Students not up to it? Throw them out into the wild

July 23, 2004

Improve their minds by swapping modules and lectures for a rigorous series of field courses, says Tim Birkhead.

I propose a revolution that will address the current malaise among teachers and undergraduates and allow some to break free from the straitjacket of modularisation imposed by educational bureaucrats.

One of the main casualties of the expansion in higher education is the loss of teacher-student contact. In one sense, the amount of "contact" has increased, but lecturers and undergraduates find large, anonymous classes unrewarding. More important, reduced interaction with teachers means that undergraduates lose out on discussions that might sharpen their minds. Two forces are responsible: insufficient resources to match increased undergraduate numbers and making research the entire focus of the academic reward system (instead of a combination of research and inspired teaching). But I have a solution - at least for those in environmental disciplines: more field courses.

In the past, field courses had a bad reputation. Disciplines such as mathematics with no field component whatsoever cashed in on and abused what was then more generous funding earmarked for "field" courses. Even among the more legitimate subjects, an extracurricular History Man component sometimes detracted from the main purpose of field courses and gave them a less than perfect image. Possibly because of their dodgy past, those who masterminded the modularisation of courses quietly forgot field courses. As a result, they are often squashed inconveniently into the vacations, with the inevitable result that undergraduates perceive them as a non-essential afterthought.

If we are to break free from our constraints, we have to live a bit more dangerously. First we should abandon the pointlessly restrictive module system. Second, we should abandon lectures and replace them with a series of small (30 students or fewer) field courses interspersed with linked research and writing assignments. I am not talking about glorified nature walks but hands-on, hard-thinking practical courses designed to develop undergraduate skills:

* Thinking ability - devise a project that tests specific hypotheses

* Practical ability - designing appropriate ways of collecting data in the field

* Writing ability - writing reports economically and unambiguously.

In short, doing what real researchers do. An added bonus is that this scheme would also transmit some of the intellectual excitement of research. The key issue, however, is running a series of field courses, each one building on the last, in which students are assessed as much on their performance during the course as they are on their report. Plenty of universities run field courses, but students usually get only one or two.

In my scheme, they would be the heart of a degree course. What's more, this scheme could easily be adapted to non-field based topics.

Here's one model. I would start with a full day in the field with students addressing a challenging quantitative problem, followed the next day by a concise written account. In the 24 hours that this was being marked (to provide feedback), the students would read Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves . Next, the meat of the course: a week during which they devise (under guidance) their own investigation. Following this would be a few days in the library to read and to write their report. I would then mark just half of each report, identifying generic errors (leaving them to figure out the others). What's more, I would do this with the rigour with which I referee scientific papers. The students would then get their reports back, review these comments and submit a revised version for final assessment.

Labour intensive for teachers? Yes, but only in short bouts. Rewarding for students? Definitely. Once students have recovered from the shock of participating in the learning process rather than being passive recipients of it, they get more out of it than an entire semester of lectures. With three or more field courses each year, the result would be better-motivated, better-thinking and more literate undergraduates.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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