Creating a decent learning environment

A very good comment was made on this blog last week about the poor quality of the third level learning environment. It reminded me of something I had written on this topic in my ebook. Here it is…….

There is a talk on, 4 Pillars of College Success in Science, by the President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Freeman Hrabowski, and it is pretty inspiring. In it, Professor Hrabowski identifies the four key ingredients of their not inconsiderable success in Baltimore. These can be loosely stated as:

Creating high expectations among students

Creating a sense of community among students

Using inquiry-based learning

Nurturing of students by the academics

Each of these is worth a long discussion of its own, especially the ‘high expectations’ issue. From sport to academics, the Irish have a cultural difficulty with having, or admitting to having, high expectations of themselves. I see a lack of ambition amongst students all the time. Rarely does a student openly express the desire to reach a First Class Honours grade, for example. One is more likely to be asked about the rules for compensation

Here, though, I’d like to talk about creating a community of students. When I studied Chemical Engineering in UCD, there was a wonderful sense of community in the department. It helped that we were based, along with the other engineers, in the city centre, in what is now Government Buildings. But in Chemical Engineering, there was one very simple policy that had a dramatic effect on our third level experience; we had our own classroom located within the department, close to the lecturers’ offices. We were not there all the time because some of our courses were taught in common with other engineers but our classroom was our base. If we had no scheduled activities in the afternoon, we would work there on our design projects and our laboratory reports. Collaborative learning emerged naturally. It wasn’t forced. Introverts, and there are many in engineering, were never coerced into collaborations that made them feel uncomfortable.

This was such a simple, yet effective policy, and it is still implemented in Chemical Engineering in UCD. In DCU, and I would imagine most other institutions, students are always moving around. When they have a busy timetable, there is no opportunity for them to interact. They may have to race across campus to go from one lecture to the next – then, race back afterwards. Last year, Monday for my Second Year class meant four lectures in four different buildings! Yet, we talk a lot about using novel methods to promote interaction and collaboration. Indeed, collaborative learning is talked about as if it is some new radical concept. I was learning collaboratively in the 1980s – just by being in the same room as my classmates!

A community will only thrive if the environment is right and the simplest way to create a community is to put people together and let cooperation and collaboration emerge organically People are innately social but many like to be social in an unforced way – many could be described as sociable introverts. So why not just base the students somewhere – somewhere over which they have some ‘ownership’. Of course, central management doesn’t like this because they like to have control over space to ensure that it is ‘optimised’.

I’m not saying that doing this is necessarily easy or even always possible. Timetabling is a complex process for sure and block-booking space may not be possible. But giving students a base where they can meet and chat, and work together, would make a huge improvement to the quality of their third level experience. It is not necessary or even wise to just presume that expensive digital solutions are needed.

At some stage we have to start thinking seriously about the less tangible aspects of the quality of our education system. It’s not all about numbers. This means that we must have people in managerial roles who understand what is required to create an institution that has a genuine sense of community. And, really, that means having managers who have had recent experience of actually teaching and interacting with undergraduate students. It is only people with such experience who will be able to create a learning environment that is genuinely student-centered. It is such a cliché really, but educational institutions are really all about the students.


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.
This entry was posted in education. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s