I held a pre-exam tutorial for my second year class yesterday – at their request. So I arrive into class, the students get out their pens and paper and just sit there – waiting. Silence. “Ok”, I say, “What are the key issues you want me to address?” More silence.
Now, the module I was covering is very problem-oriented so I was at least expecting some questions relating to specific problems (from problem sets or past papers or whatever) that were causing difficulties. But nothing.
The obvious explanation for this is that the students turned up simply looking for exam hints, not to learn as such. But I think it’s more than that. I think students, even at third level, simply do not know how to study. They are so ‘brain-washed’ by their experience of second level that when they encounter a subject that requires a bit of thinking rather than learning off facts, they flounder around helpless.
It’s not that we need to teach students how to think (that’s a meaningless idea in my view), we need to change their mind-set. For example, I am often asked by students (even high-achieving ones) if they need to “learn off the formulas”. I try to explain to them that if they really commit to their studies, immersing themselves in the material, key equations – ones that contribute to their understanding of the subject and provide them with the tools to actually solve new and previously unseen problems – will become embedded in their long-term memory. In a sense, their ability to recall these equations is a marker for their commitment to the subject. A good example of this would be a young physics student studying mechanics. It’s not that the student will ‘learn off’ Newton’s Laws, he or she will just know them from being immersed in the subject.
My tutorial eventually got going as tentative hands were raised but the recurring idea I tried to impress on the students is the need to go beyond the Leaving Cert mind-set, to become more tenacious and to study to understand rather than to ‘learn off’ exam questions.
For me, changing the student mind-set is the single biggest problem that we face in third level education. I actually believe we need to incorporate some sort of motivation/personal development/career counselling modules into our degree programmes. We have all become used to the importance of psychology in sport and we know that individual sportspeople, and teams, can be transformed through psychology and leadership. We need to think seriously about how these techniques can be used to improve how our students learn.