The silent majority?

I was having a conversation recently with an American visiting professor who has just spent the past six months in an Irish university (not DCU). He is about to return home, and he was telling me about his impressions and experiences. Most of what he had to say was wholly positive. He has enjoyed his time in Ireland, and he believes he has experienced universities here that, as he put it, ‘perform miracles with minimal resources’. But one thing he found disappointing: the verbosity (or lack of it) of students.

This has been his second time visiting an Irish university. The last time was in the mid-1990s. Since then, he believes, students have become much less talkative, and also much less speculative and creative in their contributions. Fifteen years ago, he thinks, Irish students were always more than willing to try their hand at conducting an argument – though he concedes that often the arguments were fuelled by enthusiasm rather than in-depth research. This time around, he suggested to me, the research and preparation undertaken by students is much better than it was back then, but their creative originality appears to have suffered. They read everything they are asked to read, and they are extraordinarily good at recalling and expressing the things they have read. But they have become reluctant to critique any of it. When asked to speak, they seem intent on first working out what the lecturer wants to hear before delivering just that. But unless prompted fairly energetically, they prefer not to speak at all – they just write non-stop.

I cannot immediately tell whether his experience is typical, or whether he just landed an unusually reticent class; sometimes a mood can spread across a whole group. But if he is right, we need to address the issue. Higher education is about an exchange of views and the mutual testing, between faculty and students, of ideas. Original and creative thinking, and its expression, must be the cornerstone on which much else is built. As a country we must not allow a culture of passive learning to become the norm. So in the first instance, I am interested in how good a description of today’s students my American colleague’s comments are.

If students have indeed gone silent, they need to be roused.

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5 Comments on “The silent majority?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    To the extent that students are passive learners I would attribute that to the Leaving Cert. But that hasn’t really changed dramatically in 15 years so that doesn’t explain what this professor says.
    Certainly I find students more passive than I would like but calls to rouse them are pointless unless we understand why this is so. I don’t know why, but many students will respond if given the opportunity and suitable encouragement and maybe its something we academics have to work harder at.
    When the issue of the re-introduction of fees arises, RTE rolls out a stock piece of footage from a large lecture theatre with lots of students using their laptops & one in particular is clearly using it to play Solitaire. The lecturer, yacking away at the bottom, is none the wiser of course. Well actually I wasn’t untill I saw it on Primetime a few days later.

  2. Vincent Says:

    It could be that the recession has drained some of the buzz out of them. For this crew would be the first that had known nothing other than brilliant prosperity from the time they became intelligently aware.

  3. Trudy Corrigan Says:

    Ferdinand, as you know we have the DCU Intergenerational Learning Project here in DCU running for the last two years. The main aim of this project is to provide a learning space where older people can meet with and learn with third level students. One module that was introduced in 2008 was an Introduction to Communications Module (we would love to run this again) and recently an Introduction to Science and an Introduction to Creative Writing in addition to ICT modules.

    What we have discovered is that if you engage older people in conversation with younger third level students then it creates a forum that facilitates discourse, creativity, critical thinking and critical reflection. This has been one of the main advantages of creating this kind of learning space on a third level campus. Not to mention the fun and enjoyment for all of us who have been part of this kind of discourse.

    Could this because many of the older learners are contributing their reflections based on a life time of experience be that of an intellectual, social or lived experience nature? It seems that when the older people meet with the energy and enthusiasm of our younger students this creates an innovative space that fosters that kind of argument and debate that was commented on by the American visiting professor.

  4. Sarah Says:

    It is interesting to read about an outsider’s view on this issue, and I agree with the visiting professor. I have had large classes (in DCU) of up to 270 students over the last few years, and have definitely noticed a decline in the level and quality of their interactions. This has been very obvious in one class in particular this year. Several times after asking them an opinion or experience question I have felt prompted to say: ‘This is not a trick question, I’m just interested in your views’. I also get a lot of: ‘Is this the kind of thing you want?’ when discussing assignment requirements, when at final year honours level I would expect them to have a clear idea of what they plan to provide, and then perhaps ask for guidance on how it could be improved.

    The students also seem very disinclined to take any kind of risk that might involve them being seen to put their heads ‘above the parapet’. Only now, at the end of the second semester am I getting meaningful questions and quality of interaction in class. I’m not sure how exactly students can be ‘roused’, but certainly agree this needs to be addressed for educational, societal and economic reasons.

  5. Gordon Says:

    Interesting point.

    I studied Communications in DCU and I always enjoyed our tutorials and seminars as I found that engaging in the subject through discussion was much more beneficial as well as enjoyable. Of course more formal lectures are needed but this more active form of learning always suited me best.

    Interestingly, the mature students amongst us were much more eager to contribute, which may support the argument that us youngsters are less vocal these days. This may be down to a youthful lack of confidence in speaking in front of people, the mature students having more experience to draw upon or just plain cognotive laziness amongst us Leaving Cert survivors.

    Having said all that, we shared classes with journalists so it was rarely a quiet class. In any case I would agree that creating these forums for educative discourse is a vital part of the university experience.

    Maybe all a lecturer needs is a tabloid sensationalist notion to entice the MTV generation into debate. Either that or the lecture halls are too comfy. A good Calvinesque bench will have them paying attention.


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