Confused about University, I am – Training V Education

Birmingham Uni

Birmingham University

Last month students across the UK would have received those all important exam results informing them if they have been awarded the grades necessary to get into the university of their choice. It’s easy to get caught up in this process seeing it as the end goal rather than part of a journey, I speak with some degree of experience. But how will the lucky ones judge if the next three years will be worth it. What does a university education give you……surely it’s more than a ticket to the next stage in the game i.e. Go to university-get a good job.

Training or education

We may find some of the answers by taking a closer look at the distinction between education and training. I thought finding a definition of education would be easy, yet many referred to it as being something obtained from going to School, College or University and I was looking for a more insightful observation. The business dictionary of all places seemed to offer a little more along these lines – The wealth of knowledge acquired by an individual after studying particular subject matters or experiencing life lessons that provide an understanding of something.

Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave”
Lord Henry Brougham

Training proved a little easier to pin down. Here a couple of definitions – The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour (Oxford dictionary) and The process of bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practice and instruction. (Collins)

Still not clear, this might help – “If your sixteen year old daughter told you that she was going to take a sex education course at college, you might be pleased. But if she said she was going to take part in some sex training you might have something to say?”

Training and employability

BCU formerly Birmingham Polytechnic

Training is relatively narrow and largely relates to developing skills and ending up with the ability to do something. This is most closely linked to employability. Employers don’t want students who know things, they want students who can do things. But is this what a university education should be about , is it the place that simply prepares students for work?

This was much easier to answer when Polytechnics existed. These were “educational” institutions that focused on STEM subjects and had close ties with industry. They however lacked degree awarding powers and invested little in research so were seen a poor relatives of the then university. But there was little doubt as to what their objectives were.


This is not a plea to bring back Polytechnics, although it doesn’t seem such a bad idea does it? No its more about the confusion that exits’ as to what employers want, what students expect and who universities think they are. Are they educational establishments or training grounds for the next generation of employees?

Maybe they can be both but if identities are not made clear soon, those students who have worked so hard to get into the university of their choice may find themselves disappointed with what they end up with.

More quotes about education 

For the pragmatist – A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole rail road.Theodore Roosevelt

Its about learning how to think – The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And you cant go wrong with MT – Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty. Mark Twain

Staying the course – commitment

Mo-Farah-EthiopiaYesterday Brendan Foster described Mo Farah as the greatest sportsman Britain has ever had. You may of course disagree, it’s probably one of those conversations best left to have in the pub, I am sure there are many worthy contenders. Farah responded modestly by saying that because we have so many great sportsman simply being put in the “great” category was amazing. He nominated his greats, David Beckham, Sir Alex Fergusson and Sir Steve Redgrave.

Watch Mo win the 5,000 meter gold at the world athletics championship 2015.

I have to confess to knowing little about sport or in fact having much interest, but what has always impressed and inspired me is the level of commitment successful sportsmen and women have. I have written in the past about Sir Steve Redgrave who won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics. How do you do that, how do you get up every morning and work towards a goal that is four years away, every day for 25 years?

Mandy Monday – procrastination

Start MondayMandy is a weight watcher character who promises to start her diet on Monday, in the interest of gender equality I am sure there is a male equivalent let’s call him Marty. Of course Monday never comes and so although Mandy sort of commits to Monday she constantly puts it off, choosing to do “other things” in preference. Initially this seems like you are delaying the pain in favour of the pleasure but I am not sure delaying something that is in your best interest is pleasurable? Pleasure implies satisfaction and I don’t think you feel satisfaction, probably more like relief.

Exams – you need to commit

It can be like this with studying and exams. Very few students want to sit an exam, its hard work, stressful and you might fail. So if you were given a choice when to sit the exam when would it be, Monday?

In fact delaying an exam can feel perfectly logical and rational. This is how the internal conversation might sound. “I have to sit this exam and it’s not going to be easy, to pass you need to know everything. There is no point sitting the exam if I am not 100% ready, an athlete wouldn’t enter a race if they weren’t 100% fit, it’s like that for me. The best thing to do is sit the exam in another month, another month is all I need, then I will be ready.

The million dollar question is do you ever feel ready?

