Dr Mike J Smith

Plymouth University

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Cognitive Thresholds

Tue, 01 Jul 2008

I was at the Middlesex University Teaching and Learning Conference today where one of the keynote presentations was given by Sandy Gilkes from the University of Nottingham. A very interesting talk broadly covering HE in the 21st century, the skills students need, their expectations, lecturers requirements, barriers to learning achievement and some ways of overcoming them. So here is my take on some of the things she covered (and this is principally from her talk).

The keypoint for me was the notion of "cognitive thresholds", that is elements/points during a degree programme that are "sticking points" or barriers to a students learning progress. Specifically these can be:

  • entry to HE
  • first assignment
  • feedback
  • tranisition to year 2 or 3
  • first assessment
  • dissertation proposal
  • dissertation
This is an interesting list because I have long felt that students have really struggled when they enter university, when they transition to year 2 and when they do their dissertation. So what key elements are associated with this and can they help us?

Well part of this relates to the key skills we expect our students to have/acquire. These include learning to learn (how to learn), teamwork (working in a group), self-management (managing time and tasks), communication (presentation, written), ICT (using computers/technology) and numeracy (working with numbers). These then feed in to intellectual skills (analysis, synthesis, evaluation, problem solving) and are assessed through essays, exams, MCQs, presentations, reports, projects, groupwork etc.

Of course both the students and staff have expectations about what the other will get from the HE experience. Staff expect that students: want to be there (OK, maybe we are realistic and know that not all actually do!), are interested in the module, that they know what/when to do, critical thinking/reflection will be used and assignments demonstrate progress. Of course, the student view is likely to be different and, well, it is. Such that HE is: like school (but a bit harder), acquiring knowledge, knowledge is regurgitating what is seen/heard, will be told what to do and when, assignments regurgitate what the lecturer "wants", lectures give everything they need to know and lecturers are available most of the time.

All these points raise some interesting questions, not least how students can really achieve at university. Learning is a 2-way process so students need to be aware of the pressures that are ahead and the expectations placed upon them. Lecturers should be aware of students expectations when they arrive and the areas that require further assistance.

Which rather neatly brings me back to the blog title, that is cognitive thresholds. There are specific points during a degree which students find hard because of the expectations in their learning, skills and understanding. Students and staff need to be aware of these. For me, this is entering HE (and effective time management), the first assignment (being able to submit on time, to the correct specification), the first exam (being able to manage time, play the assessment "game" and plan/write an essay), the move to the second year (increased expectations in learning and ability) and the dissertation. These are all key and extra care is needed when transitioning through them.

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