Tara Brabazon: Expectations should be high – for academics as well as students

March 23, 2011

Through all the talk of learning outcomes, summative and formative assessment, quality assurance and global rankings, a silent fear hangs in the air of lecture theatres, tutorial rooms and examination boards.

A prevailing worry is that the standards of teaching and learning that prevail in one classroom are different from the expectations and outcomes in another. An external examiner may enter a university for a morning or day to review student work. They are rarely given sufficient time to read the assessments for all the courses. They are shown a selection of papers. First-year work is frequently neglected. Processes of moderation are applied unevenly.

External examiners within undergraduate programmes are burdened with a thankless role. They have a minor moment in the agenda of exam boards. They enact a ritual of thanks for the arrangements and the opportunity to review student work. If anything significant is raised, there is nodding and tittering, but marks are rarely changed. A subtle question is then asked about when this particular examiner concludes his or her term of service.

It takes great courage to question the standards of teaching and learning in universities. A remarkable book on this topic is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. They state that the quality of undergraduate learning is no longer a silent fear among academics, but a public problem for policymakers, politicians and employers.

They present a longitudinal study locating the barriers to learning in undergraduate degrees – for example, the impact of students spending time on “non-academic activities” such as drinking and socialising, which results in a lack of preparation for academic study.

“Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but – more troubling still – they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.”

They summon the customary argument that students are underprepared on entry into universities and conduct little personal study once on campus. But the authors then enact a knight’s move. It is a productive one. They state: “If one is to cast aspersions on student cultures that exist on college campuses today, one would do well to focus equal attention on the faculty cultures and orientations.”

Blame for a lack of educational achievement is not loaded on to students. Instead, a spotlight is shone on academics: their expectations, preparation and (in)ability to lift students to the required scholarly standards. Arum and Roksa focus on the disconnection between staff and students, starting from the conventional (but correct) argument that doctoral programmes do not help academics become effective teachers. Subject expertise is only one requirement for creating a successful learning environment.

The impact of a lack of specialist training in education and a focus on more pressing (or institutionally recognised) tasks is that the role of teachers in student learning is underplayed and undermined. Schools are blamed. Students are blamed. These are easy targets. It is harder to verify if an academic’s methods, strategies and preparatory work are adequate to create a context of intellectual excitement, motivation and rigour.

Sometimes it will not matter what a teacher does. A student may decide that academic learning is less important than drinking. They move through a degree doing as little work as possible hoping they will pass.

These cases exist, but they block a consideration of deeper concerns. The imperative to widen access has meant that other issues, such as the academic expectations of students when they arrive at university, have been underplayed. Arum and Roksa argue that the focus on access rather than expectations results in students drifting through university without a sense of why they are on the campus.

Occasionally, I see this problem. At Murdoch University in Western Australia, a student asked whether she should complete a degree in cultural studies or move to a career in real estate. At the University of Brighton, a young man asked if he should finish his degree in media or move to plumbing. I would understand if a student was enrolled in engineering and considering a change to mathematics, or enrolled in history and questioning whether English was of greater interest. But the gap illustrated between the degree chosen and the career aspiration suggests a lack of advice before applying to a university. Access is not the only blockage to learning. Expectations of higher education pose more complex challenges.

Arum and Roksa pose a key question and then answer it: “How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.” But instead of blaming students, their research explores the scholarly expectations of academics. They found that 50 per cent of students in their sample had not enrolled in a single course that required more than 20 pages of writing in a semester and 40 pages of reading per week.

It is easy to blame students for a lack of reading and writing, but was reading and writing required in the first place? If students are not asked to read widely and write expansively then how is improvement to be initiated? Arum and Roksa offer a clear maxim: “When faculty have high expectations, students learn more.”

The issue is how academics understand and activate these expectations. Four strategies align an individual staff member’s teaching with international standards, while ensuring a student’s intellectual development through a degree.

First, academic professional development is necessary, with concrete targets and strategies. Unfortunately, since the bureaucratisation of staff development reviews, it has become either a tick-the-box exercise or grounds for disciplinary procedures. Teachers operate at their best when they remain learners. By continuing formal education throughout their working lives, teachers understand the experience of being a student.

Second, working abroad is important. When moving outside a home country and intellectual comfort zone, academics are confronted by the limitations of their own knowledge, background and expertise. Challenging old approaches in new nations is productive and forces scholars to stretch and improve.

Third, it is crucial that academics remain research active. Although external evaluations such as the research assessment exercise apply debatable concepts of quality and impact, there are more important reasons to publish refereed scholarship. At one of my former universities, research activity was defined as producing a minimum of two refereed articles a year. That reasonable expectation ensures that each academic passes through peer review and has their knowledge assessed by at least four different scholars a year. This minimal publishing requirement confirms that the material taught to students is of verifiable relevance in the subject area.

Finally, an effective method to ensure the rigour of an individual’s mode of teaching and learning is to move beyond the home campus and examine, moderate and conduct international validations and institutional reviews. It is productive for scholars to be immersed in, for example, the distinct protocols of the Dutch doctoral system or to conduct a review of a master’s course in Australia or New Zealand. Different regulations are managed and fresh work reviewed.

This outward momentum is particularly important for English academics because of the widespread practice of using internal examiners. In doctoral processes, when an internal examiner is used, he or she must be – at best – the third “expert” in a field within a university, after the two supervisors.

Similarly, institutional protocols should intervene to ensure that external examiners are not friends of supervisors who are summoned in two- or three-year cycles. I have also seen cases in three different universities where academics who do not hold a PhD are appointed as doctoral examiners.

Because English-based PhDs are often examined by English academics, there is a lack of international inflection or review in the system. The assumptions behind this intellectual culture are worthy of discussion, particularly considering that English undergraduate honours degrees are three years in duration, rather than four as in much of the rest of the world.

There are neo-colonial arguments that the English higher education system is the best in the world, the academics within it are the best in the world and a three-year English undergraduate degree is equivalent to a four-year degree beyond Dover. Following such logic, English examiners should examine English theses because the best scholars in the world on every topic are found within this single nation.

Ignorance is the enabler of confidence. If the 19th-century goggles are removed, most scholars would recognise that – at least on some topics – the experts in a diversity of disciplines are located elsewhere. With the advent of Skype, the excuses are evaporating for not deploying the best scholars in a research field for every doctoral examination.

With professional development, international employment, research activity, and examination beyond a single nation, new ways of thinking about teaching and learning can emerge. Academics reflect on their own practice and consider alternatives.

The greatest gift Arum and Roksa offer us is a reminder: “What students do in higher education matters. But what faculty members do matters too.” Only when academics lift the expectations of themselves can student learning become a core function of higher education, rather than an accidental and inconvenient by-product of research.

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