Today I allowed myself the luxury of working from the Lexicon library in my hometown of Dun Laoghaire. The library doesn’t look great from the outside but it’s pretty nice inside with a fine view of the coastline. I had some second year term papers to mark and a draft of a research paper to work on and as I’m happy to work without hardcopies I had my laptop. So, I looked at my emails occasionally and between papers I had a quick look at Twitter. I think that’s typical of the way that many of us work these days especially when we’re doing the more mundane chores of academia.
I like to spend time in libraries not so much for the books but because it gives me a chance to look around and observe what students are actually doing during their study time. The thing is, we expend so much energy worrying about ‘teaching’ in higher education that we often forget that the dominant mode of learning at this level is supposed to be ‘independent learning’. That’s almost the definition of higher education. So we should be concerned about what students are doing.
And, if you spend any amount of time in a library surrounded by students (second and third level), you’ll see pretty quickly that many have huge difficulty concentrating for any length of time. I’m not talking about a quick and occasional glance at emails or whatever, but frequent and long-lasting visits to their phones, tablets and laptops. It’s an epidemic. But it’s not just the technology; there’s a general lack of ‘intensity’, a half-hardheartedness that in some cases manifests as the student staring in to space for long periods. Even the students who are focusing seem to me to be studying in a very ineffective way. Reading and highlighting, a notoriously poor way of learning, is very common.
The independent learning problem is, for me, the major challenge facing higher education in the 21st century. All the teaching innovation in the world will be worthless if students continue to struggle to concentrate and focus when studying independently. We can obsess all we like about ‘engaging’ students in the classroom or laboratory but if the same students don’t consolidate what they learn in class by studying effectively, then all we’re doing is creating the illusion of learning.