Some thoughts on independent leanring

The dominant mode of learning in third level education is ‘independent learning’. At least that’s what the numbers in our module descriptors imply. Yet, it would seem to me, and maybe I’m wrong, that the vast bulk of education research and innovation focuses on what is done in the classroom or the laboratory. Interesting, that.

Anyway, if you take the numbers in module descriptors seriously, we currently expect students to do upwards of 25 hours per week of ‘independent learning’ throughout a typical semester and pre-exam period. The Irish Survey of Student Engagement ( suggests that the majority of students do nowhere near that amount of independent learning and we really need to ask ourselves if we’re just pulling numbers out of a hat.

In any event, what exactly do we mean by independent learning because many (not all) module coordinators provide little or no breakdown of what is expected of the student  when they do their independent learning? When my peers and I look back at our time studying engineering in the UCD of the early 1980s, we tend to boast that in contrast to the modern student we “drove our own learning” as one might say these days. We conjure up an image of ourselves as model independent learners. But were we really? In fact what we did was this: we studied our lecture notes (that we had transcribed in class), we did all the problem sets provided by the lecturers (practice!), and we made a particular effort to cover as many past papers as we could (tactical learning!). At the same time, we completed CA assignments such as laboratory reports and design projects. We rarely had to do any ‘outside reading’ and when we did it was usually because the lecturer was so bad it was impossible to take coherent lecture notes. In truth, our third level education was all quite structured and uncomplicated and the contact times were very high. Nonetheless, we were able to cope with the extraordinary changes that were to occur in the 1990s as a result of the rapid increase in computing power and the dawn of the internet age. (I think there is a lesson in there for those who suggest that the 21st century is somehow different and requires a radical shake-up in how we teach.)

Anyway, the key word in the above paragraph is ‘studied’. So, when we talk about ‘independent learning’ in 2016, are we really just talking about ‘study’ and by ‘study’ I also mean doing the prescribed reading that is typical of a course in the arts and humanities. Or, are we expecting even more from our students in this internet age? And if so, what is it that we are expecting?

Many people talk of there being a crisis in third level education without anyone being very explicit about where the source of the crisis actually lies. (I’m ignoring the resourcing issue here.) My own view is that the whole concept of ‘independent learning’ lies at the heart of everything. I really think we should see the concept of an ‘independent learner’ as something that we expect our students to become, not what we expect our students to be. Being a true independent learner requires lots of experience and maturity. It’s not easy learning on your own.

I think all of this boils down to expectations. What do we really expect from our students and how do those expectations differ as they progress from first year to final year? Of course, we should always expect students to study hard; to study to understand their subject, not to rote learn; to practice and self-test consistently over the semester, if not always for 25 hours a week on top of their contact time. Education is a partnership and our job is to chart a course through a subject for students. In time, our students should, if they come on the journey, acquire sufficient knowledge and skill to become the knowledgeable independent learners and (where appropriate) the confident problem-solvers that we want them to be.

In a curious way, our expectations of our students have become simultaneously too low and too high. On the one hand,  we do not seem to have any concerns about our grade distributions*  even though we know that our students spend far less time on ‘independent learning’ than we expect them to. On the other hand, we expect our students to emerge from our institutions as creative, critical-thinking, problem-solving graduates, with disciplinary knowledge depth but capable of approaching problems from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.

None of this adds up and the large black hole that is ‘independent learning’ is where we should begin if we want to reconcile our seemingly low expectations of our students and our very high expectations of our graduates. Food for thought for the people at


*Except, perhaps, for the grade inflation guys down in IT Tralee.

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Teaching, Learning and Barcelona

A recurring theme in education is that the way we teach students should mimic the role/job for which we’re preparing them. For example, there is a belief held by many that the way students should be taught science should mimic the actual process of being a scientist. This inevitably leads down the path of discovery learning and ‘learning by doing’.

There is a strong air of plausibility about this approach to education but it is worth looking at the world of sport for some counter arguments. Take a rugby team. A typical team will spend 80 minutes per week actually playing 15-a-side, full-contact rugby.  The rest of the time they are training. This training involves individual players working on their strength and conditioning; individual players working on their basic skills like goal-kicking or passing; smaller groups of players (e.g. the pack or the backs) working separately on skills and tactics that they, as a sub-group, need to perfect – scrummaging, for example. The point is that much of the training involves working on the building blocks required to make an effective rugby team.

