Research Shows

There is a deliberate ambiguity in this choice of title. I am aware of the journalistic shorthand that tells us that “studies suggest x…” or (to my mind even worse since COVID-19 seems to have required us all to be experts in epidemiology) “science tell us…” and while I wish in the age of URLs and sidebars of info we could have links to open-access versions of what is being reported, I see what a BBC report, for example, might need to achieve: a quick, digestible bit of news. This is not, however, a model for students learning how to put an academic essay together.

Take, for example, the essay which uses a BBC report on an OfSTED report. Still fairly responsible: but these are utter killers for first-year Education students. In the example I’m citing – and I see this or similar often enough for it not to be an identifiable case – the reporter has maybe 1000 words to make a complex argument simple enough to be followable and interesting enough to make a reader want to follow it. Will schools be open in January? Private Eye might encapsulate this as “We don’t know.” Poor behaviour is not taken seriously enough in schools. We might explore who says this, why, and what the underlying factors might be. How do we get students to explore this kind of text?

The temptation for the student is that might see a piece of fairly authoritative reporting and think “that sounds good: this is the way I’ll go,” and that isn’t unreasonable – but is dangerously close to the student who cones to an essay and thinks “Ah, I know about this: what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” Fast food essay writing.

The title’s other meaning suggests it is about asking that students work out some of what their essay might entail by intelligent reading that might take them off and away from their expectation of “doing what the tutor asks.” In other words, in Education (and Early Childhood) Studies, this is about looking at what a tutor sets and moving away from the grey area between “what is s/he asking?” and “what can I get away with doing?” A good essay should never be about this. The problem is that sometimes “Studies suggest” and “Research shows” actually indicate that the student really wants to write “I read somewhere” as if that were good enough. The double edge of the blog post title is that “Lack of research shows, too.” Part of it is knowing where to stop – how much is enough reading? – and part of it is about knowing how to use the reading you have done. Jane Godfrey in How to use your reading in your essays advises

Don’t be tempted to just type your essay title straight into an online search engine in the hope that something useful will come up. First think about what type of information and material you need – this will result in finding more appropriate sources more quickly.

How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays p13

Think about where you need to go and how to get there. Where you need to go for this class, for that essay – and what tools you need. Where do go for this year, for this second semester – and look back at what you have learned, what you enjoy, what you’re good at. They may not be all one thing, of course. This then is about reading wisely – but that is a complex set of skills and attitudes in itself: is a maze within a maze. It would be easy to make this into a muddled rant about the old term of “reading for a degree,” and or echo the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in saying “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

What I suspect is left for Y1 in Higher Education is often the challenge of increasing independent work. For next week, I’d like you to…. and I don’t think I’m alone in seeing laptop lids go down at this very common start of the rite of dismissal. And yet I am taking over a very well-respected module this semester and find that the previous tutors set really quite a big chunk of reading every week. With a bit of juggling I have kept this approach, and for next week is already settled – but one of the additions I’ve made is to put a midway “Reading Review” into the schedule. Not a test, probably not even a quiz per se, but a way of saying “This way through the maze.”

How much is enough reading? Well, that’s going to be the big question. I have co-marked and moderated on this module for enough years already to know that the script of “what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” is still a mental tool students can be tempted to use, and if we’re not careful this becomes: find the argument, then find the sources, then nick the quotes and away we go. So as well as set reading on the weekly schedule I have begun to rank the texts by essential and recommended. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is one module out of four, a mass of work in different themes and at different paces.

But this ranking itself has taught me something. How long ago did I read that – and what did I make of it when I first met it? Is that really the text they need? So what began as a reshelving exercise in my own bays in a mythical e-library becomes something much bigger: a self-evaluation of the reading I am setting the students. I may be only adding one book this time (Twitter followers might guess which it is, or click here) but the rest takes me back to at the very least my MA classes in 1998(ish) and then the kid-in-a-sweetshop days as a new lecturer at Oxford Brookes; how do I instill that same wow factor in the reading I suggest/propose/impose?

Because, in the end, that is the thing that will move students beyond doing what I ask into sharing my enthusiasm.

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