I have taught at university for almost a decade now, and yet I still recall my first seminar. I was teaching in the English department, on the first-year undergraduate Shakespeare course, and we were discussing Romeo and Juliet. I had spent two days obsessively preparing a close reading of both Act One, Scene One, and Act Three, Scene One, and yet despite this – to the dismay of my students – there was no anticipated response. I was not looking for ‘the answer’ to the questions I proffered, nor indeed would I teach them anything that would be directly useful when it came to their first assessment. I simply hoped to catalyse debate, and to gently encourage my students to begin to close-read texts in their own time. They, for the first time, were coming up with the answers, rather than being fed them by their teacher.
There is a great deal of debate over the transition from A-Level to undergraduate study. Many students feel – with some justification – that they are being thrown in at the deep end. They transition from an intensely structured environment in which lessons and learnings are tightly bound to assessment criteria to a free-form system of independent thought in which the learner, not the teacher, takes precedence. It can be a shock. Teaching, too, is very different. Rather than dealing with trained teachers, drawing from an extensive syllabus and pre-existing resources, students will face postgraduate students who have often spent only a day or two in teacher training, and who will draw ideas directly from their own research.
These students will interact with postgraduate teaching assistants, postdoctoral researcher and established lecturers and professors who are equally baffled by the rigour and pragmatism of A-Level and GCSE assessment criteria. Although it is well understood that A-Levels and GCSE marking is structured, the absolute nature of marking at this level (and the way that it is therefore taught) is the subject of both disgust and fascination to many academics. Undergraduate students constantly seek structure, exacting mark schemes and reassurance, and yet to many researchers this is the antithesis of their approach, founded in original thought and a desire to challenge conformist systems.
Although the vast majority of students cope with this transition, it is certainly a topic of debate at many universities, and it can be something schools and sixth form colleges address, for example offer extracurricular classes for students intending to apply to Oxbridge colleges. At present, however, despite the many outreach programmes most universities run, there is little direct interaction between teachers in academia, and their peers at sixth form colleges and secondary schools. To really address this issue, intervention at a state level is necessary, along with reform of A-Level assessment criteria and teaching methodology.
In the interim, A-Level students will really benefit from any opportunity to spend time at university, or to interact with existing undergraduate and postgraduate students. The transition to undergraduate study does not have to be daunting. I often teach voluntary undergraduate-style Shakespeare seminars at sixth form colleges in London and North West England. I use the same material as I would in a seminar, and sixth form students not only find it accessible, but also enjoy the challenge. There is no reason why this transition has to be so difficult. Although A-Level assessment criteria are rigorous, they also allow for creative approaches, and for answers – and texts – to be approached in innovative ways. A dialogue between not only A-Level students and those in the university system, but also academics and teachers, would allow for a teaching methodology that addresses this disparity.
To help manage the this transition, any students contemplating academic study would benefit from spending time at universities, speaking to friends and family at university, recent graduates, and if they can, researchers and academics who teach at this level. To help understand the needs of A-Level students, postgraduate students who can participate in outreach programmes, teach privately, or even access and review A-Level and GCSE past papers and mark schemes (as I do) would really benefit from this insight. The transition can be abrupt, but it does not have to be a difficult process.