Is staff development drivel?

February 6, 1998

No, argues Suzanne Robertson. Outdated teaching fails to equip graduates properly

What I find difficult to accept is that while no one would dispute that good research requires the close scrutiny and review of methodologies, there is powerful resistance to applying the same rigour to the methodologies used in teaching and learning.

The role of an academic in today's higher education is a challenging one. It encompasses teaching, research, scholarly activity and the administration associated with quality assurance.

Dearing should not have held any surprises for us in learning development.One point in particular sums up what our approach to education must surely be: to "encourage and enable all students - whether they demonstrate the highest intellectual potential or whether they have struggled to reach the threshold of higher education - to achieve beyond their expectations".

Do we reflect on our teaching and consider the assumptions we make about our students and their achievements, or blame lack of progress on the student, shortage of time, the modular scheme, semesters and other such factors? Some academics fail to consider the experience a student brings with them. In modern society this includes exposure to all manner of technologies. Is it reasonable to expect the teaching strategies of years gone by to deliver the outcomes which are required of a graduate applying for work in the business environment?

Much of the innovation in teaching and learning and the staff development associated with its implementation have come from the new universities. The accusation from some traditional universities that this is because of the lower A-level grades of our students and that their higher A-level grade students learn best from traditional methods is not true. If the methods enhance learning, appropriate application will benefit all students. The traditional universities which have accepted the challenge are not rushing to return to their former methods and the students are benefiting.

Only a truly ignorant person thinks they have nothing to learn. Given the accelerated development of knowledge and ease of access to it, it is even more important to realise that staff need a knowledge of how students learn as well as of their subject disciplines. Why is learning about how to ensure that our students gain maximum benefit from their studies so scorned? "I've been lecturing for 20 years, what do they think they can tell me that I don't already know?" is a common response to offers of staff development in teaching and learning, particularly in more traditional universities.

The challenge for every academic is to review their teaching practice. There is no difficulty in accepting constructive criticism, peer review and teamwork in developing their research, so why not accept that the same range of support is desirable to develop the most effective strategies to enhance student learning?

It is as if the moment we talk about students' learning, teaching is under threat. What is so disappointing about this misconception is that it prevents the improvement in satisfaction which comes from seeing the results of changing approaches. This applies to staff and students. Failure to engage with new opportunities will lead to staff and students who are ill-equipped for the changing world of work - including higher education. Graduates will not be equipped to meet employers' demands and will lack the skills necessary to adapt to a variety of challenging roles.

Students often arrive at university expecting lectures, but do we define, even for ourselves, the aims of a lecture? Is it to deliver perceived knowledge, to introduce concepts or to enthuse students? How much do students take from a lecture? The literature suggests that the answer might be very little and certainly less than the lecturer imagines. A lecture can provide up-to-date information about an academic's particular field of research, perhaps from unpublished sources, and can bring particular benefits to students. A really good lecture can be motivating and inspirational but the reverse is true and a bad lecture is not neutral but demotivating.

Do lecturers try to maximise the effectiveness of lectures by enabling students to develop skills in recording information? Do they stop to consider whether there are more effective strategies to achieve their aims?Using print, www, multiple or multimedia-based learning materials, developed in an informal interactive style, enables contact time to be spent in informed discussion, problem-solving, application, debate or other such activity. Well-written learning materials will contain activities which require students to access, select, evaluate and use a whole range of information sources. Students will need these transferable information skills not only to allow them to access the wealth of knowledge which is available but to analyse and evaluate its worth before using it to synthesise new knowledge.

Some staff become defensive because they can no longer rely on their own sphere of knowledge and find it difficult to keep pace with the development in information resources. Why not accept help from colleagues whose expertise lies in this field? Increasingly staff in learning development and information services are asked to provide staff development for colleagues at traditional as well as new universities and it is a rewarding experience for all when viewed as a partnership and not a threat.

Surely this is another part of Dearing's vision, that HE should sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones? That culture should embrace us all, staff and students. We must all acknowledge lifelong learning and not be too arrogant to admit the benefits for ourselves as well as for our students.

Suzanne Robertson is director of learning development at Sunderland University.

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