The Trouble with Teaching to the Test

How faculties can help bridge the gap between A Levels and Cambridge.

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I would automatically assume that any education article in The Telegraph will be a variation on a theme of ‘the world’s gone to the dogs’.  But, every so often, articles like this one crop up which remind us that, even in the murky world of The Torygraph, there are gems of wisdom.

The suggestion, by two of our learned Dons, that A-level students are ‘taught to the test’ will be met with resounding yawns by anyone who has been in an A-level classroom. Of course they are, they always have been.

Perhaps the more interesting point was the very realistic statement that, even here in Cambridge, Freshers struggle when they start university.

 Faculties  are failing to make the grade

I do history, and as a Fresher was confronted with sinking or swimming. As far as the faculty are concerned, they provide 3 generalized lectures and then you are on your own. Well, on your own with a reading list and an essay to write.

Of course, over time, we break out of A-level habits and learn to write proper essays. Some supervisors are wonderfully patient and helpful; some colleges throw money into classes for their new students. I do wonder whether this is the best way of training budding historians. Some Freshers, perhaps with an inexperienced supervisor or a poor college, really struggle over the first year.

Why are we not looking for our faculties to provide more standardized teaching? It is fairy uncontroversial that lots of students struggle to adapt to Cambridge.Why should we not have some faculty-organised classes, explaining, for example, ‘Cambridge essay’ writing?

Rather than parceling it off to colleges, faculties should face the problem with small-group clases and seminars to help students over the hurdle. Such an idea isn’t sexy- the academics will hate to teach the extra classes, and in an ideal world they wouldn’t even be necessary. But, given the A-level system, they might actually help.

At the moment, our faculties have their heads in the sand, hoping that if they ignore the problem hard enough, it will go away. It won’t. Even here, we should be ready to admit that far too many students need help in breaking away from the A-level mindset.

It is surely time for a mature debate amongst faculties about how they can help to do that.