Nuts and bolt-ons

March 12, 1999

Olga Wojtas talks to a sociologist who is fighting Australia's study skills centre establishment.

Growing numbers of British universities are setting up study skills centres to help students make the transition from school to higher education. But according to Allan Doring of the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, such centres could end up simply as "sources of coping techniques and low-level support" rather than enabling students to develop long-term methods for meeting the demands of higher education.

Relying on them could prevent students from abandoning the ways they had learned in school and moving on to more independent, self-regulated study.

In a seminar at Edinburgh University's department of education and society last week, Doring warned against the stand-alone study skills centre being hailed as a panacea for students making the transition.

He said Australia had seen a proliferation of such study centres in the wake of the universities' quality assurance process. But he said much of it was "window dressing".

While the idea of a centre to help students acquire learning skills is a good one and there were no doubts about the excellence of the staff at his own university, Professor Doring says that students who need help most are the least likely to seek it.

This is partly because attendance is voluntary and often students are unaware of the differences between school and university. They do not realise that they may have to change the way they approach learning.

"Quite often you got students who were anxious and insecure, a little bit lost, but underneath they had basic learning skills," he said. "You didn't get those who needed them, who said 'I can cope, everybody can cope with university - note-taking, you just copy it down, don't worry about understanding it, a good essay must have 25 references.'" Other students who might have benefited avoided the study centre because "you only go there if you're dumb".

Problems arise particularly when study centres are a bolt-on extra, Doring believes. Their work is hampered by not being integrated with subject teaching. The real need is to embed the shift in approaches to learning within academic units rather than as stand-alone courses.

Doring is a sociologist and recently stepped down as head of ACU's school of education to devote more time to research. He concedes that his views are not universally popular. "I've had some horrendous fights with our study skills people, because they see themselves as an empire."

He is also under fire from academics who want to stick to their discipline rather than having the extra task of encouraging students to develop independent learning skills.

"A number of academic staff in my experience are very insecure people. They are secure when they're hidden away turning out articles. Otherwise, they are the 'sage on the stage'. It's a power game: 'I know more than you, so shut up and listen'."

As chair of the student disciplinary committee, he has found academics demanding that students be disciplined because they have been "disruptive" in tutorials by interrupting and saying they do not understand.

The students hate him, he says cheerfully. He sends them off to read and analyse an article. Their idea of analysis is to identify what they think is the most important point, and mark it in highlighter.

"I ask what the writer's trying to tell them, what does it mean, is it of any relevance to them? I have no problem if they think it's all rubbish, just tell me why," he said.

"I caused a bit of an upset with the fourth-year education students. They asked what they needed to know for the exam. I said: 'I don't know, but I'll give you the exam question. I want you to tell me why you should pass this course in two hours'.One student announced: 'I deserve to fail. I've learned nothing,' and skipped the exam, but those who stayed turned in absolutely magnificent work," Doring said. "I'm thinking of setting an exam with three columns: what is the most important thing you think you are learning? why? and what are the implications for you as a teacher?" There needs to be more research into student self-efficacy, their view of their own competence, he said. Students could then be given graded tasks, ensuring that they were building on success rather than being left to sink or swim. "For example, in first year, the biggest essay could be 800 words, with 1,200 words in second year, rather than having a 5,000-word essay in the first semester."

Students who do not learn how to cope with the transition to higher education are in danger of failing or dropping out, a personal loss to them and an economic loss to the country, Doring says.

Universities arguably have a social responsibility to do more to help them, and this means that individual academics have a responsibility not only to their discipline, but also to the process of learning, rather than seeing this as the sole preserve of the student or the study centre.

"You can't package up responsibility. Everybody's got to be responsible," Doring said.

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