Get back on course

June 27, 1997

Mantz Yorke on how to make students' days more than a dull daze

In a study which I am leading in the northwest nearly 40 per cent of full-time students who withdrew from their studies in 1994/95 cited as an influence dissatisfaction with the institution. Although the importance of teaching and learning has been widely recognised, the gap between rhetoric and actual support for the development of teaching and learning remains wide at both system and institutional levels, perhaps because the bridging of it requires an interlocking structure rather than a single plank of policy.

The issues which have to be addressed include: The pressure of student numbers. One widely adopted approach to balancing the economic equation has been to increase the numbers in lecture theatres. Yet research has consistently shown that lecturing is not particularly effective for the transmission of knowledge, and is inferior to other methods in respect of higher-level objectives. Supply-side efficiency is not demand-side efficiency, nor should it be confused with effectiveness.

Semesterisation. Seen as contributing to flexibility, this has led in many cases to more summative assessment, to the detriment of the formative assessments that make a powerful contribution to student learning.

Where curricula have been unitised, coherence and progression are rendered more problematic, creating difficulties for the development and assessment of those capabilities which transcend individual units, such as self-reliance and enterprise.

Student learning. A key development in recent decades has been a growth in understanding about how students learn. Reference to the desirability of deep (as opposed to surface) learning has become commonplace - though, like that made to Schon's "reflective practitioner", it seems sometimes to be more a mantra to be muttered than something more substantial.

Students as purchasers. As students finance more of the costs of their studies, so their purchaser role grows. In a climate of flexibility some are able to switch institutions if they find themselves dissatisfied with provision. Institutions will find themselves under increasing pressure to provide learning experiences of a satisfying quality.

Quality assurance. The current system of external quality assurance (and that likely to be implemented by the Quality Assurance Agency) expects improvement to follow from review activity. However, the system deals primarily with past and present performances, and is open to criticism for not placing sufficient emphasis on the needs of the future.

Communications technology. The importance of developments in this field is widely recognised. The MacFarlane report drew attention to the need for the sector to adopt a strategic approach to its use, a call that has been echoed in the United States, notably by Carol Twigg.

The Teaching and Learning Technology Programme has made initial steps in this direction but some argue there is a need for the various communications technology initiatives at national level to be brought together within an overall framework.

This can only be a partial solution, however, since materials will increasingly become available from sources beyond the higher education sector.

Indeed, developments on the communications front are set to have a marked impact on the teaching role of academics.

There are thus good grounds for suggesting that teaching and learning will have to undergo a radical transformation if the quality of the student experience and the level of student outcomes is to be at least maintained in the future.

More of the same, as far as teaching goes, will not do. What can be done? If teaching is unambiguously construed in terms of assisting the development of students as deep and self-reliant learners, then there is scope for rethinking the nature of the student experience.

Curricula can be redesigned in order to exploit the increasing availability of learning materials, to give full weight to formative assessment, to encourage the development of the capability to function effectively in society, and to make the best use of academics' time. Formal presentations should have much less weight, and rather more should be given to various forms of cooperative learning.

A national strategy for the development and use of learning materials is needed, perhaps guided by a teaching and learning council along the lines suggested in the MacFarlane report.

Some may find this distasteful, seeing resource-based learning as commodifying knowledge and hence as inimical to the teacher's relationship with students.

However, the discerning use of material seems not to be an issue at higher degree level, where the role of the teacher tends to be more overtly facilitative: is there not a message here?

The development and recognition of teaching skills need to be strengthened, both within and beyond institutions. The accreditation of teaching through the Staff and Educational Development Association is an important step in this direction but, even if given a fair wind in the Dearing report, it will take some time to peruse the system as a whole.

The funding councils have, perhaps, different parts to play. They could require institutions to indicate how they intended to improve teaching and learning, perhaps making some funding conditional on institutional plans, with subsequent scrutiny ascertaining whether commitments had been fulfilled.

If the national quality assurance methodology were to take this approach it could be both less intrusive and also make a more positive contribution to quality enhancement.

Another initiative that lies within the ambit of the funding councils would be to build into research assessment exercises a separate component that deals with institutional research and development related to teaching and learning.

This would place a proper value on the scholarship that underpins teaching and learning, and stimulate institutions to develop themselves as learning organisations.

Much, however, rests upon the inspiration and skill of leaders if institutions are to meet the challenges of the next century.

There is a hearts-and-minds' campaign to be won - difficult where trust in senior management has eroded - if institutions are to continue to provide the quality of education for which the United Kingdom is recognised.

Students, and the nation, will ask no less.

Mantz Yorke is director of the Centre for Higher Education Development at Liverpool John Moores University.

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