When I rule the (wine) world…. (Part 2)

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jul 13, 2017

To continue from the last post, this time I’m going to cover the teaching aspect of WSET. There are some things I’m not going to write about. This is for two main reasons. First, I’ve covered this topic relatively recently, and don’t really feel the need to repeat myself. Second, teaching is a lot more individual, on the part of both the student and the instructor than taking exams. That said, there are things that can and should be said about the teaching aspect of the Diploma.

I am not going to comment on individual instructors. That would not be fair without giving them a chance to reply. In addition, as I just noted, students have different preferences. In listening to chatter before the Unit 3 exam, some people would praise Instructor X, while others would damn them. It is also partly luck of the draw, I think. For the most part, I have not had particularly inspiring instructors. But other people have been quite happy with theirs throughout the whole Diploma. I’m also not going to comment on things like scheduling. A lot of times, it seems to make no sense – covering a topic a year before you’ll get to it on exams. But I also realise there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into scheduling, and so I’m going to let that pass for now.

With all that out of the way, I’ll briefly re-iterate a key point from a previous post: give the instructors more freedom. Yes, I realise there’s a syllabus, and a global one at that, and a certain amount of conformity is required to ensure all people are equally prepared (or unprepared) for the exams. But there are still many ways to approach this.

The Diploma specifications note that the Diploma should take about 600 hours of work. Of this, about 120 should be classroom time. In other words, the majority (80 percent) of the work is done outside the class. That’s fine. What is not always fine is what is covered in the 20 percent that is class time. Others have remarked in various conversations that much of the classroom time is devoted to information that is basically what was learned in Level 3. There’s a lot of overview, and often not much depth or synthesis, in the WSET presentations. I’ll remind readers that, to my mind, the best instructors were those who either modified, or just dispensed with, the official WSET Powerpoint presentations.

Examiners’ reports.

‘As has been seen with other examination questions, candidates performed well when reporting fact (such as when documenting Robert Parker’s achievements) but there was a disappointing lack of imagination when predicting the future of wine media with few venturing past the predictable references to blogs and tweets. The best candidates not only cited these as the future, but explained WHY they have taken off in such a spectacular way.’ (2013-14 examiner’s report, unnumbered)

‘Overall, there was a disappointing lack of application and critical thinking. ‘ (2014-15 examiners’ report, p. 53)

‘This was the most popular optional question answered by 93% of candidates sitting the Examination. However, this was a disappointing set of responses, both in terms of content and format.’ (2015-16 examiners’ report, p. 40)

I could go on, but you get the idea. We, the students, seem to spend a lot of time disappointing the examiners, particularly in the theory parts of the exams. It’s interesting and relevant to note that the theory parts of the exam tend to have lower pass rates than the tasting parts. I have not conducted a systematic survey of all the examiners’ reports WSET makes available, nor do their reports always give a breakdown between the two sections of the ‘small’ units. With those caveats in mind, the difference between the two parts is very telling. It often runs to roughly 20 percentage points lower on the theory. There was one exam, surprisingly, where the theory scored 3 points higher than the tasting (I didn’t make a note of the exact exam). But splits like 85% to 53% or 71% to 48%, tasting to theory in both cases, are more common. This is similar to what you see in the tasting and theory for Unit 3, which are effectively separate exams. June, 2015: 77% tasting to 45% theory. January 2016: 65% to 52%. That was the smallest difference. Twice, in June 2013 and June 2012, the results were 82% passed tasting and 40% passed theory.

Putting my educator hat back on, this split indicates a fundamental flaw in WSET’s approach to teaching theory. (Unless, of course, the goal is to make theory that much harder than the tasting aspect. But I suspect not. If it is, then tell the examiners’ to stop being disappointed. They are getting what is expected.) In short, they don’t teach what they test in the context of theory nearly well enough. If this sort of difference in the pass rates happened once or twice, you could put it down to the particular batch of students. Or perhaps a particularly hard exam. But when it’s this consistent, those aren’t the problem. The issue is clearly structural. (I made the same point over a year ago, when looking at the examiners’ reports for fortified wines.)

