From where I sit - Studious Sue, not-so-clever Trevor

May 14, 2009

Earlier this year, I attended a tertiary educators' training session in which we watched a 2006 Danish film about the changing nature of students - Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding, by Claus Brabrand and Jacob Andersen.

According to the film, there are two types of student: "Robert" and "Susan".

Susan is a "good student". She completes all the required reading before tutorials, attends lectures with interest, takes notes and does further reading. She is at university because she likes studying and learning - in fact, she is almost teaching herself.

Robert rarely does any of the reading. He usually finds lectures boring and a waste of time. He does the minimum he needs to do to pass. He is at university for "a piece of paper" - a degree to get a decent job.

Ideally, all our students would be Susans. The film claims that the majority used to be, but adds that these days, most of them are Roberts.

A young friend recently told me that his girlfriend, who is in the final semester of an undergraduate degree, didn't often go to one unit's tutorials because the attendance component was worth only 10 per cent and she did well on assignments.

I remarked that 10 per cent was worth an extra grade. He replied that she didn't care about that, because she only wanted to pass the unit so she could get her degree.

Actually, the gap between Susan and Robert is not as great as it first appears. Susans also want the "piece of paper", and most of them will have to join the full-time workforce when they finish university.

As for the Roberts, at least they aim to get through their degrees, although sometimes they miscalculate and fail when they thought they would scrape through.

This happened to a thirtysomething friend who admitted to being a Robert. He said that nothing could engage him at university because he was only there to pass.

Funnily enough, he ended up failing his final subject, so as well as having an unfulfilling time at university, he doesn't have the piece of paper either. Now, thanks to work commitments, it is hard for him to find the time to study for that final grade.

Clearly, we have to educate the student majority, the Roberts, and gear our teaching towards them, since the Susans mostly teach themselves anyway, right?

"Teach so that Robert behaves like Susan," the film said.

With all respect to Messers Brabrand and Andersen and their excellent film, I suggest that there is another type who is threatening to take over the role of "bad student". Let's call him Trevor.

He has been coached through school examinations to get into a course that requires a high entrance mark. Yet in reality, Trevor has limited general knowledge, is not well read, doesn't know how to use the library and doesn't care.

Trevor's parents insisted that he went to university and are paying for him to do so. He is not that fussed about much, because what is really important to him is playing games and having fun. But as long as he is enrolled, his parents will keep paying the bills. Now, who can come up with a teaching strategy for Trevor?

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