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Starting on a degree? Beware of false aspirations

 There are going to be many students venturing out into the first year of their degree very shortly.  For a number of years, I had the pleasure of teaching 'study skills' to these new students - trying to equip them (as best I could) for the challenges which lie ahead.

One of the most immediate challenges which I found myself having to address with the issue of confidence.  This may sound rather odd, as for some the image of a fresh undergraduate is of a person filled with a sense of promise and optimism - not one filled with self-doubt and anxiety.  However, many students - particularly those who are older, or studying in a second language - may find themselves having to first convince themselves that a Higher Education environment is one in which they belong.  That their presence is not a mistake.  That they are not about to be 'found out', and sent back to do their GCSE's again.

This sense of inadequacy may sometimes stem from certain assumed attitudes about 'intelligence'.  New students may eventually come to realise that their whole attitude to learning has been focused on a set of idealised images of what an 'intelligent person' looks like and sounds like.  The logical assumption is that to become 'intelligent' enough to be a successful academic, you need to become more like this image of an 'intelligent person' - and this can lead to a view of learning which is actually going to make it harder for you to succeed.

For example, if your view of an intelligent person is someone who can recite the entire works of Shakespeare, but your own capabilities extend only so far as “to be or not to be”, then for you learning by heart everything Shakespeare wrote before and after “to be or not to be” will make you intelligent.  Your inability to quote Shakespeare at will therefore becomes a constant reminder to yourself of how far short you fall.

Similarly, if your view of an intelligent person is someone who can use very long words, and you know that your own abilities extend only so far as the “gr8 to C U”, then learning lots of long words from academic glossaries will make you intelligent.  Your inability to use long words, again becomes a constant reminder of your own inadequacies.

But – to use a term invented by Shakespeare himself – 'here’s the rub'.  Do you really think that the ability to recite Shakespeare, or to use really long words, makes you intelligent?

The answer should be a resounding 'no!'  Here is one reason why:

Bloom's Taxonomy

The idea that intelligence is more about the accumulation of facts, figures, or knowledge, than about the capacity to think creatively and laterally about complex ideas, is contrary to concerns of University-level education.  The best way to explain this is to refer to Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain.  This sounds pretty impressive, but really it is simply a list of 'thinking skills', ranked in order of complexity.  According to Bloom, learning can be seen as a pyramid, in which the most basic of learning skills is built upon by successively more complicated mental processes:

As you can see in this diagram, 'knowledge' is the most basic and fundamental tasks. It is important, yes, but knowing stuff is not as difficult as understanding it - which is why 'Comprehension' is the next, higher level of learning on the pyramid.  Even understanding something is not as difficult as being able to apply it, which is why 'Application is the next, higher level of learning.

This pyramid model is really useful when thinking about education, because it can be said that each level of education is interested in a different level of comprehension.  Lower-level qualifications, which may assess you primarily by exams, are often more interested in what you know.  Higher level qualifications are interested in how much you understand.

Degree-level study is mainly interested in the top three of Bloom's cognitive list: Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation.  In other words, degree level education is not interested in how many of Shakespeare's speeches you know, as much as it is interested in how you can break down a Shakespeare speech and explain how it works ('Analysis').  Degree level education is not interested in how much you understand a Shakespeare speech, as much as it is how you can take the ideas from a speech and connect those ideas to ideas in other speeches, or to historical context ('Synthesis').  Degree level education is not interested in how much you can apply your understanding of a Shakespeare speech (by, say, not banishing your daughters when you are in a bad mood, or offering key government positions to members of the military), as it is in how you can weigh up, and measure the importance of the ideas in a speech ('Evaluation').

In other words, degree level education is not primarily interested in how many Shakespeare speeches you have memorised, or how many long words you can use.  It is more interested in what you can do with them.  It is more interested in how you can develop an appreciation for the ideas they represent - an appreciation which can draw on all sorts of different sources of information (history, theory, books and articles) and find connections between them.

A degree is less about what you know, than it is about how you think.  So don't waste time worrying about long words you think you should be using, or facts you think you need to memorise.  Instead, start talking about ideas.  Start questioning everything - always asking the question 'how do you know?'  Never accept that there is a 'right' answer to anything - and most of all, never be fooled into thinking that somebody who knows a lot of facts or uses a lot of long words belongs in Higher Education any more than the rest of us.

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