Telling the tale sparks insight

September 5, 2003

Students' understanding of a subject cannot come from textbooks alone, argues Michael Hyland.

A good lower-second essay used to be one in which a student presented all the facts while an upper-second essay presented the facts in a way that showed a student had insight or "understood". Whether that boundary still exists is debatable, but student's understanding, in contrast to knowledge, is assessable.

Understanding is the ability to use knowledge effectively, particularly in novel contexts. Students who develop understanding have the critical insight to find out more than they have been told, an ability that is attractive to employers. The distinction between knowledge and understanding is key in the debate about teaching-only universities. There is a growing belief that teaching can be adequately carried out in universities with no research tradition. Many academics intuitively believe that research supports teaching and vice versa. But is the strength of their research contribution related more to bettering students'

understanding than to bettering their knowledge?

Research-active staff argue that they are more up to date. But there are counter-arguments. One is that being up to date can be achieved through scholarship rather than active research. Another is that the content of most undergraduate courses is at least a few years old. More important, external experts are equally well placed to select up-to-date material.

Universities that go down the route of franchised courses and partner colleges implicitly buy into this final argument: the more knowledgeable academics advise and validate the courses of the less knowledgeable academics.

Research-active staff argue that they are more skilled at knowledge transfer. This empirical statement is plausible on theoretical grounds.

General intelligence theory is based on the idea that human abilities tend to be correlated; for example, someone who is good at one type of academic activity (research) should, on average, be good at another (teaching). The counter-argument is that there is no one-to-one relationship between skill in research and teaching. The research-teaching linkage arguments, therefore, are weak when limited to the transfer of knowledge.

A different picture emerges, however, when looking at developing students'

understanding. Understanding cannot be transmitted through a textbook. Like similar complex skills, understanding dawns when students engage in tasks themselves or hear "the story" of others who understand. Research is ideal for helping students develop understanding of a discipline because it allows them to develop the ability to take a problem, analyse it and find a solution.

This cannot be achieved only by having research-active staff, nor if they teach from textbooks. Understanding can be developed in several ways, including linking students' projects to research, and lecturers "telling the story" of their research so that students can view the person and processes that led to knowledge, and how that knowledge affects the outside world. If research-active staff are scarce, then it is important that universities develop strategies for promoting research-teaching linkage, such as identifying staff who can contribute best to understanding and organising curricula to include the development of knowledge and understanding.

But teaching and research are generally separated. At university, faculty and department level, one person is "in charge of" research and another "in charge of" teaching. If the latter is not research active, then the teaching strategy is more likely to involve knowledge transfer than the cultivation of understanding. The idea that a student can attend a lecture, come away with no knowledge but be affected for life by the enthusiasm of the lecturer for the subject does not fit this agenda. If institutions believe that research supports teaching they should adopt policies that maximise the benefits, and perhaps appoint someone specifically to promote research-teaching linkage.

Not all students will ever fully understand their discipline, but an environment that contributes to the development of understanding should be available to all students.

Michael E. Hyland is professor of health psychology at the University of Plymouth.

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