Is this contributing to student mental distress?

Despite A-level results improving steadily since the 1990s there has been a surge in reported levels of student mental distress at UK universities, often resulting from academic pressures.1 How can it be that students are leaving school with higher grades than ever, yet are struggling more at university, with knock on effects on their mental health?

One factor may be the phenomenon of ‘spoon-feeding’.

What is spoon-feeding?

‘Spoon-feeding’ is designed to ‘teach to the test’ to optimize A Level grades. It is similar to ‘surface learning’ – described in the University Mental Health Charter as skipping over the surface of a subject with minimum effort to remember what is needed to pass the test. 2 It is the opposite of ‘deep learning’, where students seek to link new learning with old learning and build up a thorough understanding of a subject. Interestingly, evidence suggests deep learning (unlike surface learning) is associated with higher levels of wellbeing among students – meaning ‘spoonfed’ students are being deprived of a potential source of wellbeing.3

Is ‘spoon-feeding’ on the rise?

School league tables, Ofsted inspections and pressure from parents have probably all combined to incentivize schools to ‘spoon-feed’ to get good grades.Concerns about spoon-feeding in independent schools were flagged up by inspectors as early as 2002.4 By 2013 the Paired Peers Project in Bristol was reporting that across the whole sample of student participants, from both the independent and state sectors, ‘The school/college experience was persistently described as ‘spoonfeeding.’And by 2015 Oxford University researchers were reporting that UK schools were among world's worst for 'teaching to the test.'6

The cost of spoon-feeding

Spoon-feeding might be thought of as buying expensive goods on credit – it can bring short term benefits but the cost will be felt further down the line.

In particular, it may be making the transition to university far more difficult. Some students are reporting having to take responsibility for their own learning as ‘stressful’ and academic pressure is consistently being reported as having a negative impact on mental health. Psychologist Dr Julie Hulme has suggested that students are arriving at university with little development of the academic skills they are going to need.7 While ‘spoon-feeding’ may be good for A Level exam preparation, it does little to develop the independent learning skills needed at university and in adult life.

Given the difficulties spoon-feeding may be causing, here are two suggestions:

Stop judging schools purely on exam results

Fortunately, there are signs of progress here. In 2019 Ofsted’s Chief Inspector was reported as hitting out at schools that “teach to the test” and fail to offer a “rich education” because of an obsessive focus on achieving high exam scores.8 And changes to the Ofsted inspection framework last September encourage a more holistic approach to learning, rather than an exclusive focus on exam performance.9

Might universities also have a role to play in encouraging schools to ‘spoonfeed’ less and encourage more independent learning?

Remember that employers also value non-academic skills

Many students go to university to increase their employment prospects. However, with so many now going to university, having a degree doesn’t set you apart as it may have done in the past. Employers are putting more focus than ever on skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership and often these are best developed outside the classroom, for instance through employment experience, volunteering, playing sports or participation in the performing arts. Developing these skills is an important complement to academic achievement.

Your feedback will be welcome

I’d welcome other researchers’ views on ‘spoon-feeding’ – including how it may link to other factors influencing student mental health.

William Bate

This article has also appeared as a blog on the website of SMARTEN, the higher education research network focusing on student mental health 


1. How to Grow a Grownup Thompson D, Vailes F. Ebury Publishing 2019 ISBN 9781785042782

2. G. Hughes and L. Spanner, The University Mental Health Charter, Leeds: Student Minds, 2019.

3. Postareff L, Mattsson M. Lindblom–Ylänne S et al. The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher Education 2016. 73(3), 441–457. doi:10.1007/s10734–016–0096–

4. BBC News Public schools spoon-feed children. 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1844620.stm

5. Bristol University The Paired Peers project report Bradley H, Waller R, Abrahams J. et al 2013 https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/937153 

6. Times Educational Supplement UK among world's worst for 'teaching to the test', research finds. Vaughan R. 2015 https://www.tes.com/news/uk-among-worlds-worst-teaching-test-research-finds

7. The British Psychological Society Bridging the gap between school and university science April 2018, https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/bridging-gap-between-school-and-university-science.

8. Times Educational Supplement Schools that ‘teach to the test’ to be penalised by inspectors May 2019 https://www.tes.com/news/schools-teach-test-be-penalised-inspectors

9. Ofsted, ‘The education inspection framework’, May 2019, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/801429/Education_inspection_framework.pdf.