Tailoring for levels of study

One of the central tenets of Learning Development is that the skills we teach aren’t generic, but take different forms according to the discipline – hence ‘academic literacies’ are spoken of in the plural. It’s also surely true that these skills vary according to the level of study – that everything from academic writing and critical thinking to note-taking and time management will take different forms depending on the expectations of that level of study. For example, the ‘authorial voice’ expected of a first year undergraduate vs a PhD student in the same subject will differ quite markedly according to the originality and authority they are expected to project through their writing. These new demands also put a strain on students’ existing study practices, as they are qualitatively more complex, as well as quantitatively longer, and students may need to adapt or risk their habitual strategies failing under the strain.

As someone outside the discipline though, it’s sometimes quite hard for a Learning Developer to pitch a session right. For many reasons, there’s quite a lot of variation between levels across different subjects. Some subjects just do focus far more on acquiring knowledge than others, especially in the first year (often medical and physical sciences), some programmes are designed as ‘conversion’ courses to a new subject and may not necessarily represent a step up, at least at first, from the previous level of education (undergraduate programmes in subjects not represented at A-Level, some masters courses). And as each subject has its own epistemology, it’s hard to know from the outside what the expectations around concepts such as critical analysis are in a particular subject – each has its own concept of what constitutes knowledge.

A very useful leaflet on originality was circulated on Twitter recently by the University of Melbourne, to help PhD students understand the expectations of that defining characteristic of doctoral level work. I like it a lot, but there was some discussion when I retweeted it about how it positions originality against lower levels of study. If originality is the defining characteristic of the PhD, then understandings of undergraduate and even masters work have to be positioned as lacking it, and there were some justified comments on Twitter about how this mapping didn’t align with assessment critieria in subjects which demand analysis, and therefore a creative contribution, right from year one of undergraduate, not just the reproduction of knowledge.

As with most conceptual issues like this, I tend to reach for a food-based metaphor to help students understand abstract expectations. I like food – everyone likes food – it’s universally comprehensible and very often a very apt metaphor for learning!*

Here’s my analogy.

At Undergraduate level, particularly in the first year, you are learning to cook. To do so, you learn the basic techniques, learn how to check that your ingredients are of a suitable quality, and that they’re what the recipe calls for, and how to interpret and follow a recipe. Even though you are following set recipes, you are still creating – ok, maybe it’s nothing that hasn’t been made a hundred times before before by someone else, but you’re still actively creating it for yourself. In the first year, it might be more akin to using a meal kit with the ingredients largely assembled for you, and by final year, you might be choosing a recipe and shopping around for ingredients yourself.

At final year of undergraduate when working on a dissertation, and at Masters level, you’re not just working with knowledge, you’re really learning how knowledge is made. An understanding not just of the techniques of cooking, and how to follow a recipe, but of the principles that underlie it, why it works (or not…). With this understanding, you can adapt recipes, combine them, add your own tweaks, maybe create some of the ingredients (data) from scratch and grow your own rather than using prepared ones. Maybe you can even cook a well-known dish without a recipe, working it out yourself.

At Doctoral level, you’re creating new recipes, new dishes (new foods?), ones that no one’s made before.  It might be a novel twist on an old favourite, it might be using a familiar ingredient in an unexpected dish, it might even be an entirely new technique or flavour.

I like this analogy, as it allows for creativity and originality at each level, and sees originality from the student’s perspective. And because it’s a metaphor, it’s not overly concrete or prescriptive – it’s a framework that’s flexible enough to encompass disciplinary differences. Students can use it to make sense of the expectations of their own discipline and level of study – I ask them how this applies in their own context, getting them to fill in the details where, as a disciplinary outsider, I can’t.

 

*exception – apart from attempts to position students as consumers of learning – that doesn’t work for me!

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