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What is the purpose of studying?

A student at a desk with books and a laptop

Should it all be about passing the exam?

Historically an educator’s role has been to get students through their exams, and the importance of this cannot be understated. At the end of the day, a student needs to pass their exams in order to obtain their qualification.

But what if a student is unable to relate the knowledge they acquire in order to pass their exam to their day-to-day work? Being able to apply their knowledge in this way is key to meeting employers’ and clients’ expectations of a tuition provider – if a trainee can’t do this it is debatable whether the qualification was worth the effort.

For a student to be able to effectively apply their knowledge in their workplace, they must fully understand the subject matter. This requires a deeper level of understanding as opposed to surface level rote learning, and this takes more time and more effort in order to achieve.

Herein lies the problem. Whilst being able to perform in the workplace is something all employers will be attracted by, students are motivated purely by exam success. They see this as their only short-term goal, and are understandably reluctant to invest time in any activity that is not entirely directed at helping them achieve that goal.

The benefits of developing a deeper understanding.

In order to motivate students towards developing a deeper understanding, they need to appreciate the ‘WIIFM’ (what’s in it for me) in relation to their short-term aims of passing their exams as well as their longer-term career goals.

The good news is that in addition to becoming more employable, a deeper understanding will also lead to an increased chance of exam success as it enables students to better adapt to the scenarios presented in the exam. One of the dangers of surface-level learning is the limited range of situations in which that knowledge can be demonstrated. By more fully understanding the subject matter, students are able to flex their knowledge, working through the implications of different factors in order to deduce the correct answer. They are better able to cope with a slight variation in exam style or a ‘curve ball’ question.

How do we develop a deeper understanding?

Deeper understanding can be developed in a number of ways.

Case studies

Case studies can help show how knowledge can be used in real life. By providing context, students are better able to appreciate why a process is needed or how a piece of information could be used. Case studies also allow students to see how different parts of a syllabus fit together so they can see the bigger picture.

Flipped classroom

Another way is through a ‘flipped classroom’ approach. Often people associate the term ‘flipped classroom’ with getting students to do more work at home. This isn’t necessarily true.

In a traditional classroom, the tutor conveys knowledge to students, the students may make some notes and together they may work through some brief examples. For homework, the student is often set some longer questions for them to practise applying their knowledge. The big problem with this scenario is that the tutor might never get to find out how well a student has taken to a subject and whether they have gained the knowledge they need.

In a flipped classroom, the homework is performed up-front when the student acquires some of the basic knowledge via text books or some form of online learning. Then, in the classroom, the tutor can work to embed that knowledge and can set questions allowing them to assess how well each student is getting on. Questions of varying difficulty can be given to students based on their rate of progress. This ability to differentiate the experience for each student allows tuition providers to better support each student individually to ensure they have the understanding they require.

Employability gap

Being able to apply the knowledge gained from studying is one aspect of building a successful career. The other is having the necessary softer skills to operate in a professional environment.

The so-called ’employability gap’ is a hot topic for educators and employers alike. Employers frequently claim that newly employed graduates or apprentices do not have the necessary basic skills or experience to be able to work effectively. Professional bodies are also concerned and understandably the argument is raging over who should take responsibility for developing these skills within workers – is it the educator, the employer or both?

Employers are increasingly turning to educators to help bridge the gap, and there is no reason why this can’t be achieved. A good understanding of exactly what skills employers are looking for, coupled with an innovative yet effective approach to education, means students can gain much more than a qualification as they study. For example, by adapting the learning process to include more group activities and collaborative work, you not only allow the student to more effectively gain knowledge, you also develop skills such as communication and teamwork.

As the expectations of employers have moved beyond just a qualification, a smart student must recognise the importance of differentiating themselves, and must demand more from their educators than simple knowledge alone.


Zoe Robinson is Head of Accountancy Product at Kaplan Financial. Zoe has taught courses towards ICAEW, ACCA and CIMA exams, primarily in case study style, business strategy and financial strategy papers.