Undergraduate-led learning is helping to create a generation of narcissistic students convinced of their own self-worth and dismissive of academics’ expertise.
That is the view of Ann O. Watters, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who says the pendulum has swung too far in favour of valuing student contributions over those of academics.
Writing in the latest edition of The Journal of General Education, Dr Watters - who is also emeritus lecturer at Stanford University’s programme in writing and rhetoric, and a practising clinical psychologist - says the move away from traditional teacher-led lectures had not been entirely negative.
“Ditching the teacher-centred, authoritarian pedagogy many mature academics were trained in…seemed like a good idea,” she writes. “Promoting active and engaged students, appealing to student interest and promoting a more community-based and democratic enterprise made sense.”
However, today’s student-led learning environment, which stresses the importance of student voices and experiences, has led to a loss of teachers’ authority within the classroom, she contends.
Teachers report widespread resistance to critical feedback or evaluation, with students asserting that all opinions are equally valid and dismissing their instructor’s in-depth knowledge of a subject, Dr Watters says.
“If we and our pedagogy encourage such high opinions of student work, can we really be surprised when they take us at our word?” she asks.
The growing “student-as-consumer” culture also raises students’ sense of status within a university, smashing the traditional campus hierarchies, Dr Watters adds.
She recounts how instructors on one of her programmes were forced to “flog their courses” to first- and second-years at a “poster night”, where they would stand by a poster on the module as students wandered by, saying “give me your spiel”.
Group discussions were often dominated by confident, talkative students and “overvalued trivial, idiosyncratic utterances and undervalued potential guidance from the more experienced”, she writes.
“We could strive to value more the subtle, quiet thinkers - the students who shine in their work and writing, but are not the active, constantly verbal, extroverted personalities who make our work easier by participating in discussions,” argues Dr Watters.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Watters said she had seen this “epidemic of narcissism” at several universities, with students on different types of course overvaluing self-expression and lacking empathy.
“It’s all just gone rather too far and needs to scale back,” she said.