Alison Campbell considers the current state of tertiary education.
The title for this article is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my ‘other’ blog, Talking Teaching, which I share with Marcus Wilson and Fabiana Kubke. It caught my eye and I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.
We’ll assume that this question is directed at science faculties. Using the word ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science.
(If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience, eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’ etc, has no place in a university, and it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula in the US, UK and Australia, among other countries. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, and close investigation – in one case, by a nine-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)
Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?
I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ and not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts and expect to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences and a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowlege they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.
What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that by simply presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking and answering questions in a scientific way. And in that sense, I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’.
Until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts and cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts (and teaching practical skills), conveyed very little of what science is actually all about. And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (eg Deslauriers et al, 2011, Haak et al, 2011, and Musante, 2012).
Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (and much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of university, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments and must surely have talked about the hows and the whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour.
However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, and they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy and the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, and students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first-year.
In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously, and with it, the pressure to get it all across. And when you’re under that pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses require students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’ve generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.
Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller third-year classes? And in fact I know lecturers who do just that.) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, and practising a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I referred to show that it can be done, and done very successfully.
First up: there’s more to producing a scientifically literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, and then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world. Of course, we also need a serious discussion at the curriculum level, about what constitutes ‘must-have’ knowledge and what can safely be omitted in favour of helping students gain those other skills. (This is something that’s just as important at the level of the senior secondary school curriculum.)
And secondly: giving students early practice at doing and thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study, maybe going on to become scientists themselves. In NZ graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!
Deslauriers, L.; Schelew, E.; Wieman, C. (2011): Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-4.
Haak, D. C.; HilleRisLambers, J.; Pitre, E.; Freeman, S. (2011): Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332 (6034),1213-6.
Musante, S. (2012): Motivating tomorrow’s biologists. Bioscience 62(1): 16.