On demand exams – Set the date and stick to it

If the exam was once every four years my guess would be that most students would not put the exam off, can you imagine waiting another four years? But when an exam is on demand and its left to the individual when you have to take the exam, you never have to commit. At the back of your mind you know that you can always delay. This means you never made the commitment in the first place.

But how to commit – Take a calendar and pick the date you want to finish all of your exams, when you want to qualify, write it down. Then list out all the exams you have to pass to get there, set dates for these and write them down as well. Put them on a wall chart, electronic calendar, even post them on Facebook, they cannot change. These dates are no longer in your control; you have passed that to someone else and in so doing have made the commitment to yourself. Go on do it now!

And finally an antidote to exams

Not anti school, but pro education – If you have not seen any of these spoken word videos – watch this one. Why I hate school but love education, you will not be disappointed.

Ps if you like the no add video check out quite tube.

“You never fail until you stop trying.” – Toms story

The young Tom - inspiring us even then

The young Tom – inspiring us even then

I am not sure when I first met Tom but it was certainly early on in his studies. Tom was not your typical accountancy student, he was slightly older and perhaps more reflective, the two points may be related. Students studying for professional accountancy exams are probably around 25 and focused very much on looking forward, not back.

Tom started his exam journey in November 2009, his first 2 papers went well and he passed them first time. You need to pass 10 exams broken down over three levels if you want to become a member of the Chartered Institute of management accountants (CIMA).  Boosted by this Tom decided to sit the next 4 papers all at once, something he now thinks was a mistake, he passed just the one. By the end of 2011 however he had passed the other 3. That was 6 papers and two levels complete, Tom was back on track.

“Even though the ship may go down, the journey goes on.” – Margaret Mead

2012 was not a great year for Tom on a personal level which almost certainly had an impact on his performance in the exam room. As a result the whole of that year went by with only one exam success. Between 2012 and 2013 Tom sat one of the remaining papers three times and the other one six times, to quote Tom, that’s six, count them 1…..2….3…..4…..5…..6….. He finally passed that paper in November 2013.

It’s probably worth pausing at this point, how would you feel if you sat an exam twice and failed, let alone 6 times. At this stage your biggest enemy is your own mental attitude. You begin to question your ability, your intelligence and even your choice of career. On top of this is the boredom and stress of having to study the same exam over and over again, trying to do something different, fearing if you don’t you will get the same result. And of course as many of you will know when you are studying your life is on hold, making decisions about work, family/friends is difficult as you need to put your studies first.

In fact Tom did consider giving up, but there were two reasons he didn’t. One the support of his teacher, Maryla who remained positive throughout whilst working with Tom on what he needed to do to improve, and two Toms stubborn attitude, his determination and desire to get something good from all the hard work he had put in so far. To quote Tom, “all I kept thinking was I have lost so much because of this bloody course I have to get something positive from it.” When Tom finally passed that paper he felt excited, and as if he had slain a personal demon.

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Ward

With only one paper to go Tom was still to face a number of challenges, and it was far from plain sailing.  Knowing a large amount of detail was essential for the earlier papers, now it was all about the big picture, prioritisation and time management.

He was told that gaining the qualification would open doors … So he imagined an open door, on the other side were green fields, money, cars, holidays, being the boss. This focus really helped motivate him to see it through. He passed his last exam on the 29th of May 2015.

It had taken Tom 6 years, in which he had sat in the exam room approximately 22 times. This is not the story of someone who always knew he would pass, destined for success nor of a naturally gifted student who simply needed the right motivation to bring out his talent. This is about what you can achieve if you are willing to make sacrifices, give everything you have and learn from failure.

Congratulations Tom you deserve your success.


A Nostradamus moment – Predicting learning in the future

Top-5-Nostradamus-Predictions-That-Came-TrueLast year along with a colleague I looked into some of the key trends that were shaping the world of Professional Education. The result was the production of a Learning Strategy completed in December 2014. The document highlighted some of what we thought might impact our organisation in the future. Taking the technologies, attitudes and resources of today and guessing how they might change is certainly brave, possibly foolish, but reading what others think is always interesting.

Tomorrow I will be visiting the Digital Education show in Earls Court; guest speakers include Sugata Mitra, Richard Gerver and Sir Ken Robinson. The topics up for debate are current, wide reaching and of course equally prophetic.  Add to this the publication of the 2015 Horizon higher education report and you get an irresistible mix of views on the future, some of which I have highlighted below.

