The Independent Learning Scam

One aspect of the move to the modularised-semesterised system which younger academics may not be aware of is that it was accompanied by a very significant reduction in content and contact time – at least in DCU where we had a history of very intensive courses. Much of the content disappeared into the black hole of ‘independent learning’. This was purely a device used during the repackaging process and was not based on any real analysis. (The whole process was driven by the need to make the number of hours per module add up to 125.) But the idea that one can quantify the expected workload is really a bit of a nonsense because it is so dependent on the aptitude of the student and his or her ability to study well.

Anyway,  let’s assume that formal independent learning time is a meaningful concept and let’s look at some numbers. Modules I teach now have 36 hours lecture time and 89 hours of ‘independent learning’ time. A module-exam period can spread over anything from 14 to 16 weeks, so this equates to as much as 6 hours per week of ‘independent learning’ – study in effect. Furthermore a student will normally have 6 modules per semester (or 30 credits), so if we assume that just 4 of these are examined by terminal exam, a student would have to do 24 hours per week of study throughout the semester! This excludes continuous assessment work. Does anyone seriously think that students are currently doing this level of real, focused study, even if it that study is not spread out so evenly? I have done surveys in the past which showed that students only do a tiny fraction of this number of hours. But we persist with the fiction of ‘independent learning time’, knowing that students get nowhere near the required target and that the target was positioned completely arbitrarily.

This issue of independent learning is core to the whole third level crisis in my view. (And there is a crisis with learning.) Unfortunately though, our focus is almost entirely on what happens during contact time. When we reflect on our teaching and our students’ performance in exams, the first question we need to ask is the most obvious one: Are students meeting their independent learning obligations. In other words, do students study enough and can they study effectively? If not, then evaluations of teaching and analyses of exam results are essentially meaningless. And that is one of the problems with Student Surveys of Teaching (SSOTs). Personally I am happy to be evaluated on my teaching but only by people who have shown the required level of commitment.

We need to conduct a large – preferably nationwide – study of student study habits. There is absolutely no point in constantly tinkering with institutional structures and teaching methods unless we know something about the student mindset. Education exists within a society and student commitment to their education is a societal problem as well as an educational one.


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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3 Responses to The Independent Learning Scam

  1. brianmlucey says:

    Reblogged this on Brian M. Lucey and commented:
    This is an excellent post from Greg. The key for me is this sentence
    “Personally I am happy to be evaluated on my teaching but only by people who have shown the required level of commitment.”

  2. iainmacl says:

    Not sure if national survey is needed to answer a question like this. It’s obvious from other studies in institutions and other countries what the issue is. I was involved (in a previous institution) in a project which aimed to tackle this and what we did was effectively write a coursebook, not too dissimilar to what you would get in an Open University module. The coursebook was written in open learning style, telling the students which chapter of the book to read and giving them plenty of questions to answer. It provided a clear structure and pacing over the semester. In practice, it did have some effect. Many students did attempt to follow it through, many foundered. But the feedback was very positive in the end and when students received similar materials in other subsequent modules they were more responsive. Of course there are lots of complicating issues. For some, it’s working to earn money, but in our study that wasn’t the majority reason for lack of self-study. Things like a messy timetable with classes distributed seemingly randomly across the day, the week and around an extensive campus, led to lots of ‘wasted’ time between classes. Too much content, too many modules. Lack of a dedicated study space, and expectations about being able to cram before the exam and still pass (based on lived experience, it has to be said) also arose, as did travel time, etc. But there’s a broad cultural aspect in play too, that it’s not the done thing to be sitting wading through books and notes unless you’re under pressure of a deadline, and that ‘being a student’ means having a good time, punctuated by intermittent periods of late night cramming or frantic googling.

    • Greg Foley says:

      Totally agree you about the timetabling and general study-environment problems. Our students often have a dreadful timetable. Last year, my second years had four lectures in a row in four different buildings! When I was in UCD we had our own classroom – it was a great ‘base’ to have a cooperative learning emerged very naturally. We also had a very predicable timetable – lectures in the morning, labs/projects in the afternoon. Structure is good for everyone. But as you say, there is an underlying cultural problem. A survey might be interesting though – not so much for us, we know the problems, but as a kind of focal point for politicians etc.

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