Stop justifying the unacceptable

October 3, 1997

Why do academics continue to cling on to teaching practices that are outdated and do not work? David Jacques argues that it is time to stop believing the myths

Resistance to change often comes across in academia as an intellectual defence. Take one psychology lecturer's words of wisdom: "The way we teach (a lecture-based course) has stood the test of time"; or a humanities tutor: "What evidence have you got that the methods you propose have any relevance to us?" The academic community has never been overly keen to exercise its scholarly principles to look at, never mind act on, research evidence in teaching and learning.

The basic problem is that change is always a threat: that of moving from the known to the unknown. For academics, whose stock in trade is knowledge,this presents something of a double whammy. The prospect of changes in teaching, where of course the ego is on the line, typically provokes intense argument over the precise meaning of terms, or a plain denial of the existence of a problem.

But perhaps more interesting, at least in anthropological terms, is the creation of myths as a means of justifying the unacceptable: myths that are embedded deeply in the culture yet serve to impede the improvement of teaching and learning.

Myth 1: The best teachers are those with the best academic qualifications Many, but not all, academics will have been outstandingly successful as students and may have worked very hard and single-mindedly to that end. Supposing then they progress to a PhD and at the end of three years of pretty isolated study move seamlessly to a teaching post.

Here they may find their interpersonal and social skills put to the test for the first time in many years, if ever. And of course they may have had no preparation and training for what may for them be a traumatic experience. How do they cope? Often by retreat, denial, rationalising, blaming - all defences against accepting fallibility and the concomitant anxiety and pain.

So what results? A lecturer who cannot be heard or understood, who reads from notes, talks to the board, fails to connect and shows no interest in how the students learn - one who clings to the forms of teaching that he or she experienced as a student.

And there is the safety of the known. So in seminars the predictable lack of preparation by students may lead to the tutor feeling duty-bound to deliver a mini-lecture and thus devalue student discussion as a prime mode of learning. The lab with cookbook experiments, boring and meaningless to all parties yet safe in their predictability and minimal challenge. The teacher-centred lecture prepared with rigour and scholarship, yet with little thought to what the students' learning task is in relation to it.

The problem is compounded in that by definition, most academics will not have experienced the same kind or level of learning problems as the majority of their students, or perhaps be aware of the rich variety of learning styles among any class of students. So here are a few suggestions: * Appoint 20 per cent of new lecturers from those who have pass degrees or lower seconds but who can show ample evidence of the interpersonal and organisational skills necessary to teach and manage students' learning

* Require all new appointments to demonstrate their ability to teach, not merely to a panel of peers, but to students (amateur orchestras and choirs give would-be conductors a trial rehearsal).

* Require all lecturers to submit their teaching to peer scrutiny every five years.

Myth 2: The lecture is, all considered, the standard and most effective teaching method in higher education.

The amazing thing is how indestructible the one-hour lecture as an institution appears to be, despite loads of evidence about its limitations.Exceptional lecturers there may be who can carry it off, but the rule that this exception proves is that the majority of lectures not only encourage but demand passivity among students when it is well known that: * learning is far more effective when the learner is active

* 20 minutes is about the maximum attention span for those on the receiving end

* people can read three times faster than they can speak and therefore hear.

Perhaps the main problem is not merely the security of the known, but the unfortunate tendency of teachers to become dependent on their students' dependency, and the lecture is a prime "pusher" in this addictive process, as is much of the assessment system. Maybe this need for dependency is also behind the general reluctance to use self and peer assessment, whose value not merely in terms of studentlearning has long been recognised; and it can reduce the oft-bemoaned marking load. Such strategies mean handingauthority over to those unused to it and hence threatening the dual dependency.

Anyone thinking of making radical departures from the norm had better take heed of a notice that frequently appears on classroom doors: "Please return the furniture to its proper position after the class has finished." Proper position! For what? They mean of course straight lines facing the front, but what a powerful statement of the unquestioned values of the system with the suggestion of impropriety for methods that do not conform to it.

Suggestions: * Classrooms could have a set of alternative layouts of chairs and tables on transparencies that the teacher can plonk on the overhead projector and say to the students "That's how I'd like the furniture set out for this session"

* More classroom furniture that allows for flexible arrangements so that the communication pattern can be more easily varied

* Greater use of soundproof partitions to enable flexibility in the amount of space used, and thus in the preferred teaching method, suitable at any point in time.

Myth 3: Universities practise what they preach in promoting autonomous learners.

