'I've had third-year students ask: 'is it ok to put bullet points in an essay?'

May 12, 2006

Lin Norton's own Damascene conversion to fully engaged learning informs her pedagogical research.

Is higher education becoming a pseudo-experience? Lin Norton, professor of pedagogical research at Liverpool Hope University, believes that a climate in which students are seen as "customers" threatens the high quality of a university education.

Professor Norton, who this week gave her inaugural lecture, said academics must resist student pressure to overexplain what they had to do to get particular grades. It might seem useful to explain assessment criteria, Professor Norton said, but her research shows that this leads students to focus on superficial issues rather than on what they should be learning. "I've had third-year students ask, 'is it all right to put bullet points in an essay?' or 'when you say you want journal articles, how many?'"

Higher education has the power to transform people's lives by changing their ways of thinking, but this is undermined if degree courses are reduced to telling students what they need to do, she said. "You can't commodify wisdom or citizenship."

Professor Norton did not go directly into higher education as she was ill during her A levels and did not do as well as expected. She became a librarian and then studied psychology and English as a mature student. "I worked my socks off but wasn't getting high grades. Then I realised they didn't want cut and paste, they wanted your input. It was a real road to Damascus experience. All my life I've done research in the area of student learning because I believe in it so passionately."

Students did not always know what was best for them, she said. "If you ask whether they'd rather have easily digested material that they can regurgitate or do a lot of work where it might not be clear where they're going but they would be wrestling with difficult ideas, most students would choose the first."

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