Too loving spoonfuls

October 16, 1998

Super student-friendly courses are now so easily digested that learners are in danger of expecting lecturers to do all the work. Alison Utley reports.

The pressure to make courses more student-centred has led to charges that students are beginning to be over-indulged. While it may not be in their best interests to have course material spoonfed to them in bite-sized chunks, that is just what some students now expect.

A growing number may even demand it and complain when they believe their lecturers have failed to deliver, as a professor at Teesside University recently found to his cost.

Alan Clements, Motorola professor of computer hardware, conducted a highly successful experiment devising his own website where his lecture notes and other material could be posted. He was up until 2am for months on end revising the curriculum and reformatting it, preparing slide shows, animated presentations and interactive exercises for his students. He even bought a digital camera so he could include photographs of his tutorial group.

"I really wanted to find a way of binding the group to the site, to allow them to feel they have a vested interest in it," he said.

"After all, if you write a book you can't change it. If you write on the blackboard students can't take it away with them. But if students say they don't understand something in a tutorial, I can modify the notes on the site before they next log on. And they can send instant messages to me too."

The experiment seems to have been a resounding success. Analysing the exam scores of several hundred students before and after the start of the experiment, Professor Clements has found that the pass rate rose from 72 per cent to 86 per cent of students.

"Although it is very difficult to separate this out, it seems more people are now getting through,'' he said.

Who could possibly have a problem with that? One student did. He finished an assignment early then accused Professor Clements of giving other students an unfair advantage when he posted further material on the site to help them with particular difficulties.

"It was very distressing,'' Professor Clements said. "But students are desperately competitive today. There is a very wide ability range and they will vote with their feet."

Feedback showed the majority of students were strongly in favour of his approach and were better motivated, finding the course challenging and interesting.

But some were negative. "They wanted traditional lecture notes and handouts, they were used to being spoonfed with talk and chalk. They didn't see why they should put any personal effort in," Professor Clements said.

This experience highlights the shifting relationship between lecturers and students which, according to social anthropologist Henrietta Moore, means academics are more likely to be regarded as artisans rather than intellectuals.

"We are expected to put together study packs, summaries of lectures, reading lists with library reference numbers and so on, so that students think they can open the package and pass the course,'' said Professor Moore, director of the London School of Economics's gender institute. "Knowledge is becoming a commodity and students expect a certain level of service for their Pounds 1, 000."

Students' expectations are increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled, she believes, and this can only lead to conflicts: "When students don't get what they want they will see staff as the cause of their frustrations.'' The old hierarchy between lecturer and student becomes blurred, altering fundamentally the nature of the teaching relationship. Ultimately, she says, academics will cease engaging with students outside the delivery of the commodity as the relationship becomes more hostile. So what can be done?

Phil Race, director of the Durham University certificate of teaching in higher education, said that a distinction can be drawn between putting more effort into helping students become effective learners without resorting to spoonfeeding. He said that it is perfectly acceptable to: explain clearly what the students are supposed to do with what they learn so that they can see the point talk students through assessment criteria so they know how to prove that they have successfully completed a task provide annotated reading lists and bibliographies but also ask students to identify further print-based and electronic sources give students a wide range of possible exam questions give interactive handouts that do not pretend to cover the topic but are a guide to students' further work.

What is undesirable, on the other hand, is to: try and cover the whole syllabus in lectures so students falsely believe that all they need to learn is in the handouts insist that students come to lectures by basing assessed tasks on the small portion of a subject covered in lectures teach directly to the subject content that is included in forthcoming exams give students a narrow brief for further reading issue full handouts giving the impression there is no point in researching further.

"The real spoonfeeding these days is about concentrating too much on the subject matter rather than stepping back and helping students to develop their skills in becoming more effective learners,'' Professor Race said.

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