The measurement of learning will increase

Good teachers have always tracked student performance. It may have been in their head, summarised at the end of term in the form of a report but measuring student performance is certainly not new. The difference is now the results are more public, displayed in league tables showing winners and losers. In addition we have data not just on one student but thousands and once you have data, big data in fact, you analyse it, learning analytics is born. This allows you to make recommendations for improvement and predictions based on the observed trends and patterns. Given that new technologies make the gathering of data relatively easy, measuring student performance and the methods by which they learn will only increase.

All classroom courses will become a blend

The genie is out of the bottle, learning in a classroom complimented by the use of instructionally sound online resources offers so many benefits. It enables a more personalised learning experience, makes effective use of student time outside the classroom and is often mobile resulting in greater convenience.  It is hard to see why you would ever have just classroom only courses again. Yet not all courses are a blend or to be precise although they have online resources they are little more than a classroom course with some online PDF’s or links that are not used due to poor quality, relevance or support from the teacher, so we still have some way to go.

Informal learning will emerge from the shadows

So wrong!

So wrong!

Informal learning or as it sometimes called student/curiosity led learning has always existed but is now more easily recognised. Teachers and educators are also beginning to invest time into using it more effectively.  Once again technology is playing an important role by making knowledge more accessible and facilitating greater collaboration via online forums and social networks.

Video is an incredibly successful example of social learning, it’s hard to imagine but YouTube didn’t exist before 2005, that’s only 10 years ago. It now has 1 billion users, 300 hours’ of video are uploaded every minute and is available in 61 languages. A very practical example of learning with video can be found by clicking the banana – trust me you won’t be disappointed.

And that’s just three

I could equally have mentioned:

  • More money will be spent on personalisation and adaptive technologies
  • Greater acceptance of BYOD – your own devise that you take from home to class to work
  • Wearable learning technologies – think how wearable sports devices have expanded recently
  • Internet of things (IoT) – a network of connected objects that link the physical world with the world of information through the web could provide a wealth of new ways of learning

How did I do?

A similar blog from 2011


Blended – taking responsibility for your own learning

Taking responsibilityBlended course programmes are here to stay. The idea that studying comprises of both time in the classroom with others and time learning on your own using online or even traditional learning materials is certainly not new. Of course the purist will argue that blended learning has to or exclusively use online materials rather than a text book – no matter.

This blog is not about blended learning, more the implications of what studying on blended programmes means i.e. you have to study on your own and as a result take responsibility for how you learn.

Instructor led – easier

In a traditional classroom the teacher (instructor) stands at the front of the classroom and leads the learning. They tell you what to learn, when to learn, even how to learn.  They also dictate the pace and mood of the delivery. There is of course nothing wrong with this and many students really value it, in fact it’s their preferred method of learning. Of course its far from perfect, not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way, but let’s put that debate, or blog aside for another day.

With a blended programme the student has to leave the security of the classroom and enter the world of self managed learning (SML).

Student led (SML) -harder but more effective

Self managed learning gives the student great power, they can study what they want, perhaps not the subject matter but certainly the order, when they want, how they want etc. However as Spiderman* once said, with great power comes great responsibility. You now have to take responsibility for the result. This means if something doesn’t make sense it’s not the teacher’s fault it’s yours!

Its perhaps even more basic than that, you are also responsible for how long you spend studying, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. You can study on a Monday or Wednesday, or just the weekend. You can study for one hour or for 20 minutes. And there lies the problem, when it’s up to the individual a lot of people take the easy way out, the route of least resistance and put it off for another day.

However when you do take responsibility, the quality of the learning is significantly improved. Listening to the teacher is easy but not always that effective. The SMLearner has to set goals, monitor their performance and finally reflect, how well did they do compared with how well they thought they would? It is partly this process that makes the learning so good, but it will feel harder.

How to be a SML

These may all be worth covering in more detail in another blog but for now think of this as a check list.

