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Transkills: supporting transition to University


This resource has been compiled from contributions to a workshop for new and established supervisors in the Faculty of English.

The aims of the workshop were to:

  • discuss the difficulties some students experience in evaluating and incorporating references to primary and secondary literature and critical theory into their essays
  • familiarise supervisors with A Level requirements and practices
  • consider strategies to help students improve in this particular aspect of academic writing

A level

Although it cannot be assumed that every student arriving to study English at Cambridge comes directly from A Level, many do and this guide for lecturers, from the Higher Education Academy, provides useful context: English at A-Level: a guide for lecturers in Higher Education.

Key points raised in relation to critical evaluation of secondary material within this document are:

  • A Level examination boards generally encourage the primary text, and not critical views of it, to be at the heart of teaching and learning
  • there is a general fear that students will repeat undigested views of others, which has led to a retreat from the theorised approach
  • teachers are left to interpret the guidelines on using class discussion to teach students how to ‘support or refute opinions'. Guidelines do not make clear whose opinions the students should evaluate: those of their peers or of critics. Students' experience is therefore dependent on the strategy adopted by departments and individuals
  • Where wider reading around a theme or work is necessary (synoptic papers), this is often directed by teachers. Students are therefore unused to selecting their own reading from lists

It is worth noting that this landscape may shift in future. Extended projects are becoming increasingly popular, requiring students to acquire independent research skills. In 2010, Cambridge Assessment led a consultation with universities on the A Level curriculum across a range of subjects; this may influence future curriculum changes and the preparedness of students to study their subject at university.

Research using other materials

This graph has been compiled from data within the HEA Four Perspectives on Transition document. Sixth form and university students were asked how often they were required to use 'literary theory, literary criticism, context material and other literary material in developing their response to set texts.' Teachers and university lecturers were asked how frequently they use such material as stimulus within their teaching sessions:

It is interesting to note the leap in frequency of reference to 'other material' as part of teaching from sixth form to university. This is identified as one of the key transition issues to university-level study in this discipline.

Close reading of the whole document also reveals more about the kinds of teaching many students have become used to in school or college and reveals the stark contrast with the supervision system here.