When we watch the Ireland football team we often bemoan the fact that we play ugly football, football that inevitably involves hoofing the ball up the pitch in the hope that someone will ‘get on the end of it’. In contrast, even smaller footballing nations like Georgia seem to be more technically adept and more capable of playing incisive football. Of course, the ultimate footballing machine is Barcelona whose tippy-tappy football was on another planet in comparison with Ireland’s ‘route one’ approach. It is interesting that in the top footballing nations, youngsters learn to play the game in a way that is quite different from the way we do things in Ireland. Our youngsters start playing 11-a-side competitive football (‘mimicking’ the real thing) from a very early age, while in Spain and Italy the emphasis is on developing basic skills by playing in smaller teams on smaller pitches where skills like ball control rather than physicality are emphasized.

I could go on. Think of any activity whether it is golf, playing the piano, dancing or art.  In all cases, the way the activity is mastered involves a lot more than performing in a ‘real-life’ situation. Learning and ‘performing’ are rarely done the same way.

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Where the President got it wrong

In his recent speech to the EUA, President Higgins said the following:

“The challenge we face is that we must confront an erroneous a prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression. These are the skills that will be essential to the citizens of the future to make informed choices about life/work balance, about what constitutes survival and consumption, and what is meant by human flourishing, solidarity or humanity itself.”

I agree that much of the language used around higher education these days is utilitarian and that is something that is worth arguing about – but not here.

No, I’m more interested in the next sentence in which the President claims that the modern university sees itself as preparing students for a “specific role within the market place” at the expense of the “development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking and clarity in written and spoken expression”.

In fact, one of the key ideas abroad in higher education these days is that universities are not preparing students for specific roles but preparing students for “jobs that don’t exist”. Ideas like this are at the heart of the “21st century skills” movement, a movement in which the very idea of teaching knowledge is downplayed in favour of teaching nebulous and essentially unteachable (at least in a context-free way) ‘skills’ like problem solving and creativity. It is a movement where it is suggested that we should be ‘teaching’ attributes like adaptability, grit and emotional intelligence. This is the movement that thinks that Google has changed everything and rather than transmitting knowledge to our students, we should be teaching students how to “create their own knowledge”. It is a movement in which inquiry-led and collaborative approaches to learning are viewed as inherently good and where more traditional forms of learning (e.g. study and practice) are characterised as learning by rote. It is a movement in which engagement is equated with learning and it is a movement which risks educating students to the point where they are not even capable of filling specific roles never mind adapting to jobs that are not supposed to exist yet.

The problem with our education system is that students are not acquiring very basic skills and like the pilot who panics and pulls back on the stick in a futile attempt to prevent his plane from stalling, we are panicking and focusing on the nebulous when we should be focusing on the tangible.

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Experience of an Education conference

Over the last couple of days I’ve been attending the New Perspectives in Science Education conference  in Florence. I gave a talk (an honest one!) on my experience of teaching on an interdisciplinary programme.

This is my first ever education conference and it has been an interesting experience. A few things have struck me:

  1. Nobody really seems to be addressing the quite fundamental issue of how we actually measure student learning. Most of the time we use proxies like ‘engagement’.
  2. Inquiry-based approaches are very popular and it is interesting that there are very few, if any, dissenting voices. IBL and PBL are presumed to be inherently good. Nobody mentions concepts like cognitive load, for example. Nor do people address the fact that when IBL and PBL approaches are used, there is a loss (in the acquisition of knowledge) as well as a supposed gain in ‘skills’.
  3. Many education researchers don’t seem to define what precise problem they are trying to fix when they innovate. There seems to be an underlying presumption that traditional teaching, in which the teacher charts a course through a subject for the student, and actually explains stuff to the student, is not fit for purpose.
  4. It seems to me that the education field as a whole suffers from confirmation bias. Innovation is always seen as a Good Thing and small-scale studies invariably claim to support the innovation in question.
  5. Some researchers are still fixated on learning styles.
  6. Many STEM educators believe that if only we taught STEM subjects in a more engaging and relevant way, more students would learn to appreciate and even love these subjects. (I don’t agree. I believe that science is fundamentally abstract and only appeals to a minority.)
  7. An awful lot of conference presentations are pretty dull. This is ironic given that this conference was an education one.
  8. The teaching of maths seems to be a challenge everywhere and the only solution seems to be to link maths with the ‘real world’, thus denying the very essence of mathematics. (Maths is an abstract language; you shouldn’t need to do experiments, for example, to justify the laws of probability.)
  9. It is interesting that many studies focus on teaching methodologies but make very little mention of the teacher. I would have taught that the teacher is the x-factor in all of education.
  10. Thankfully, I didn’t hear the phrase 21st Century Skills even once. Mind you, one presenter came dangerously close to mentioning “jobs that don’t exist”.

All in all, an interesting experience but I got the sense that group-think is a bit of an issue in education research.

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Have we been in a science bubble?


