Alone among friends

January 29, 1999

Lecturers are trying to encourage students to take responsibility for their study. But do students understand the changes that are taking place? asks Olga Wojtas

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in thinking about teaching and learning in higher education, but has anyone told the students? According to Lorraine Stefani of Strathclyde University's centre for academic practice, although academics have undergone a revolution in the way higher education is delivered, it is questionable whether students have simultaneously been kept informed.

"It is increasingly difficult to imagine that students enter into higher education with a full understanding of what their learning responsibilities will actually be," Dr Stefani told a recent teaching and learning seminar in Strathclyde, organised by the Society for Research in Higher Education and sponsored by The THES and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

There is a paradox here. Staff are trying to encourage students to be autonomous, independent learners just as the government is obliging them to pay fees for the privilege.

Ewan Lamont, president of Glasgow University students' representative council, says students may not even have got as far as addressing the paradox and are approaching any prospect of change extremely gingerly.

"You can't move too fast. Students are always likely to be the most conservative element, because we don't like being used as guinea pigs," he says. Students are suspicious of the driving force behind innovation, Mr Lamont warns. "Personal contact is very important."

But Dr Stefani stresses that talk of the independent learner does not mean "completely abandoned to one's own devices". It is more likely that we mean "enabled to become independent," Dr Stefani says.

She suggests a new approach to student induction, which tends to be slotted into freshers' week alongside more enticing attractions - not the time most conducive to effective learning, Dr Stefani says.

Direct entrants to third year at Napier University can attend an innovative credit-bearing induction programme covering effective learning and career development, most of which is in a two-week block.

Dr Stefani hails this as a model for all students, but initial induction is not enough, she says. If the academics' goal is to enable students to become independent, that implies that there will be varying levels of dependence. There is likely to be a need to support students as they develop their learning throughout a degree programme. This raises various questions: how much time should be spent on induction if it is a continuous process; who is responsible for supporting it; and how and when should it take place?

Those attending the Strathclyde seminar were enthusiastic about the concept of continuous induction but sceptical about the reality. The responsibility for students' education experience fell on all staff, they agreed.

But the student syndrome of seeing value only in work that is marked is contagious. Whether staff encourage students may depend on whether or not they will be rewarded for their efforts.

First-year students at Strathclyde University were asked if their first semester had been what they expected.

Fiona Gilchrist, 18, arts and social sciences "No, not at all. You don't really get very much individual help. You're left to your own devices, which is daunting. I got as much work as I'd imagined, but it's all thrown at you at one time."

Neil Hamill, 20, social sciences (above) "I came from college, and thought it would be along the same lines. There's more reading and a lot more that you've got to do on your own. I wouldn't say it worked out at first. It took me quite a few weeks to get into a routine. At the very beginning, there were study courses in freshers week, but I couldn't get here when they were on offer."

Mhairi Gilchrist, 18, environmental planning "It's not as intense as I thought. You're given a list of all the books you need, and all the notes you need, with a month's or two months' notice for essays. You're eased in."

Heather Dunlop, 28, social sciences (Main picture.)"This is easier than the pre-entry course, but I'm shattered the whole time because I've got two part-time jobs and a three-year-old. If the course means enough, you'll put the work in. I can't seem to get motivated, and I sometimes wish there was a wee bit more pressure. The lectures at the very beginning on study skills didn't sink in. It would be good if they did more, especially on note-taking."

Jean Paton, 40, social sciences I've done a Higher National Certificate at Kilmarnock College in social science, and this is a lot more relaxed. I've had only one essay to do - last year I had 48. I'd like to know about study skills. I don't know what tutors expect. At college I got to know the teachers better. They're more distant here.

David Hughes, 18, electronic and electrical engineering "I stayed on for sixth year at school (Scottish students sit highers in the fifth and extra highers or a pre-university course in the sixth), and this is much the same. You just recap. I haven't been given lessons in study methods. You have to be motivated. It's a bit of a problem when there's nobody on your back and the largest drinking establishment in the area is around the corner."

Julie Morgan, 18, business studies (above) "You're given help and advice, we've got booklets and guides. But the most help I've got is friends in second year telling me, 'No, you're not meant to do that.' I think it's better than school. I like working at my own pace. But it's hard when you know you can just stay in bed."

Matthew Mulligan, 18, business studies "It's more work than I thought. In the first week, there was quite a lot of introducing you to university study, especially how to write essays. You're told right from the start that you're responsible for your own study. It's a new experience to move into a flat with new people, and it's difficult to sit down and work."

Kate Nicholl, 18, engineering "At school, you expect people to say, 'This is your homework, go and do it.' Here, they expect you to get on with it. We went to a class and they said, 'You've read all this.' We said, 'No, are we expected to?" I suppose they took it as common knowledge because they have been doing it for years. They forget you're new.

Michael Faulkner, 32, arts and social sciences (above) "It's as tough as I expected, intense and hectic. I've got study skills I learned through attending further education. Here you've got to be a bit more flexible and open-minded. There is a study skills centre if you need help. The lecturers let you know how many hours you should be studying and the tutors guide you about how many chapters you need to read, and which ones you can skim.

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