Nick Thomas on strategic learning and student welfare

‘I’m not here to learn, I’m here to get a 2.1!’ was screamed at me by a student in my office a few years ago. The student concerned was a finalist who was sitting on the 2.2/2.1 borderline. It was January, she was running out of time, and she had just received an essay back from me with a mark of 62. She felt she needed much higher marks than this in order to ensure a 2.1 degree average overall and she was starting to panic. The result was a full blown temper tantrum, complete with crying, stamping feet, shouting, etc. This outburst had been prompted by my suggestion that if she wanted to push marks up further she needed to reflect on my feedback and consider taking a more critical approach to her reading of primary and secondary sources. This is something we try to get across from the very start of the degree but the student concerned felt I was asking her to learn a new set of skills at the eleventh hour.

How to respond? On the face of it this was outrageous behaviour, but actually I felt deeply concerned about this student. On the one hand her behaviour was that of a petulant child, but on the other it was indicative of a student who felt overwhelmed. The anger was a reflection of deep seated fear, mixed with a dawning realisation that the approach to learning which she had taken had held her back. She felt trapped, powerless and out of options. As a result she was taking it out on me by making me responsible for the situation and for getting her out of it. It would take a pretty hard hearted person not to want to help a student in a such a situation, but what were the options?

The phrase ‘I’m not here to learn, I’m here to get a 2.1’ could be picked apart endlessly and for me it represents the most succinct encapsulation of a strategic approach to learning I’ve ever encountered. The contradictions involved in this phrase are legion and clearly this student had not previously considered the idea that getting a 2.1 entailed opening one’s mind to new ways of thinking, new approaches to the past, or new ways of conducting research. She assumed that school had equipped her with the necessary skills and it was then a question of demonstrating what she knew about the past. In this model she presented herself as the finished article, as though learning had finite boundaries and approaches, so we just needed to recognise her abilities and award her a 2.1. The temper tantrum demonstrated a new understanding that this wasn’t going to work but because our conversation was taking place so late in the degree she felt that trying new approaches was too much of a risk which could result in even lower marks. She was stuck and terrified.

My response was to try to empower the student. Feeling powerless is inherently stressful and the student needed to feel that she could do something to seize control of her situation. Since I can’t climb into my student’s heads I can’t take responsibility for their learning and I can’t do it for them, but I can facilitate it. So it was a question of staying calm, letting the tantrum burn itself out, and then attempting to help in a meaningful way. First of all I stuck to my guns about taking a more critical approach, but I also suggested that far from being a new skill, it was actually something she had been working toward throughout the degree. There were flashes of this in the essay so we went over these and compared them with the more descriptive elements. I asked her to bring in her previous essays for other modules so that we could look for patterns which would allow for further reflection. It became clear that she had never thought of this and, in common with many other students, had not paid much attention to the written feedback because she had concentrated solely upon the mark. Suddenly there was a spark of hope, there were constructive things which she could do, and there were examples in her previous work where she was getting things right. She had had no idea why she was getting different marks but encouraging her to discuss examples of her work allowed her to make positive decisions about what to do and what to avoid.

I shouldn’t dress this up as a resounding triumph though. The student left my office much calmer but over the next few months she continued to make it clear that she felt my expectations were unreasonable because I was asking her to take risks. She desperately wanted certainty and without this she felt understandable anxious. Nonetheless, she followed my advice and her marks gradually crept upward. She got a 2.1 degree.

Dr Nick Thomas, Department of History, University of Nottingham

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