Are we now part of the problem?

I have that terrible feeling (after more than 20 years) that my whole approach to teaching is fundamentally misguided. Like many people, my response to the transformation of third level into a form of mass education (and the inevitable decline in the academic ability of the student intake) has made me change my teaching style into one that is really an extension of the second level system.  Every year, I have worked harder on my teaching, doing more for students and attempting to coach them through the exam. I provide notes, problems and solutions, revision handouts, pre-exam tutorials, rapid feedback etc. I think I have been seduced by what I call the funsize disease. This is a condition in which complex topics are broken up into bite size, easily digestible chunks that the student can ‘learn off’.

As I am writing a textbook at the moment, I have perused a few recent textbooks in related areas. It struck me that modern textbooks are beautifully produced and give the impression of being outstanding pedagogical works. Chapters frequently start with a nicely coloured box containing learning outcomes or some sort of statement of ‘What you need to know’.  They contain at least one summary box containing a list of key points from the Chapter. I thought about this approach when I recently bought a Leaving Cert textbook on economics – just to have some idea of what’s going on around us in these days of financial crisis. I found myself skimming though it, heading straight for the frequent, well highlighted tables or bullet lists of ‘key points’. In fact, barely a page went by without there being some sort of coloured box. It all looked great. But what it gave me was a very superficial knowledge of the topic whereby I could probably sound convincing in a pub, holding forth on ‘imported inflation’  or the like. At no point, though, did I have to read a page of text, come to some conclusion, myself, about what the key issues were (that was done for me) and really gain a proper understanding of the subject.

I am getting a feeling that this whole approach, albeit well-intentioned, has become part of the problem, especially when implemented at third level. Students find it hard or are unable to think (and even think it’s unfair when they have to think!) because we have created a learning environment where they don’t really have to. We’re doing it for them. We’re over-teaching. Most worrying of all, there seems to be a consensus that adopting a more traditional approach to teaching in which students actually have to turn up for a lecture, listen, take notes, study the material and solve problems on their own, is pedagogically unsound and a sign of a lazy, or overly conservative, lecturer.

In any event, I’m less sure than ever about how to go about all of this.



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Are we now part of the problem?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Are we now part of the problem?

  2. Polly says:

    couldn’t agree more, and I’m in a very different discipline from you. Textbooks in my area are also full of those coloured boxes and check lists – which is why I won’t use them in my classes. I’m doubly-cursed by the fact that my area is perceived to be cool and trendy – which means it attracts a proportion of students who want to be cool and trendy, but are horrified when they discover we actually expect them to think. I teach in a *very* traditional manner, and simply accept that some students can’t/wont’ engage in sustained reading, analytical thinking or reasoned discussion. What really bothers me is that my degree has very high CAO points, which means students who don’t even want to think are doing extremely well at Leaving Cert.

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