Securing student participation in class
Over a cup of coffee with me the other day, three academics complained that, in their view, student participation in lectures and tutorials is not what it used to be. Most students, they felt, preferred silent anonymity in class and did not engage. Even when specifically prompted they tended to keep comments to a minimum. This had made lectures much less interactive and had made successful tutorials all but impossible.
One theory suggested by one of my friends was that students had not become less able to participate, but rather that their forum of debate was no longer in the physical world, but was now more or less entirely online. On social networking sites, or on the web, or sometimes in emails students could be vocal, inquisitive, interactive and intellectually assertive. But put them in a classroom and their familiar props were gone, and with them their sense of self-confidence and their taste for inquiry.
Another yet more pessimistic view by one of the other academics was that, finally, the learn-by-rote-and-don’t-ask-questions culture of secondary education had worked its way through the next level and was rendering students unable to be analytical or critical.
Of course whatever the reasons might be, if this is indeed a trend it is serious for society. Higher education is all about developing intellectual creativity and independent inquiry. Even where students are heavily focused on a professional trajectory, they still need to develop these skills. It will be important for universities to engage with this phenomenon and to consider how it can be tackled, so that today’s students will be tomorrow’s inventors, entrepreneurs and social and cultural innovators. The real mission of higher education must not be lost.
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