Brief Description

The purpose of this project is to produce a good practice guide for first-year curricula in English undergraduate programmes. The guide will incorporate aspects of current practice from a range of Higher Education institutions in England, together with a working model proposed by the authors. There can be no prescriptive guides for all English departments, however, and the model will be intended to show one possible implementation only of the observed practices. It will be accompanied by a rationale, drawing upon such criteria as subject benchmarks, FHEQ and student survey questionnaires.

First –year curricula are particularly important to universities for several reasons. Whereas the ‘traditional’ first-year programme of study is to acculturate students to the study of established or canonical disciplines, the contemporary curriculum has to fulfil broader functions. This can be attributed to a number of determining factors: the different backgrounds of the students that universities increasingly recruit (mature students, students with non-traditional qualifications, students recruited through clearing etc); the diversifying aims of English programmes at universities (for example, responding to initiatives on employability or an emphasis in interdisciplinarity); the nature of the teaching-learning environment (typically trying to balance a variety of delivery modes in the context of increasing staff-student ratios and a commitment to personalised ‘customer’ care); and the need to actively recruit as opposed to selecting students. English programmes in contemporary universities thus have to offer an attractive curriculum (in terms of the flexibility of study for example) to recruit students and have to take a more fundamental view of ‘preparation’ and a more proactive attitude to ‘support’ in order to ensure the retention and progression of students through the degree programme.

Aims and Objectives

The main aim of the project is to propose a model (in the form of a good practice guide) for a first-year English undergraduate curriculum and to offer a rationale for its adoption based on the particularity of the teaching-learning environment at a new university (Derby), together with guidance on its relevance to the sector as a whole. To do this we are;

  1. Investigating current practices, both at new and old universities, in the teaching of the first-year curriculum and identifying the pedagogic rationale for such curriculum design. One avenue of enquiry has been to determine whether or not different kinds of institutions (new and old) already adopt different practices based on their identification of student needs and the resources of the department/ institution. Thus far, while some differences here are apparent, they are far outweighed by a commonality of issues and practices.
  2. Surveying staff attitudes to determine whether they perceive current practice as adequate to the needs of their students (in terms of their prior attainment and in terms of preparing them for the degree programme) and a rational use of staff time. A typical issue here has been the transition from A level to undergraduate study and how this should be managed. Andrew Green’s report for the ESC, ‘Four Perspectives on transition: English Literature from Sixth Form to University’ has been a very useful informing document in this regard.

This research is enabling us to build on existing good practice and will begin to draft out and justify a model for a first-year curriculum. More broadly, we feel that there are shared concerns regarding the construction of first-year curricula and syllabi that have yet to be fully articulated and that this project is providing an opportunity to share existing practice across the sector. In this respect, we have become drawn into an increasingly crucial set of questions facing English departments in Britain, such as: what do we mean by ‘preparedness’ for university study? What minimum qualifications can we require to deem a student ‘qualified’ to enter HE? In relation to the preparedness of students, what should be the learning outcomes of a first-year curriculum? What part has ‘academic writing’ support in the content curriculum? What kinds of literary critical and literary theoretical perspectives are appropriate or necessary for students to grasp by the end of the first year? How do the aims and purposes of a first-year curriculum at a new university differ from the traditional disciplinary curriculum (in terms of coverage, texts studied, skills and aptitudes acquired) and what shared lessons can be derived from this?

Such questions are already framing the debates about the shape of English 21. More immediately, they should contribute to supportive and flexible preparatory year curricula that enhance the attractiveness of the subject to potential students, an outcome of importance for those departments that have to compete for students with other subject areas.

Methodology

The project proposed a two-stage process of information-gathering prior to the authorship of the good practice guide.

Stage 1 has consisted of an investigation into existing practices in the sector, obtained through individual subject-based websites (frequently used as an advertising tool for prospective students). This has enabled us to achieve an overview of current practices in the construction of first year curricula and to determine whether there are common features which might suggest skills or competences considered essential to the Subject, and whether such features differ within characteristic groupings of HEIs. This overview has then been related against QAA subject benchmarks.

In Stage 2, the conclusions reached through Stage 1 has been taken into a closer investigation into practices at 8-10 universities, including Derby. These more detailed considerations have focused upon the rationale and perceived results of first year curricula in consultation with members of the academic staff. In doing so, they have also touched upon issues such as the deployment of essential or core components in relation to free electives (if any), the existence of any recent or anticipated modifications to the syllabus and their rationale, an assessment of what practices have proved successful in terms of attracting students and/or in achieving programme aims and outcomes. They have also identified a number of individual initiatives by English departments that respond to local needs (which may potentially be quite widespread) and which (if any) of these have been highlighted during Quality Assurance exercises.

These considerations have then fed into the construction of questionnaires distributed to students aimed at identifying issues such as the initial attractiveness and comparative importance of curricula in determining choice of institution/programme and also the perceived success in first year curricula in preparing students for Years 2 and 3 of their degree. Canvassing and evaluating students’ opinions can be problematic, but initial work has currently being carried out at the University of Derby and amended practice might be rolled out to willing departments in other universities.

Rationale

This proposed project was stimulated by the process of programme revalidation at Derby during 2003/4 and then a subsequent Developmental Engagement by the QA in November 2004. In scrutinising, and then defending the (comparatively generous) provision here, we found we were debating issues that clearly had an application beyond our own institution with regard to core competences and knowledges and their correlation to local and national initiatives on widening participation, writing support etc. Such issues were also clearly linked to the constraints of recruitment, retention and resources (our new ‘3 Rs’) that we felt would also be present across the sector. Consequently, we felt that there were shared concerns regarding the construction of first year syllabi which had not been fully articulated and that this presented an opportunity to share existing practices and experiences across the sector in a manner which would enhance the attractiveness of the subject nationally, without aiming for developments which would be relevant to Derby alone.

Expertise

David Ellis has recently completed projects related to e-learning developments in English curricula, a writing support scheme and an on-line language skills analysis tool for English students. He has already received future funding confirmation for developing website design as a mode of assessment for English students and is currently also involved in research relating to key skill analysis within the School of Arts, Design and Technology at Derby University.

Similar Work

The QA subject benchmarks have provided a lot of valuable guidance in defining the concerns of English studies and looking at outcomes by level. There is also very helpful material in the ESC back catalogue and on the QCA website,http://www.qca.org.uk/11775.html.

Products

A good practice guide will be the most beneficial outcome, as no single syllabus has universal application. Rather, linking core concerns to established practice and QA guidelines, together with case studies of success in other institutions and a breakdown of the student survey will provide a valuable resource for academics seeking to place their own departmental deliberations into a national context. This guide will be made available for wide dissemination. The primary data gathered through the survey of current first year curricula, and the results of staff and student questionnaires will also be expressed in a format suitable for distribution both in hard copy and via the internet.

Benefits

The project is intended to concern itself with national concerns relating to student recruitment and retention as well as issues of core curricula and subject benchmarks. Consequently, it is drawing upon the experience of a range of institutions nationally, and will make those experiences available to the academic community. The research team would like to thank those individuals and institutions who have already donated their time and expertise to this project.

Project leader

David Ellis
Department of English
University of Wolverhampton (Formerly Derby)

Report

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