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Latin Language Teaching and The Student Experience

Students are arriving to study Latin at university with an increasingly diverse range of qualifications (including no Latin at all). This is something to celebrate. University Classics departments want students from different educational backgrounds; and we want a wide range of qualification authorities to continue to offer students the chance to start learning Latin at school. This diversity is being exacerbated, however, by an increasingly stark differential in the content and rigour of these various qualifications; and that presents challenges for universities aiming to integrate students quickly and acclimatise them to university-style learning. Classes in all subjects have more and less knowledgeable students learning side-by-side; but the dynamics of a Latin language class mean that gaps in knowledge and differences in experience become publicly visible very quickly. This is thus a social problem as much as it is an academic one, and it is particularly acute during that important period of transition, the first year of university study. This trend is not exclusive to the teaching of Latin but has also been a recurring theme of discussion within Modern Languages too, particularly in Scottish universities where the percentage of non-A-level students is higher than is generally the case south of the border. 

The Latin department at the University of St Andrews has been working to address this challenge for some time, and in the autumn of 2012 the leaders of this project (Drs Emma Buckley and Alice König) embarked on a three-year research project to examine more systematically the different educational backgrounds of students from the major English (AS/A-level), Scottish (Higher/Advanced Higher), European (International Baccalaureate) and North American (Advanced Placement) school systems. As a Scottish university department, part of our brief was to look particularly closely into the experience of Scottish students, but our findings have implications for the teaching of Latin in universities across the UK and beyond. Our objective was not simply to detect the main linguistic strengths and weaknesses of our various cohorts of students but also more systematically to pinpoint the ‘gaps’ between the school and university Latin-learning experience, with a view to offering more targeted support. 

By means of questionnaires and diagnostic tests, we assessed the linguistic strengths and weaknesses (real and perceived) of students from different educational backgrounds at entry to the first year; we also monitored their learning, self-perception and performance in their second, third and fourth years. We have consulted widely with school teachers, university lecturers and qualifications authorities, and have discussed our findings at a number of conferences and workshops. The results of our research have enabled us to review our teaching and assessment practices across all four years of our Latin and Classics degree programmes so that we can better support and integrate a wide variety of students. It has also aided our efforts to integrate ‘Beginners’ Latin students with their ‘Advanced’ counterparts from the second year onwards. As well as supporting students at St Andrews, we have come up with a series of recommendations that are more widely applicable across the UK and beyond. Above all, we underline the need for better communication (via workshops, inset days and other outreach events) between school teachers, university lecturers and qualifications authorities. Our report (authored jointly by Emma Buckley, Alice König and Ana Kotarcic) will be published in the Journal of Classics Teaching in April 2017.

In November 2016 Emma Buckley and Alice König were both awarded McCall MacBain teaching awards for this project, in recognition of their outstanding contributions to research-led teaching. The bursaries that come with these awards will fund some follow-on activities, designed to enhance dialogue and collaboration between the different sectors involved in Latin language teaching at school and university. For more information, please contact the project leaders. 

Project team

Project leaders

Other Contributors

  • Mary Woodcock-Kroble (School of Classics IT Officer)
  • Ana Kotarcic (Postgraduate Research Assistant)

This project was funded by the University of St Andrews’ Strategic Enhancement of Learning Fund (SELF), administered by CAPOD (Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development). It was also generously supported by the School of Classics at St Andrews, with active involvement from many St Andrews colleagues. Particular mention should be made of Jason König, Nikoletta Manioti, Roger Rees and Irene Paulton; and, of course, the many undergraduate students who sat diagnostic tests and completed questionnaires for us. During our research we corresponded regularly with colleagues teaching Latin in other UK Classics departments, and particularly with colleagues at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; especial thanks are due to Prof. Catherine Steel, Prof. Gavin Kelly and Dr Calum Maciver. We are grateful to the many school teachers north and south of the border who have taken an interest, answered queries, filled in questionnaires and attended workshops; particularly to Edmund Faulkes, Carlijn Findlater, Andrew Lang, Wendy Main, Alan Milligan, Charlie Nicholls, George Pounder and Jennifer Shearer. We would also like to thank Jan Stipek, Curriculum Manager for the group 2 IB Diploma programme, who helped with research information; and Alex Orgee, in charge of the OCR Classics Consultative Forum, who allowed us to distribute questionnaires and consult with teachers and lecturers during policy meetings 2013-2016.

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