In fact, he was rather puzzled by my reaction.

The point is that his requirements are very different from mine.  

Prof Noel Entwhistle from the University of Edinburgh has an oft-quoted framework for classifying students’ conception of learning. There are 3 possibilities –

  • The deep approach in which the student looks for meaning, patterns and underlying principles in the material being studied. They question the material asking how, why, what-if type questions. They are self-aware and conscious of their learning and what it means;
  • The surface approach in which the student makes minimal effort to dig deep into the material. They are reluctant to do anything more than passively reproduce that material in an exam to achieve the minimal passing grade. They see little or no meaning in the program of study and are not motivated (by a myriad set of complex factors both internal and external to the student – my emphasis) to look for any;
  • The strategic approach in which the student organises their study and study activities in order to achieve the highest possible grades with the minimal amount of effort. Each unit of effort is evaluated in terms of what it’s contribution to the grade might be. If a large amount of effort has to be put in to achieve a relatively small return, then that effort is not put in.

My student is in the third category. I’d prefer if he (and his classmates) were in the first category but, alas, that is not the case.

Am I wrong to criticise the strategic approach to learning? The student is still learning a lot, and will likely emerge with an honours grade even if of a lower level than he is capable of. He can take the extra time not spent on my subject and use in a subject-area he is less confident on. He is developing organisation and personal management skills in deciding on and implementing his choices of juggling his resource allocations across different subjects. He avoids becoming a one-dimensional live-in-the-library student in that he retains enough “me-time” to pursue other aspects of his life and so move towards becoming the well-rounded student that employers value.

Now, as to the surface learners………. I think we can all agree on the down-sides of that one.


Posted on April 26, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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