Case studies

What would I do about this? Simply put, up my game. Teach to the level you are examining at. To the possible response ‘We can’t go into that much detail for all the regions we cover,’ the answer is simple. Don’t. Remember, you expect your students to devote time outside the classroom to studying. What I would suggest is a focus on more selective areas, or even individual wineries. To say ‘This afternoon we are going to cover South Africa’ is a bit silly. The students should know the different areas, etc., by now. (And if not, that’s their responsibility.) Don’t spend time going over that again, as too large a part of the Powerpoint presentations do. Pick a much smaller area, and look at it in depth. In other words, lead by example. Show the students the depth of knowledge they are expected to have when it comes to a particular topic or region by discussing it with them. Arrange tastings to illustrate this. Not just ‘Here’s a cheap California red, and a really nice Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.’ That is important, but it shouldn’t be the whole thing. How about ‘Here’s the same grape, same general region, but grown on different soils’ (or at different altitudes, or whatever). Show us – in both lectures and tastings – what you want us to do.

To be fair, some instructors have done things like this. I remember one tasting, from the first semester, where we compared three different Burgundies. They were the same winemaker, vintage, etc. The difference was in the quality level. That was useful, and stuck with me. Similarly, there have been discussions, group activities and so forth on the theory side that were useful and memorable. Just not enough.

My general point, though, is that if WSET were to adopt an approach similar to this, you’d also be showing the students what is expected of them for the other regions they are responsible for. I still recall the session where the instructor had (quite kindly) compiled a list of previous Unit 3 exam questions on the region (Italy). That was much appreciated. What was less so was the shock when in one of the ‘answer five of the below’ sorts of questions, one of the options was to write about a particular winemaker. To my knowledge, we’d never really talked about particular winemakers, or had it been suggested we should be able to answer questions about them. Perhaps I missed that part of the course. Winemakers, when they were discussed, were largely mentioned in passing, often in an anecdote. They weren’t really addressed as a topic in and of themselves. If, however, you were focusing on a particular region, not a whole country, winemakers could easily fit into the material.

This is not to suggest this is the only way to improve the teaching theory aspect of the Diploma. It’s the first that comes to me and survives the first round of reflection: ‘could this work.’ It would need to be piloted, and there may be other, more effective ways to improve the teaching. But that it needs to be improved shouldn’t be in doubt.


Another point raised in the examiners’ reports is the structure of the essays. Again, I’d say – spend more time on this. Many of my fellow students hadn’t had to do this sort of writing since their days at University. Even then, some, such as one who had studied maths, hadn’t done much essay writing. We did spend a bit of time on such things, but again, I think a bit more would have helped some of the students the examiners are complaining about.

It’s helpful that in the run-up to the Unit 3 exam, there were sample questions to do which you could submit and get feedback on. It was less helpful that there was no real feedback on structure or argument. At another point in one of the reports, the examiners write that a particular answer was approached by lots of students as a ‘brain dump.’ But that is the only sort of thing we seem to get feedback on: what we did and didn’t mention. Not if WSET would like the structure or not. Implicitly, then, we were encouraged to focus on the brain dumping, not the structure of the argument.

I realise that this may be outside the scope of WSET’s main remit. Critical thinking and writing is not the same as learning about glassy-winged sharpshooters and Pierce’s disease. So offer workshops on structuring exam answers and arguments. Heck, once my own Diploma is done and dusted, hire me to do it.

That’s all I have to say, at least for now. When I started this post, I figured it would be substantially shorter than the previous one. It is indeed shorter, but not by as much as I had expected. The length was mainly spurred on by the realisation of how different the pass rates between tastings and theory were, not just in Unit 3, but across the board. To me, this indicates that there is a problem in how WSET is approaching things, either in teaching, or examining, or both. WSET re-evaluates the different levels of certification every five years. Perhaps when they next do the Diploma, they should take a longer, harder look than usual.

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