I used to spend many hours in a season refereeing for my son’s rugby team. I enjoyed it and felt that I was better positioned than others to undertake this role (given my experience as a player, a coach and a teacher). Every game the players would tell me things that I might have missed and my fellow parents would often be seen raising hands in exasperation when they thought I might have missed something. Indeed, when I watch others referee, I am very much the same. My reply to this is often that if I blew for everything that I saw, every marginal decision and every nuance of the rules then the game would fall apart.

I guess this also happens in my teaching. I have standards and expectations in my work and when I teach, I am looking to educate my students (those that are now in university, such as the pre-service teachers I work with) not only in the theory and practice of physical education but also in the realities of being taught by me. When I am asked to observe colleagues or when they observe me, we see different things (see last week’s blog) because we have different expectations.

The thing that we don’t always appreciate is that the students we teach are also learning about our standards and expectations as well. Furthermore, they have been learning these lessons from every single teacher they have ever had. Like a poker player looking for the ‘shows’ of their opponents, our students learn to find our negotiables and non-negotiables when it comes to teaching and learning. Once they have this knowledge, they can then use it to better navigate our sessions and pass the course and gain their degree to move onto the next step.

They form study groups and share key texts. They proofread each other’s work and develop a sense of understanding that mirrors their teachers. For me, my students probably learn to say that Cooperative Learning is good and direct instruction is bad. For others they will love athletics or gymnastics or research methods just to paint a picture of the model student. They learn where the short cuts are - he takes a register and she doesn’t, or she allows no absenteeism from her sessions while he will allow three before I get in trouble - and play on them. I remember on my PGCE having an education lecture on a Wednesday morning with someone I had never met before or would never see again. As a cohort we learnt that if a quarter of us went to the session and signed the rest in we needed only to meet up at the half way point (10.30am), exchange key information and then we could all attend the seminars and ‘get away with it.’ We got away with it and so we kept doing it. I got my PGCE and it was a lot easier to attend one lecture in four rather than four in four.

The question this raises is, should we be surprised when our students do it to us and are we even aware of it? Have we become blind to it because we are adults or are we still using the same tricks with regards to our own work? I think, if we are honest, then we have our lines drawn in the sand and as long as they are not crossed then we tolerate some of the gamesmanship that our students bring to our lessons. 

The Paper

Graber explores an interesting, and I would suggest still under researched, area of university physical education teacher education (PETE) programmes: The art of being a student. Like many before, and after, the paper suggests that students learn how to be students from very early on in their school careers. Graber suggests that well before formal training as PE teachers our students are developing a disposition that will eventually influence their professional behaviour. In other words, they learn to play the game of studentship rather than that of learner.

One of the key consequences of the role they adopt as ‘students’ is that they take relatively few of the lessons they are taught on their teacher education programmes into their own classrooms. Furthermore, there is little evidence that they commit to many (if any) of the beliefs about teaching that formed the heart of their PETE programmes.

But why?

There are a number of obvious (and well-rehearsed) reasons. Firstly, there is the impact of the workplace on their eventual practices and in order to survive as teachers they need to maintain the status quo. Secondly, the influences of their pre-training experiences as students are so strong that (as has been suggested many times before in this blog) the PETE programme has little or no chance of making any difference.

However, Graber is not so dismissive of the potential impact of PETE programmes and suggests that pre-service teachers can only engage in studentship if the institution allows them to. She suggests that the conditions in which the students learn must be conducive to this ‘gamesmanship’ if is to be allowed to prosper as it does. Such is the pervasiveness of this type of gamesmanship that students, Graber suggests, are free to determine which aspects of PETE they will adopt, which they will pretend to adopt and which they are able to ignore. More worryingly perhaps is Graber’s suggestion that students stop learning what they think is important for them as future teachers and instead begin to study what they think their instructors think is important. 

But what forms does studentship take?

Graber suggests that students engage in a range of behaviours that allow them to progress through their programme with greater ease, more success and less effort. These are namely: short cuts, cheating, psyching out the teacher, and faking public expressions of belief. In this way studentship was seen to emerge as students decided when to study, what to study, how to look interested in the classroom and how to help friends to look better in front of staff. 

Taking short cuts, according to the findings, was the most common student behaviour. It was used so that students could take what they saw as the most efficient and economical way to get a good grade. However, it was only used when they felt that they wouldn’t be sacrificing personal integrity, grades or the chance of a good recommendation. The perceived importance of the assignment also had an impact on the degree to which students took short cuts. Important and significant assignments were less likely to be subject to this type of studentship than those that were just seen as arbitrary obstacles to passing the course.

Cheating on exams or assignments was also quite common. This ranged from using other students’ ideas (both past and present) to writing answers on hands or copying from other students’ papers. However, this was very much dependent on the specific course. If the instructor was rigorous in applying ‘exam’ rules, then cheating was a lot less likely. Inaction around issues of cheating, Graber found, led to an increase in the number of students willing to cheat.

Colluding or psyching out were strategies used to influence the instructor and get information out of them. By collaborating as a class to question the instructor on the content of the exam, and by sheer weight of numbers, students felt that they could elicit clues about what assessment was likely to follow. Again, the success of this ploy was instructor dependent and suggests institutional failings.

The final ploy for enhancing their ability to do well in the course was image projection. If they could persuade the staff that they had internalised desirable behaviours then students felt that they could do better on their course. This could occur through faking, brownnosing and image management. By showing respect for the institution’s ideas (in whatever form they could) – especially the individual instructor’s beliefs – the students felt they could get better grades.

The underlying message here is that students (and I would argue at all levels of education) learn what counts and what doesn’t and adjust their behaviour accordingly. They work hard when things are seen as important and cut corners when they don’t. While Graber labels this as studentship I would argue that they could all be positioned under the sub-heading of cutting corners. Students learn how to find the quickest and surest way to the best grade and then navigate towards this across the duration of their course. Like a river finding the easiest way to the sea, students seek out the easiest path. Sometimes they meet immovable objects, so they go around them and some times they meet little or no resistance and simply go through the middle of it. Either way we need to be more aware of these studentship games and decide what, if anything, we want to do about it.

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- ThinkActChange (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Graber, K.C.  (1991/2012) Studentship in preservice teacher education: A qualitative study of undergraduate students in physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Major Themes in Education: Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 177-197) London: Routledge.