Very few students start their undergraduate studies know what is expected of them. I often tell my students the story of my first undergraduate essay. I was studying economics, I’d taken the subject at GCSE and ‘A’ level so I thought I knew quite a lot already. I’d been given an essay question (one sentence on a sheet of paper) and answered it, using up the required word count.
When I got the mark back I had failed, and the feedback was pretty short (“this is not an essay”). I remember feeling really demoralised by this, nobody had told me what an essay was, and after the feedback, I was still none the wiser. I now know that I hadn’t based my essay on any reading, I’d answered the question using my pre-existing knowledge. I was trying to show off how clever I was (I don’t need the books, I know this!) which made the mark and feedback particularly brutal.
I say this to my students to show that very few people know what they are doing at the start of their studies (even the ones who go on to do a PhD!). I also share this story with colleagues as an example of terrible feedback and the impact that can have on students (I know I missed the next few classes in shock/ despair).
If only somebody could have clearly told me what was expected of me. Nowadays students get much better support (and feedback) and I think this is especially the case for foundation year students. As well as classroom support there are plenty of books out there that can guide students in their journey as learners, and enable them to get top marks.
My colleague and I went into a central London bookshop (apparently the largest academic bookshop in Europe) to have a good look at the books on offer while compiling a reading list for next year’s students.
There are some great books out there (my personal favourite was the McMillan and Weyers at the bottom of the pile). Some focussed a lot on grammar, some on structure and others had a good mix of skills, including critical thinking, dealing with stress, even some financial advice etc. (I wish I’d had some of that early on!). The Study Skills Book by McMillan and Weyers had a really good range of information and is pretty good value (look at the size of it!).
A lot of the books are aimed at international students but cover ground that is definitely helpful for UK students too. For example, a colleague at Durham (cheers @McManusAlison) recommends “50 steps to Improving your Academic Writing” which looks really good too.
It’s important to remember how unnatural higher education can seem at first, and support students in making the implicit stuff (what is a first? is 50% a good mark? what is an essay?) as explicit as possible.
I’d really like to hear about any other books or resources that are useful for students who are starting their undergraduate studies (whether foundation year or level 4). Please get in touch with any suggestions!