Though many a mission statement proclaims the development of autonomy as one of its central goals many of the common practices in teaching and assessment militate against it. Risk-taking is not encouraged in seminars where students compete for the positive regard of the tutor.

For some reason the tutor's presence is seen to be necessary for proper learning to take place, though most of us know from our student days that the best learning as often as not took place in peer groups without a tutor. The traditional seminar has students anxiously preparing and presenting what they are not very good at - a mini-lecture - and consequently creating a mix of shared anxiety and boredom among their colleagues. And it is not unusual to find students drawn into adversarial point-scoring that inhibits many students into non-participation.

Essays and formal reports are seen as not only proper, but the only forms of assessment in many subjects. Alternatives that might allow students to show what they can do best are ignored.

Their assessment creates problems of autonomy too. The post hoc discovery of the criteria by which they are assessed means that students have to engage in an arcane process of detection through the, often inconsistent, feedback from tutors. And the lack of clear up-front criteria means that tutors double their own workload in repetitive reminders to students on what they are looking for. What is more, students may have to wait on the tutor's convenience for the return of their written work, often far too late for the feedback to be of much value.

Students are rarely asked to gauge the worth of their own efforts or of their peers, a factor that may have serious implications for their subsequent professional competence. If students were required to do no more than a quick assessment of their own essay or report on its strengths,its weaknesses and what they would like feedback on, then that might at least ensure that students do a little more than glance at the mark when it is returned.

My suggestions are:

* break the mould of the traditional seminar, set tasks other than formal presentations; leave the room from time to time

* use a wider range of assessment methods congruent with what you want the students to do and learn as well as with some of their own predilections

* delegate more of the assessment responsibility to students with whatever limitations and checks you prefer (eg they give each other feedback but not marks; you conduct spot checks on a random number of them) and make marking criteria explicit

* tutors have a written contract with their students on the turnaround time for marking papers

* in science and technology, reduce the number of cookbook experiments - get students to design their own experiments, locate prepared mistakes.

Myth 4: Successful teaching departments are those with a highly academic culture

An article in the US magazine Change describes research that found that the organisational context in which teaching occurs has a profound effect on the quality of teaching and learning. Departments exhibiting traditional aspects of academic culture: working in isolation, blinkered specialisation, conflict avoidance, division of labour between senior and junior staff, overemphasis on research, indefensible salary differentials and superficial evaluation of teaching, were found wanting.

Effective departments were those that embodied a supportive culture where colleagues talk to each other frequently both informally and at staff seminars and away days, where differences were aired and tolerated, where generational and workload equity were practised, course responsibilities rotated every three or so years, both peer and student evaluation of teaching were taken seriously, the reward system balanced teaching with research, where decision-making was consensual and participatory, and where the head of department was committed to undergraduate teaching.

Unfortunately, many of the trends in higher education militate against these options - competition for funding, limited resources, and appointment and reward systems that emphasise research at the expense of teaching. After all, the hard evidence is that teaching and research are more or less independent activities and that where they are seen to be in competition with each other it is usually teaching that loses out. And as not all teachers are particularly good at research, much time and energy can be diverted from the teaching task by people trying desperately to prove themselves in a form of work they are either not good at or have lost the drive to pursue.

At one US university academics are asked at the end of each year what their balance of preferences will be for the coming year between teaching, research and administration/organisation, so that they can take a break, or focus on developing themselves in a particular area rather thathaving the perpetual pressure to succeed in research. There is a need to design or redesign the physical space in departments so that academics are not perpetually shut off from each other and their students and have more space for informal meetings and encounters.

Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that academics are student-centred, continually engaged in a search for ways of improving the value of learning for all their students, not just those from the culture with which they most identify.

J. F. Kennedy once said:"The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie, the deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." The Dearing report offers a sharp incentive to do something about our myths, to drop practices that have outlived their usefulness and to put into practice what is already common knowledge about teaching and learning. Threat of the unknown is not a valid excuse for adherence to tradition.

Useful reading:

* Interesting things to do in your seminars and tutorials, Habeshaw S Habeshaw T and Gibbs G, TES Publications, 1994

* 500 Tips for tutors, Brown S and Race P, Kogan Page, 1993

* Departmental cultures and Teaching quality - overcoming hollowed collegiality, Massy W, Wilger A and Colbeck C, in Change, the journal of the American Association for Higher Education, July/August 1994

* Living with myths: undergraduate education in America, Terenzini P and Pascarella E, ibid, January/February 1994.

David Jacques is the former head of educational methods at Oxford Brookes University and an independent consultant in higher education.

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