Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What do Students Need to Learn?

This is a question I think about and wonder about quite often, partly because of the huge emphasis nowadays on the workplace skills that our students are supposed to need to help them succeed in the world of work (what we sometimes call, 'the real world'!) once they've graduated. The required attributes include well developed literacy, report-writing, and presentation skills, as well as softer skills to do with communication, team work, and the like.

Besides these undoubtedly useful practical skills - to which no one paid any attention whatsoever in the distant past when I was a student at university myself - I'm also quite keen to see our students learning something about the discipline I have always taught, namely economics. I like to think that when students leave us, they take with them both an interest in and a fairly extensive knowledge of economics, and even better, the ability to think like an economist. Probably I'm being over-optimistic to imagine that everyone we teach manages all that, but I think our better students do so.

However, a book I've been reading in the past couple of weeks has set me thinking afresh about this whole area. The book in question is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, University of Chicago Press, 2011). Through surveying a large sample of US college students, Arum and Roksa find that for many of them, distressingly little learning seems to take place, despite the fact that modules are mostly passed and normal academic progress is maintained. The survey showed that students prefer to get lots of pre-digested course handouts, and that they don't much like modules where the instructor expects them to do a lot of reading (yes, really!). And as soon as a module is done and passed, it's best forgotten so that attention can be focused on the next ones. Overall, the widespread student goal seems to be to secure the paper qualifications needed by the job market, without great concern to learn much along the way. Such an instrumental approach to university education is a bit worrying though not, I must admit, wholly unfamiliar on this side of the Atlantic either; and institutions apparently collude in their students' chosen approach because they are unwilling to devote more academic staff time and effort to the teaching function.

All this has led me to re-visit the modular structure of our courses. For students, this way of structuring our teaching offers a lot of flexibility, in that credits for modules already passed can often be transferred when a student wishes to shift to a different degree programme, or even to a different university.

But I do wonder how well the modular approach facilitates and supports the sort of learning I would like to see. Think of my own subject, economics, for instance (I could also comment on mathematics, but leave that for another occasion). It seems to me that we want our students to learn three things: (a) a body of knowledge about the subject; (b) the ability to apply that knowledge to new issues and problems as they arise, in other words problem solving; and (c) the ability to extend and develop their knowledge into new fields. Our modules do a decent job as far as (a) is concerned, are mixed as regards (b), and quite poor with (c) - though sometimes the experience of writing a dissertation can push a student into new areas of study and hence develop (c).

The trouble is that our modules are supposed to be both self-contained and, more importantly, complete in the sense that nothing can be examined that is not somewhere in the course material for that module. On the face of it that sounds totally reasonable, and fair to the students, but it's actually quite restrictive in my view. For example, in a highly practical subject like economics I think it is perfectly reasonable to tell the students that some questions in the exam will be drawn from topical issues (related to the theme of the given module) that have come up in the media - and there are usually lots of such issues. Doing that forces the students, especially the better ones, to read around the subject far more than they might otherwise do, and that is surely highly desirable. But these days we don't do that, since the general view seems to be that we cannot set an exam question on a topic that has not been covered in the lectures. Absurd!

And what if we want to set a question that draws on parts of micro- and macroeconomics in the same problem? That too is quite difficult under current arrangements and module structures, though it would be fine if we simply had final year modules in advanced economics, rather than treating micro and macro as separate. The point here is that many practical problems out there in the 'real world' do require bits and pieces of knowledge from several areas to be brought together, so it would be good if our students developed the facility to handle this (a mix of my (b) and (c) above). At present, our course structures tend to divide knowledge up into too many distinct pieces, and aren't too good at fostering integration across modules.

So when it comes to student learning, we still have some way to go before we get it right, assuming there is a 'right way' out there, waiting to be discovered!

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