Be different, be (s)quids in

Teaching graduates how to think will help them get jobs, says Tim Birkhead

August 12, 2010

Universities are like spawning squid. Forced to compete for each other's gametes, they ultimately spew out vast numbers of near-identical offspring. When conditions are good, reasonable numbers may survive, but with a sudden downturn in environmental conditions only those offspring with the right combination of traits will make it.

Imagine yourself as a baby squid-cum-recent-graduate. What traits do you need to survive and gain meaningful employment? The answer is: something different. In a world where graduates are both numerous and depressingly similar (ie, with an upper-second-class degree), you need something to make you stand out.

Despite their best efforts, universities have struggled to help students stand out, constrained, first by sheer weight of numbers, second by a pre-university experience that does little more than train pupils to pass examinations, and third, by a culture where no student fails, and in which every university, department, academic and school-teacher is micro-assessed to make sure no one fails.

One result of all this is a dreadful inertia in the way we teach. No one wants to be the department or university that gives less than 85 per cent upper seconds or firsts, etc, so everyone conforms and the system has converged into a tedious homogeneity of both method in and student out.

Environmental conditions have obviously taken a downturn. But it may not be all gloom and doom. Perhaps we can use the recession to do something revolutionary in the way we teach. Using my own experience as an example: the standard biology degree consists of lectures, practical classes, tutorials and one or more field courses, all taught in bite-sized modules and over-assessed. The outcome is all too familiar: a majority of graduates with little synthesis and little critical thinking.

Rather than focus on thinking, we have tended to play safe and stick to teaching the facts. But recent technology has devalued the learning of facts as they can now be acquired so easily, at the click of a button on your smartphone. Lecturers and professors were once cradles (or is it graveyards?) of facts and our job was to convey those facts from our brains into the brains of our undergraduates. But this is outmoded. When I mark tutorial essays or coursework for example, I rarely encounter factual errors - instead I am faced with garbled writing, incomprehension and an inability to place those easily acquired facts into a coherent framework.

In the past, we assumed that in between the facts, undergraduates would passively absorb concepts - and they often did - but we can no longer assume that.

The point-scoring-let's-assess-everything mentality seems to have turned off the genes for seeing the bigger picture. On graduating, the average student is rather like Kaspar Hauser on his first day on the streets: still needing to be taught how to think.

What graduates really need is a broad grasp of ideas and concepts, with the ability to articulate them, either in writing or verbally, in a clear, logical, unambiguous way. They also need to know how science (or whatever discipline) works. More than ever in the present climate it is these traits, plus a few others, that will get graduates jobs.

Amid the mayhem of the cuts, it may just be possible for us to wriggle free from the intellectually stultifying modular system and introduce a system that rewards thinking.

How would I do it? For a start I would abandon most lectures and practical classes. Those that we'd retain I'd make optional. If you come to university, it is up to you, not me, to make sure you get your money's worth. I would hold more tutorials: not tutorials that comprise staff ticking endless boxes to ensure that we are accountable and that the student has completed this or that, but tutorials that range freely over a wide range of topics. Interchange and engagement between academics and undergraduates is what motivates both student and teacher. For biologists (and a few others), field courses, residential or otherwise, do this superbly, but also provide an environment in which lectures/practical/statistics/quantitative biology all come together in reality.

And what about doing science? How do you tell undergraduates about doing science? Partly through doing it, of course (field courses, project work), but also by telling them or getting them to read about the lives of academic researchers - those that got it right and those that got it wrong.

I have been teaching a course like this for 10 years: it is great to teach, great to assess (the students arrange a one-day conference and present a paper that I assess) and judging from the feedback, they enjoy and value it.

And fewer assessments. Fewer, broader, more searching assessments.

Yes, this does sound a bit more challenging than what we have done before, but just think of the quality of student you could turn out! Smart squids.

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