..CAO 2016

total numbers


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Thoughts on achieving good learning at third level

Here’s a few thoughts (especially for a certain JD!) on what drives good learning at third level. Students learn in lots of ways at this level so this is by no means comprehensive. I don’t say anything about laboratory teaching for example.

I strongly believe that third level education involves a partnership so some of these points are aimed at lecturers while some are aimed at students. The language I use is very much influenced by the fact that I teaching chemical engineering but I think some of the basic ideas will translate to other disciplines.



A lot of good teaching is done before you enter the classroom

Choose between need-to-knows and nice-to-knows and pitch the material at an appropriate level. Find the goldilocks zone, i.e., the zone where the level of the material will challenge students fairly, and appropriately, without demoralising them. Getting into this zone can be tricky, though, because the academic standard of the student intake varies from year to year and you don’t want to get into dumbing-down territory. It may also be the case that your programme is subject to professional accreditation and you may not have much room for manoeuvre.

Explicit instruction is essential

In any given discipline there will be concepts and methods that students will find difficult. To be a good lecturer/teacher you need to have an extremely good grasp of your discipline and, to put it simply, you need to be good at explaining stuff. That requires you to be reflective and to constantly re-evaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it. You need to be your own worst critic.

Be wary of philosophies of teaching and learning that de-emphasise your role. Most of them are unproven and contrary to some basic principles of cognitive science.

Make it your business to keep up to date with developments in education and cognitive science. I’d start with this book by David Didau.

If you decide to adopt a particular teaching innovation, think of what’s lost as well as what’s gained.

Remember that a class will have a range of personality types and some teaching innovations, such as the flipped classroom, may not suit some students, especially those of an introverted disposition who might like to do their serious thinking on their own, in their own quiet place.

Pass on your wisdom

Despite what many educationalists will say these days, you are the expert; you are the sage on the stage. You are not a ‘co-learner’. If you are, then you are in the wrong job. As a lecturer you have superior knowledge and experience and you should pass that on. If, for example, you have developed particular problem-solving strategies, then let your students know about them. They don’t have to follow your exact approach but the chances are that if it works for you it’ll work for them. Left to discover and reinvent everything for themselves, they will make bad choices and limit themselves unnecessarily. (Think about how limited your knowledge is of Word and Excel if, like most of us, you are self-taught.)

Remember that your role is to give your students a start in life. In time, students will probably drive their own learning and development but for now they need lots of guidance and they need to focus on acquiring the basic knowledge and skills of their discipline.

Don’t believe the hype about knowledge being transitory. The most important knowledge tends to stick around for a very long time.

Teach actively

You need to be extremely gifted if you want to lecture effectively using Powerpoint or without visual aids. Most of us are not. The average student (or anybody) cannot concentrate for 50 minutes unless the lecturer is inspirational. A good way to pace a lecture and to highlight key ideas and concepts is to write on the blackboard, whiteboard or a digital equivalent. Students learn best when a number of different senses are engaged so they need to be listening, observing and writing.

If you can, mix things up a bit. For some disciplines, and if the class size is not enormous, that might mean doing a little bit of hands-on problem solving or maybe a bit of group work on occasion.

Teach students how to study

Most students study ineffectively. They mainly use methods like reading, re-reading and highlighting, methods that have been proven to be ineffective. Show and discuss with them the evidence for good study methods. Provide materials or direct them to materials that will enable them to practice. If they practice a lot they will start to emerge from the rote learning zone.

Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that learning should mimic the ‘real life’ situation. You don’t learn to become a scientist by trying to mimic the behaviour of a scientist; there is a lot of practice to be done first. (See below.)

Be supportive to students

Students who go to the trouble of seeking your help should be rewarded for doing so. Respond quickly to student queries.




You will forget much of what you hear in lectures and tutorials. That’s ok. In fact it’s good because we know that when you revise the material (and you should do this more than once) you will remember it for longer and your understanding of it will improve each time.

Memory gets a bad rap in education these days but knowing certain things off by heart frees up working memory to enable you to tackle challenging problems. (I’m thinking here about really basic stuff like the rules of algebra.)


It is well known that to learn to speak a language fluently you must immerse yourself in it. A lot of learning is like this whether it involves becoming fluent at mathematics or at writing English. Use sport as your inspiration and think about how practice is used to attain excellence in sport. Practice is often quite different from what happens on match or competition day. Practice for team sports, for example, often involves individuals working on their own basic skills. Or it may involve players performing drills in small groups. Think Continental Europe where skills are high versus Britain and Ireland where skills ar low when it comes to soccer. Practice for individual sports often involves the athlete working on drills that develop core skills that will be employed during competition. It’s the same with learning.

Ask questions

Your lecturers are paid to support your learning so use them by asking questions either during class, after class or by email.