  • Use a timetable – Google calendar is great for this. Put in all your key dates including exactly what you will do e.g. read chapters one to three – make notes – answer question 2,3 and 4.
  • Have a place to learn. This might seem obvious but you need somewhere that is quiet, plenty of space, good lighting, with little distraction. Perhaps most important is that you know that when you are in this room you feel ready to study.
  • Read carefully, I have written on this before. Underline key points as you go. Don’t just read, you have to think as well.
  • Make notes, even if you have pre- prepared ones. Once again I have written on the best way to do this. If you are following an e learning module make notes as you work through the online guidance.
  • Listen to your internal dialogue. When you are working alone just make sure that what you are saying to yourself is positive. Remember this is not about telling yourself everything will be fine, it’s about moving forward e.g. I just don’t understand this, what I need to do is read it again perhaps from another book.

Taking responsibility

Want to find out more about taking responsibility for learning – watch video 1video 2video 3. They are all less than three minutes long and well worth it.

PS *Of course Spiderman can’t really talk it was Stan Lee the writer of Spiderman, although Franklin D Roosevelt and others have also been quoted as saying this or something similar.


Election special – who has had the best education?

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life


uk-politiciansInspired by the election and the personalities that have been thrust upon us during the run up to next Thursdays vote, I thought it might be interesting to look at the academic backgrounds of those that have ambition to be Prime Minster. It might even give you some help in choosing who to vote for.

The contenders

8761f28.jpgDavid Cameron – born 1966 – David William Donald Cameron was bought up in Peasemore, Berkshire his father was a stockbroker and mother a retired Justice of the Peace. He attended Heatherdown Preparatory School (12 O levels – 4 A’s, 5 B’s, a C and 2 below C) before moving to Eton, the school that can boast 19 past British Prime Ministers. After A levels (3 A grades) he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1988 with a first in philosophy, politics and economics.


Ed MilibandEd Miliband – born 1969 – Edward Samuel Miliband went to Haverstock Comprehensive School (Labours Eton), North London. His father, a Polish Jew, was one of the leading Marxist theorists of his generation. His mother, Marion Kozak, is a long-standing human rights campaigner. After completing his A Levels (A,A,B,B) he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, gaining a 2:1 and later Economics at the London School of Economics where he received his MSc.


The King makers

Nick CleggNick Clegg – born 1967 – Nicholas William Peter Clegg was raised in Buckinghamshire by his Dutch mother, a special needs teacher and his half Russian father, Nicholas P Clegg CBE, the chairman of united trust bank. Clegg was educated at two independent schools, Caldecott School in Farnham Royal in South Buckinghamshire, and later at Westminster School in Central London. He went on to study Social Anthropology at Cambridge (2:1) and continued post graduate studies at University of Minnesota through a scholarship where he wrote a thesis on the political philosophy of the Deep Green movement. He then went to the College of Europe in Bruges for his Masters.

Nigel FarageNigel Farage – born 1964 – Nigel Paul Farage grew up in the Kent village of Downe. His father, Guy Justus Oscar Farage, was a stockbroker and heavy drinker left the family home when he was five. He was educated at Greenhayes School for Boys in West Wickham, then Eden park before joining  Dulwich College (The Dulwich experiment)  an independent public school in south London. After A levels he decided not to go to university, but to work in the City, trading commodities at the London Metal Exchange.

Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon – born 1970 – Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon is the eldest of three daughters born to Robert Sturgeon, an electrician, and Joan Kerr Sturgeon a dental nurse. She grew up in Prestwick and Dreghorn and attended Dreghorn Primary School and then Greenwood Academy. She later studied at the University of Glasgow, where she read Law and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and a Diploma in Legal Practice.


And the winner is………

By most people’s standards all our candidates had a very good education, progressed academically and enjoyed school life. In addition, with the exception of Nigel Farage whose father left when he was 5, all have had full parental support.

Some statistics-In 1981 around the time David Cameron was taking his O levels only 25% of students got 5+ GCSE O levels, and around 10% went on to gain 3 A level passes. In 2014 (admittedly many years later – but it will give us an idea) Oxford received 17,000 applications for 3,200 places, that’s a 5% chance of being accepted.  So Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all stand out. Farage and Sturgeon are clearly well educated but do not have such a strong academic background.

Not a political statement but

Overall for me the person who has had the “best” education is Nick Clegg. David Cameron and to a lesser extent Ed Miliband have had a rather insular academic journey. But Clegg went to Cambridge, then travelled to the US and Europe to study, which must have broadened his views, exposing him to the opinions and cultures of other students, many with different backgrounds . And in second place I would probably go for Nigel Farage, yes I did say Nigel Farage, not the man you understand, but as a good A level student he went into the world of work, the university of life argument.

