Nurturing critical minds

Lecturers must do more than lecture, argues Mary Malcolm: they must develop students' intellectual-inquiry skills

October 15, 2009

Party conference season has now ended, but in the current climate there is little likelihood of university funding being a frontline issue in any general election campaign next year.

So as we continue to press for the funding we need to meet increased demand, we must also work within the conditions we find ourselves in. It is senior academic managers who are responsible for driving the changes that are required. We have to be radical, take risks and above all else rethink all aspects of our practice.

The University of Abertay Dundee is implementing an ambitious teaching and learning strategy that establishes goals for making better use of the limited staff-student contact time we have. Our strategy specifies that 60 per cent of contact time must focus on active inquiry for students at all stages of study. We are challenging tutors to ask of their teaching practice: "What is the learner doing and why?" This is an essential strategic target, placing the emphasis on developing teaching quality.

In response to complaints about contact time being too variable or too limited, it is not enough to argue that the quality of UK higher education depends on independent learning. Developing independent learners takes time, and the skills involved, which go beyond a trawl of internet sources, are best developed by subject experts. These experts lead classes in which all students are challenged to think beyond - rather than review - lecture material, and to engage fully in intellectual inquiry.

Of course, this imposes considerable demands on lecturers. But we cannot claim to be fulfilling our responsibility to develop graduates capable of high-level critical inquiry if their contact time merely comprises listening to us in lectures and then listening to us in conversation with the most able and most vocal in seminars.

We cannot claim that we are offering students a high-quality experience if we leave them to develop and practise the most advanced skills of independent inquiry on their own. We must be as open to change and as innovative as we expect our students to be, and consider what the least confident learner is doing in every class-contact hour. How does that activity develop their graduate attributes? If they are not spending the time with us in activities that contribute directly to developing these attributes - if we are providing a baseline of knowledge and leaving all else to some mysterious process of "independent learning" - we are abdicating responsibility for achieving the primary goal of higher education teaching.

It is the job of senior academic managers to ensure that this doesn't happen. That includes thinking carefully about the role of technology and not allowing "high-quality" experience to be defined as merely satisfying the short-term demands of consumer-students dividing their time between study, work and, in some cases, family commitments.

Avoiding the increasing tendency to use available technologies such as podcasts to provide rehashed lectures, the Abertay approach is to provide subject-relevant strategies for using technology to contribute directly to the development of the high-level intellectual skills defined in its "Abertay graduate profile".

We cannot assume that merely replicating online what we have already delivered through lectures makes a positive contribution. It can become the "got the T-shirt" approach to teaching and learning, encouraging students to collect materials associated with events they may or may not have attended. While appearing to offer a learner-centred approach by focusing on their short-term expectations, it may in fact reinforce a teacher-centric learning process, inviting learners to spend more time reviewing the lecturer's knowledge and restricting the time they spend in independent inquiry, encountering other views and building understanding.

We have to do better than that. We have to look at all aspects of teaching and learning, and interrogate our own practices and assumptions about our role in the learning experience. Those in senior academic roles have the reach and the intellectual responsibility to promote debate and support innovation across their institutions.

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