Sussex probes mechanics of learning

February 28, 1997

HOW DOES a student's background affect the way he or she learns? The mechanics of learning will be central to a large consortium-based project being led by anthropologists at the University of Sussex.

Their discipline lends itself well to such a project, as leader Sue Wright points out.

Anthropology has grown considerably over the past ten years, from less than 200 single honours students to more than 700 in 1995. And many more within combined studies.

Not only are students coming from different backgrounds, but the settings within which they study are far more varied.

With consortium partners in 20 universities, Dr Wright's project aims to create a programme of educational development involving staff and students in anthropology which will look at the relationship between students' backgrounds and the process of learning, among other things.

Two different styles of teaching and learning have emerged, says Dr Wright. "The purpose of teaching anthropology according to the substantivist approach focuses on conveying a body of ethnographic knowledge and theory. In the imaginationist approach, however, the aim is to convey an anthropological imagination."

This takes account of how students use knowledge, what they do with it in every day life and work. The previous experience of students thus becomes central to learning in a new way.

But Dr Wright stresses that this does not necessarily preclude the continuation of traditional teaching methods such as lecturing.

"It may well be that in order to handle more students we have more lectures. How else can we handle the numbers without more resources?" she asks.

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