One of the things that we’re regularly told about the transition from school to university is that we will have to become increasingly independent. Where once we had – or should have had – teachers guiding our learning at every step, we are now encouraged to take responsibility for our own education.
At just about every higher education information event, would-be undergraduates are told that no one will check homework when you’re at university; no one will chase you for work; and if you haven’t completed set reading, in many cases, you are expected not to attend a class. It’s all up to you.
While this emphasis on personal motivation is valuable, it is not the whole story when you go to university. One of the problems with this individualistic style of education is that it leads us to believe that because we are responsible for our own learning, we are responsible only for our own learning and no one else’s.
If your education is centred around collaborative and discursive teaching – the seminar or tutorial – you would have noticed that learning is almost always improved, and more enjoyable, when everyone has prepared and is ready to share their ideas. If you haven’t managed to finish Middlemarch for a seminar, or thought that you needed to read only the abstract and conclusion to that journal article, it’s not only your education that is being compromised, but that of your peers as well.
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To me, it seems a waste of time to come to university and then not do the work. As an English student, it can be especially frustrating if you’re sat in a seminar and it’s plain that no one else has read what we were supposed to.
Conversations are crucial to learning across all disciplines at university because discussion and debate are how we solve problems and understand ideas. But the kinds of fruitful conversations that should be the foundation of our education are virtually impossible if we do not put the work in.
I confess, I did not always do the reading. Sometimes I was unwell; sometimes I was busy at work; sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered. It isn’t always the end of the world.
I suspect that with more and more students having to work long hours to pay for their university experience, students are going to have less time and energy to do what they are at university to do in the first place: study.
The solution to this problem, if there is one, will come from changes in how universities work and in the attitudes students adopt towards higher education. Both governments and universities should be doing more to support students in their increasingly busy and financially insecure lives, so that studying can be their main concern.
It would be equally beneficial, however, if students came to university with less of the every-man-for-himself mentality and more of a desire to get our reading done. For our sake and everyone else’s.
Charlie Pullen is studying for a master's in English Literature at Queen Mary University of London