How soon is too soon?

We’re in the process of building some new undergraduate modules for our degrees here and it’s been reminding me of a rather basic dilemma in programme design: when should we start students on the ‘hard stuff’?

The air quotes point to a first issue, namely that there are different kinds of ‘hard stuff’ out there.

Part of it is topics that require more advanced skills or more detailed knowledge, often applied, that seems to rest on a strong foundation of core competences: think advanced quants modelling or very particular policy issues.

But it is also the openly structured, student-led work in general. Obvious case in point: we put the dissertation at the end so the student can explore a subject in their own way, having got a bunch of stuff from us.

You’ll be shocked* to learn that I disagree with many people about this model.

Firstly, we typically get students joining us who’ve been socialised into a particular learning model by schools – much of it learning to hit the ‘right’ elements from the curriculum – that we try to shift towards more critical and self-reflective approaches, so why not work on that from Day One?

Secondly, as the examples above show, you could argue that dropping students straight into more ‘advanced’ work might be a strong incentive for them to buy into different ways of working, plus if you know your students are new to it then you can make some allowances about how far they can go.

Case in point: I’ve been looking at courses with my son and there’s one that involves an independent project every year of study. It’s a good way to highlight the applied value of the other content, practice for more ambitious work down the line and a training ground for thinking and reflection.

Finally, given how most degree classifications put weight on later stages of study, does it make utilitarian sense only to be introducing ‘hard stuff’ in those later stages, instead of early on, when they can iron out the wrinkles?

In practical terms, my experience has been that first years are more willing to do something new (because they don’t know ‘how things are’) and they have more ability than we typically recognise, even if their achievement isn’t the same as a final year student.

If we’re using active learning systems, then that’s all fine, because these aren’t so predicated on prior learning, but instead give space to students to take things as far as they can. Moreover, the applied nature of many such environments also makes it easier for new students to understand the wider value of what they’re doing.

Yes, it also means having a robust system of student support as they make the transition, but that should be something that we provide in any case. Indeed, the values of more advanced study – reflection, criticality, resilience – might ultimately help them to feel better able to support themselves.

None of this is particularly novel (as Amanda could tell you), but it’s still good to be reminded of it as we build new content.

Our confidence in building ambitious learning environments for our students is likely to translate into students who can become more confident about their learning.

* Not shocked

One Reply to “How soon is too soon?”

  1. Fully agree: sometimes, sooner is better, especially for beginners.

    Empirical feedback from a new 1st-year module in international relations for 1000+ business students across six campuses. Introduced in autumn 2021, with a demanding 2000-word “briefing note” (country case study) to be submitted at the end of the semester, retracing and critically assessing a specific government’s response to the COVID pandemic. Results rather disappointing for what was a really, really well-prepared active-learning assignment (a collective one, by the way, in teams of three students).

    In autumn 2022 I simply changed the date: assignment introduced as of the second session, case study to be submitted before traditional the end-of-October holiday week rather than end of December. Reminding everybody that in “higher education”, the key word was “higher”. Much better results! A large number of students that have reason to be satisfied with themselves. And much less complaints about dysfunctional teams.

    It seems soon is not too soon.
    And there is still time for a more classical knowledge test at the end of the semester.

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