PS – The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major famously left his comprehensive school, Rutlish, in London with three O-Levels: history, English language and English literature.


Playing the game – Tips for answering objective tests


Which is the real logo?

Objective tests (OT’s) are becoming increasingly popular.

There are many reasons for this; educationally one of the big advantages is because, they are objective i.e. the mark is accurate, it’s either right or wrong.

It may come as a surprise to some students but when people mark there will be a slight (we hope) difference, its called marker bias.

The more cynical might argue that the examining body introduces them to simply save money. Whatever the justification students will find OT’s being used more frequently, at all levels and so need to be prepared.

But OT’s must be easier?

Answering a question like…. which one of the following best explains how a car engine works a-b-c-d, must be easier than writing/typing an answer explaining how a car engine works – right?

Well perhaps not, what if all of the answers are plausible? Think of the mental process you go through trying to distinguish between them, digging deep into your understating, looking for a word in the question that might give a clue, might help you narrow down your options. And even if you do narrow them down to let us say, 50:50, there are no method marks, it’s either right or wrong; it’s 50% of a full mark or 50% of no mark. The student answering the written question is unlikely to get no marks at all even on a question they don’t really understand.

Personally I think OT questions are more difficult from a student’s perspective but very useful for examining bodies as part of the assessment process. But they should only be part of that assessment process; other types of assessment should also be used.

Playing the OT game – Tips

But what can be done, how can you improve your chances of passing OT’s?

Well there are the simple things like, make sure you read the question carefully. This is much easier if it is a paper based test where you can underline exactly what you have been asked to do. I have written in the past about the importance of underlining. It helps the brain focus on what is important and what is not.  This is made much harder when the OT questions are on the screen. In these circumstances I would suggest you write out the key words on a pad or white board.multiple-choice marriage'

Answer the questions you can answer first and leave the longer more debatable questions until the end, and follow the advice of Ludy T. Benjamin, et. al (1984). She identified you are better changing your original answer to another one if you doubt it. This is very much the opposite of conventional wisdom that suggests the first answer you come up with is probably correct. But be careful, this is only if you doubt your original answer. The argument being that when looking at the question a second time you can tell something isn’t right and so will spend more time on the question than before, changing to a more plausible one.

There are some more sophisticated techniques that can help reduce the odds, I have summarised them below. Many of these I have borrowed from a more comprehensive article written by a colleague, John Bennett – thanks John.

  • Distracters – these are questions that contain an answer very similar to the real one and are often plausible. The technique is to cover up all the answers, so that they don’t distract, work out what you think the answer is, then reveal. Hopefully your answer will be in the list.
  • Go for the long answers – William Poundstone author of “Rock Breaks Scissors” noticed that the longest answer on multiple choice tests was usually correct. “Examiners have to make sure that right answers are indisputably right,” he says. “Often this demands some qualifying language. They may not try so hard with wrong answers.”
  • Eliminate the outliersAnother Poundstone tip is to look out for one of the answers that is very different to the others, and if you find the outlier it’s probably wrong. So for example if you had 4 numerical answers a£0.46 – b£0.54 – c£0.55 – d£1.60. The outlier in this sequence of numbers is d and is unlikely to be correct. It doesn’t of course give you the answer but it will at least improve your odds.
  • Find opposites – An easy one next, where two answers are exact opposites, the answer is more likely to be one of those two.
  • Look out for general words – The University of Minnesota identified that the question that use general words such as, mostly, possibly, often, usually, will “often” be the correct one.  This is because when an examiner wants to write an incorrect answer they will be far more specific e.g. it will NEVER rain on Friday as opposed to Friday is OFTEN the wettest day of the week.
  • Negative worded questionswhen questions ask which of the following is NOT true mark off the ones that ARE true first. The brain struggles to recognise negatives, so you need to put the question in terms of positives, what it is as appose to what it is not.

There are of course more techniques but you don’t want to enter the exam worrying more about the techniques than the exam itself.

And don’t forget hard work – exam tips only stop you failing

And as you would expect me to say, these tips only help you play the game better, hard work, studying and practising questions are far more important.

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