LACKING SKILLS…? (First published on Monday, 17 August 2009)

“Today’s students – even at University-do not have the basic skills of spelling and grammar – this is the result of the constant use of mobile phones, texting, and computer games” (Anon but could be any number of commentators)

Quotes of the day: We believe that to err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics Hubert Humphrey (US Vice-President)

“The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others”. Don Shula American Football Coach

Oh, dear, poor old students – they really cannot win. First they do well – so they are told the exams have been dumbed down. Then, as they get up off the floor – pow ! – they are told that universities are unhappy because students are “lacking necessary skills”. Has anyone pointed out that the students don’t set the exams – they just have to take them ?

When you press the hand-wringing lecturers what it is that they want, you usually find the following:

(a) “their spelling/grammar is appalling” (spare me ! as an ex-English teacher, I could spend all night answering that one – I’ll leave it to Stephen Fry in his current series on Radio 4 – Tuesday 9.30am)

(b) “They can’t write essays” (this from the people who will take foreign students with IELTS Band 6 on post-graduate courses!)

(c) “they have no study skills” (same comment, to which I add the fact that by now the universities should by now have grasped the fact that in many countries education is closely equated to being told, learning by heart and regurgitating what you have been told)

(d) “they have no analytical skills”
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Let it be clear. I am fully in agreement with the need for the above requirements in anyone who is to be taken seriously as a university graduate. But neither the students nor their school teachers are responsible for this situation. They just train to jump the fences.

Why have the universities, who have enormous influence both officially and behind the scenes not made clear that students are required to manifest these skills and that if the courses and exams they take do not prepare them suitably, they need to be changed ?

The equivalent to (a) (spelling/grammar) above is to be found in the Music Theory/Musical Literacy exams. in which it is made quite clear that accuracy is essential. The same is true in the City and Guilds exams which I know of. This can be seen as petty or trivial, but sorry, you either want the accuracy or you don’t. Musicians think it is important – otherwise the person reading the music doesn’t play the right notes.

With regard to (c) (study skills), it needs to be recognised that a good part of this is subject specific. To learn to study Physics, you need to study Physics, and so need to be taught by someone who has. In Music, it is hard to imagine what a teacher would be doing, if s/he did not routinely show the student how to approach a given problem. The test of the skills lies in the exam result – in Music the student who has not studied and does not apply rational methods is unlikely to meet the criteria of performance.

The equivalent of “performance” in an academic context is typically (b) “writing essays”. So if you want to see what students can do, get them to write essays. And if you fear that they may simply learn by heart a patter which in turn they have cribbed from the Internet, set them a task under controlled conditions. So in Music, you don’t ask for a recording (which can be fiddled – pun of Victorian banality!), you make them play. Or they do a compositional task in exam conditions.

When they do this, they will then demonstrate (or not) “analytical skills”. And how do you do this – by setting up a system which rewards such skills – the schools will then build it in. Give tasks and topics which need analysis.

In Music this is done in two ways. In performance tests, teachers will encourage the student to think of the music as not merely a sequence of notes, but as a structure, with dynamics and movement. Also musicians recognise that this is an advanced task normally sought at the higher grades, though from the outset, stress is laid on the fact that credit is given for a “musical performance”.

In the case of more intellectual analysis, students will be prepared by being taken through the process (set works), but if a more probing test is needed, they will be given an unprepared work to analyse. This used also to happen in English Literature at A level and beyond – I don’t know if it still does.

Today’s summary: I say to universities “Stop moaning, use your influence to get exams which deliver students with the types of skill you need, and refuse to take those students who don’t meet your entrance requirements”. But then, that would have some very interesting financial, political, and moral consequences…