Agony Aunt: why is pushing students into research mode such a hard slog?

May 11, 2001

Q I do not want to spoon-feed students, but why do I feel that pushing them into research mode is such a hard slog?

A For the vast majority of undergraduates, the long-term shift into research mode requires the careful use of structured but open-ended guidance.

It is very easy to get straitjacketed into the hackneyed debate between hierarchical teaching methods (the traditional didactic lecture) and egalitarian ones (the free-form round-table seminar).

Many tutors assume that encouraging research-oriented learning automatically means rejecting the former in favour of the latter. In reality, badly constructed open-seminar discussions are as damaging to intellectual initiative as endless didactic lectures.

This is not because students have been bludgeoned into intellectual submission by a hierarchical teaching culture. Student resistance to tutors' urging them to research new material often comes from a reasoned sense that they lack the necessary skills and sense of context to identify, let alone address, the job at hand.

My own experience of this difficulty came when teaching a second-year class on the social history of medicine. Rather than simply telling them about key debates, I gave them articles with differing views to see what they made of them. After three weeks, the students revolted, said they were completely lost as to what they should know and demanded that I give them formal lectures.

I had assumed that my class would glean from the set reading exactly what I wanted them to, without being told what it was. I was, in effect, expecting them to be mind-readers - to understand in advance what my rationale for the course was. Interestingly, after only three lectures, they were happy to return to the previous style of learning for the rest of the course.

The challenge for tutors lies in discerning the dividing line between stating what students should know and think ("Write this next conclusion down because I'll be asking you to regurgitate it verbatim in the exam") and clearly identifying what they should be finding out about and the kind of issues they should be thinking about.

Conveying these objectives to students often needs initial lectures (to instruct and provide context) and carefully designed course handouts to act as starting points.

At later stages (in specific teaching sessions, courses and university programmes as a whole), a shift of emphasis to structured lab or small group work - and beyond that, to round-table discussions and free-form plenary sessions - can help students to build on what they have learnt.

Martin A Mills
Lecturer in religious studies
Department of divinity and religious studies
University of Aberdeen

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