Friday, July 11, 2014

Day 4: I Hate Study Skills

Everyone works differently. I take that as pretty much read when it comes to working with any student. I know that my assumptions about how they think about, let alone how they tackle a task like writing an essay or a piece of music is not going to be the same as me. If I have the luxury of working one-to-one with a student on a piece or on a dissertation, then it becomes my task to work out what kind of feedback is useful for them. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. Or, perhaps I'd say, sometimes I don't succeed as well as I would like: I've been very lucky with the standard of a lot of the students I've worked with in these kinds of scenarios, and on the most part, it's been an incredibly fulfilling experience working with them.

So although I said I wanted to talk about 'study skills' today, I really don't. I don't really see it like that. I think that a lot of it comes down to strategies, and down to building your own toolkit. I really don't like those approaches to study skills that just focus on one strategy to the exclusion of all else because I passionately believe that studying at a university is all about discovering yourself - that could be socially, personally, and individually, but should also involve intellectual self-discovery - and Procrustes' bed has never been a really effective tool for self-exploration.

So. What does that leave us with. I suppose we could draw up some generic families of areas to look at: writing skills, research skills, comprehension skills, extrapolation. I just came up with those off the top of my head so let's see how well they pan out.

First off, writing skills:
As I said yesterday, write a little bit every day. That is the golden rule. We expect music students who are specialising in performance to practice their instrument every day. It is this routine that sets the foundation for their achievement at the end of the term. It should come as no surprise then, that if we don't practice writing, that the end result isn't exactly going to be stellar. Practice improves tone, intelligibility, and sophistication.

Spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation use are all really important. If spelling a particular word is a problem for you, sort it out: develop some kind of tool for getting it right. If you don't understand how to use a specific item of punctuation, for example a semicolon, find out how to use it.

Grammar and syntax are a little trickier, because I'm not sure how effective learning the rules really is by this stage (although it should be said that it's always worth giving it a go). You should be picking a lot of it up through reading. As you deal with an increasing level of sophistication through a degree course, the level of grammatical and syntactical sophistication should also increase. Interrogate a sentence and work out how it works. You might not want to write like Adorno (or rather, like John Cumming's Adorno/Horkheimer), but if you understand how those sentence work, you're one step closer to mastering English academic writing in all its complexity.

I have a feeling that at some stage I will need to talk about academic writing as gatekeeping, but this is not that day.

Research skills:
Nobody really ever taught me this and I think that, largely, I made it up, but then I think that most people do. I'm now, thanks to the reflections mentioned on Day 2, thinking about how to make this easier for my students. I don't want to teach them how to do it, just how to begin to construct how to do it. I'm still working on this one so I don't want to pretend I have any real answers, but I guess it comes down to getting them used to finding information from a variety of sources.

I think it's important also that they can critically evaluate those sources. I remember, vividly. the day I questioned a book's authority. I don't remember what the book was now, but it was about 20th century music. As I read it, I became more and more concerned that the music that the author was describing bore no resemblance to the music that I loved. I suddenly realised how much the author's own prejudice had coloured his methodology. Simultaneously, I realised how much my own prejudice had coloured my own methodology. I could disagree with the book, even though it was a Book.

Following on from Day 2, I had a message from Martin Iddon, who made the excellent point that the medium on which students read a book was largely irrelevant (ebook or physical book) but what made the most difference, particularly in the field of aesthetics, was the edition and/or translator.

So, not only is it important for students to become familiar with finding information from books, journals, scores, blogs, interviews, etc., but they also should realise that one source may have multiple incarnations, particularly if it is subject to multiple translators or editors in a number of different publications.

Comprehension skills:
Having found all of these sources, do they understand them? Are they able to explain them in their own words? I'd really like to think so, but there have been occasions where I've found that students have massively missed the point. Often, this can come down to a failure of research skills - they've just not read the context, but have instead picked a bleeding chunk and attempted to create their own context for it. I have taught on a few complex texts in my time, but how can we teach students to understand them?

In part, I aim to teach by example, taking a section and breaking it down, but this is time-consuming in a culture where our teaching time is constrained by economic considerations. Perhaps this is something to develop in online content, where a text can be systematically taken to bits on video. I wish I had the time to do that kind of work though. I say to myself 'in the summer, I'll have the time to do all of these things', like rereading Kant's Critiques to refresh my understanding of them, but it whizzes past so quickly...

The other element, is teaching perseverance. I feel like I've seen a culture develop where 'If at first you don't succeed, give up' becomes an approach to difficult music and difficult texts for students. There's a lot to be gained in attacking a sentence many times. When I first got hold of Ferneyhough's Collected Writings, there were essays that I really struggled with, and that took me days to read. I read a sentence - nothing. I read it again - nothing. I read it again - still nothing. I read the sentence before it, and the one after it, and then tried to make it resolve - again nothing. Pace around a bit and think, then go back to it. Finally, the chinks in the armour begin to show, and you can start to take it to bits. Why would you persist with this time-consuming and frustrating effort? I guess that's what I have to teach to my students.

And here's the really tricky bit. I want my students to read what other people write, and then take another step. I want them to compare what they've read in my Aesthetics module, and the cross-reference this with what they're reading in my Music Psychology module and draw conclusions. If all they ever do is repeat what they've discovered elsewhere, no matter how encyclopaedic their research methodology, I really don't feel like I've succeeded.

This lies at the heart of what we mean when we talk about one aspect of 'research-teaching linkages' - training students to become self-motivated and self-regulated learners; they shouldn't need us to tell them what to think. Again, there is a lot to be said for teaching them by example, but the most critical thing here, I believe, is giving them a bit of self confidence to take a step into the unknown. There's a fine line between encouraging self-confidence, and spawning a monster that believes that everything they think, say, or do is fantastic, and teaching self-criticism is an important component in this (and one which is even harder!), but without believing that they can extrapolate from their research to make their own opinions (a big difference from finding other people's opinions to back up their own, or from making their own opinions before they read anything, and then sticking to them despite anything else they have read), then they never will.

I didn't mention this in my original list, but I won't come in again. Teaching structure is an important part of teaching students to write essays. I don't believe that there's just one structure, and one method, and I will revisit this again another day, but suffice it to say, that I think it's important that students become really critical not just about the structures in which they write, but also about the structures that they read: learn what works, and learn what doesn't work. If you didn't understand an argument, there's a chance that it wasn't constructed very well (while remembering there's also a chance it's because you just didn't understand it). There are articles that are really fun to read, and often this comes down to how well structured they are.

Most students just sit down and write, and then pick at bits and pieces in the hope that it will come together. It rarely does but it's functional. It does what it needs to do. And I think that this is the biggest problem of all: how to teach them that it matters that it does more than the bare minimum, and that writing skills are really important for sophisticated communication of ideas.

It is all about hearts and minds in the end (I enjoy the incongruity of that particular image). So much of teaching comes down to this. We can give them the tools, we can teach them how to use the tools, and we can encourage them to use these tools to construct their own projects, critique their own projects, and improve their own projects, but unless we also convince them that it's worth doing, they aren't going to do it. They will just do the bare minimum.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home