19 SES 08 B, Students, Learning and Engagement Practices
In their classical ethnographic study, Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life (1968), Becker, Geer and Hughes characterised the attitude students develop toward their academic work as the grade point average perspective. The chief feature of this perspective is an emphasis on grades, and, as Becker argues in his introduction to the second edition of Making the Grade in 2003, this perspective has not changed. On the contrary, reflecting on the late transformation of higher education in Europe, namely as a result of the Bologna Process and its impact on evaluations, some authors have come to the conclusion that examinations have received additional importance (Joughin 2009; Kossek & Zwiauer 2012; Teichler 2015). On the one hand, there is a tendency to an “explosive increase of exam elements” in many university courses (Dany et al. 2008: 5). On the other hand, we can speak of “inflated examination demands” (Klomfaß 2014: 131). Despite the importance of grades and passing exams for students’ academic work, there still remains a curious paucity of empirical research that has focussed on the preparation for, and practical accomplishment of university exams. This paper takes this focus, presenting an ethnographic account of students’ practices for exam preparation: What does it mean for students to prepare for, and to pass an exam, and what are the ways they do it?
When, at the beginning of 2016, we started our research, we came upon the phenomenon of the existence of students’ Facebook groups in which students, among others, communicate and share exam relevant information and materials. Some of those materials appear to hint at practices that may be characterised as a ‘grey area’ between what may be called ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ ways of preparing for and passing academic exams. The fact that such groups exist and that moreover, some of them have been created specifically for such purposes excited our curiosity.
That students search for exam relevant information is not new of course. As Becker et al. (2003: 83) point out, students are interested in any information that may affect their grade. They interrogate one another for information: “The information may be passed on in an unofficial tutorial (of the kind fraternities often arrange), it may be taken from a living group’s file of old exams and term papers, or it may be distilled out of the pooled bits of information gathered by a number of students in the same course” (ibid.). There are, of course, other places, such as official tutorials, organized by the teaching faculty, or office hour consultations, where students may get information and advice. Yet, other students are considered, not only as a source of information about the requirements of various courses and professors, but they also may be consulted about how to circumvent those requirements. Becker et al. (2003: 98-100) describe, for example, a practice of “brownnosing”, i.e., getting and using information on instructor’s prejudices and idiosyncrasies in order to raise a grade. In the times of the Internet, students’ Facebook groups seem to have become a new place at which such und other information, may be sought and shared.
While following students’ activities in Facebook groups, we observed students discussing, referring to, and doing different things and actions varying from what might be characterized as ‘illegitimate’ practices of preparing for the upcoming examinations to what Becker et al. (2003) called being rather “on the borderline”. It is the purpose of this paper to look more closely at what is going on there, focusing particularly on the practice of searching for and sharing ‘old exams’.
We examine students’ practices of preparing for examinations within teacher training courses at two German universities. Our analysis is based on ethnographic observations of students’ online communication (posts in Facebook groups) and informal interviews with students and lecturers. The combination of online ethnography (Hine 2015) and offline ethnographic interviews has three important reasons. First, when focussing on students’ online communication, we just follow participants to the places their practices take place (cf., Boellstorff et al. 2012: 118-119). Second, an ethnographic online research on students’ communication in Facebook groups provides unique insights into the informal ways of students’ dealings with academic examination demands and their practices of preparing for exams. Finally, offline ethnographic interviews with both students and lecturers, offer participants’ accounts of how they – differently – view these practices. We collected our online data from 4 Facebook groups. The number of group members varies from 351 to 1.751 members (checked on 15.01.2018). These numbers are not stable. Group sizes increase from semester to semester or even from day to day. At the same time, some of the members leave, or have already left, their group(s) as soon as they, for example, complete their studies at the university (while their posts still remain on the group page). So far, we have collected 350 posts by cutting and saving screenshots of Facebook pages. In all our examples, we changed a) group names; b) names and pseudonyms of the group members; c) names of faculty members; d) details that could be treated as sensitive, i.e., titles of courses of study, examinations, etc.
Focusing on students’ practices of preparing for examinations by using files of ‘old exams’, the paper describes some features of this practice, and it makes visible two alternative perspectives on it – a students’ perspective of using old exams as a ‘reasonable’ way of preparation and a lecturers’ perspective on it as an ‘illegitimate’ way of preparation. The discussion addresses a tension between both perspectives.
Becker, H., Geer, B. & Hughes, E. C. (2003 ). Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life. New York: Wiley. Boellstorff, T., Nardi B., Pearce C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Dany S., Szczyrba B. & J. Wildt (Eds.) (2008). Prüfungen auf die Agenda! Hochschuldidaktische Perspektiven auf Reformen im Prüfungswesen. Bielefeld: Bertelsmann Verlag. Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing. Joughin, G. R. (Eds.) (2009). Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education. Netherlands: Springer. Klomfaß, S. (2014). Der Bologna-Prozess – ein Angriff auf den deutschen Königsweg? Ein Blick auf den Hochschulzugang in Deutschland unter den Bedingungen der Europäischen Bildungsreform. In Ricken, N., Koller, H-Ch., & Keiner, E. (Hrsg.), Die Idee der Universität – revisited (pp. 127-141). Wiesbaden: Springer VS. Kossek, B. & Zwiauer, Ch. (Hrsg.) (2012). Universität in Zeiten von Bologna. Zur Theorie und Praxis von Lehr- und Lernkulturen. Wien: Vienna University Press. Teichler, U. (2015). The Future of Higher Education: A View Reflecting the State and the Tasks of Higher Education Research. In P. Zgaga, U. Teichler, H. G. Schuetze, & A. Wolter (Eds.), Higher Education Reform: Looking Back – Looking Forward (pp. 29-48). Frankfurt am Main; New York: Peter Lang.
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