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On the dependency culture in third level

Let’s start with a story. I’m in one of my third year labs, teaching by walking around. One of the better students in the class, a first class honours student, in fact, approaches me and we begin to chat about some data that she can’t explain. This worries her; it doesn’t interest her or enthuse her. She’s fishing, fishing for the ‘correct’ explanation for the data. And in her world, ‘correct’ is whatever I think. I try to draw her out, to extract some original thinking from her, but it’s clear she’s reluctant to express any opinion at all. After five to ten minutes I finally succumb and offer her my best guess as to what is happening in her experiment. “Will I put that in the report?”, she says. Exasperated, I tell her that I don’t really care what she puts in the report as long as it is the result of logical reasoning by her.

That story, for me, encapsulates so much about what has gone wrong with education. In her mind, her ‘job’ as a student is to repeat back to me what I think. That way she believes she’ll get the highest possible mark. This is a mindset that sets in during the Leaving Cert years and never quite goes away, at least for the majority of students.

So how as it comes to this? How, when the entire conversation around third level education is littered with terms like ‘critical and creative thinking’, ‘problem-solving’, and “21st century skills”, do we have students who are so dependent and so lacking in the confidence to think for themselves. Part of the reason, I think, is that many students simply do not acquire the very basic knowledge and the very basic tools required for third level and are stymied in their learning throughout their studies. How, for example, can third level students ever become engineering problem-solvers when they cannot do basic algebra?

The other cause of this reluctance by students to think for themselves is the fact that while many educationalists like to talk of students “driving their own learning”, or “constructing their own knowledge”, the reality is that students have been made to be dependent by us. In our efforts to improve the quality of third level education, we have taken it upon ourselves to do more and more for students and to make life as easy as possible for them. Think of the amount of time and effort that goes into trying to ‘engage’ students and the sense of guilt that one is expected to feel if your students are not ‘engaged’ by your teaching. But that’s part of a wider cultural trend.

Another reason for the slide into dependency is that modern third level education has become increasingly utilitarian. So much of the language surrounding education, especially the constant use of the word “skills”, suggests that the sole purpose of an education is to prepare a person for the workplace. Of course, this is an extremely important aspect of education (notably for the mental health of graduates) but it is not the only one and the paradox is that by constantly focusing on a narrow range of outcomes as a preparation for work, we actually end up making students less ready for work.

The utilitarian nature of third level education is illustrated by a couple of ideas that permeate the entire system. These are the ideas of ‘graduate attributes’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Now, I know that many people are heavily invested in these ideas and it is not my intention to be unnecessarily disparaging. Graduate Attributes are essentially those attributes or characteristics that all graduates of a given institution are expected to have on completion of their studies. Learning Outcomes are those skills, that knowledge and that understanding that each and every student should have acquired by the end of every module and every programme. The learning outcomes idea makes sense for many programmes, especially those that are subject to professional accreditation. Indeed professional organisations typically demand that education be outcomes-based. But are learning outcomes really appropriate for all courses?

Taking graduate attributes and learning outcomes together, it is hard not to see modern education as a place where graduates are ‘produced’ rather than places where students learn. And if your educational philosophy is that third level institutions exist to produce graduates with a certain set of attributes and skills, doesn’t it make sense to package, manage, monitor and control their education so that the ‘product’ coming out the other end is precisely what you claim it is. But in doing all of this, something important is lost.

The final cause of the dependency culture is that we now take the evaluation of teaching at third level very seriously. No one can argue with the need to put in place systems and procedures that will ensure the quality of what we do. But we know from our knowledge of the CAO system and, for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, that the very act of evaluating something can often distort it horribly. How do we evaluate teaching quality? Well, one way is to use student surveys of teaching and the best way to score well in a student evaluation is to make students happy. And you make students happy by making life as convenient as possible for them; by organising their learning and by not challenging them and requiring them to think, at least not too hard, especially in an exam. As any cognitive scientist will tell you, thinking is difficult; remembering is easy.

What other way do we evaluate the quality of an academic’s teaching as part of say a promotion process? Well, we could access their online course notes, assuming they have such a thing. What will we look for in those notes? Probably a high degree of organisation, good production values, maybe the use of different media, some evidence of innovation, and general all round student-centeredness. So the academic whose online notes are little more than ‘signposts’ for students to forge their own individual path through a subject, now has a hard job convincing others that he/she is a good ‘teacher’.

I’ve no obvious solution to this but every now and then I stop and observe the modern third level experience  and I’m glad I’m not a student. Third level education seems too controlling, suffocating even, and there is always another assessment around the corner.

There is a middle ground to be found here, a space where we have high expectations of students, where we are there to support them when needed, but where we have the courage to do what all those educationalists claim we’re doing in this 21st century, and that is to let students free to follow their own path and genuinely control their own learning.

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