Posted tagged ‘small group teaching’

Higher education’s ‘bad ideas’?

November 15, 2011

According to Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University and a senior politician in both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations, higher education suffers from some ‘bad ideas’. Two of the perhaps surprising ones he lists in an interview with the Washington Post are the end of mandatory retirement in US universities, and small group seminars.

In relation to mandatory retirement, Summers argues that as tenured professors hang on into their old age the average age of the academic staff rises, disconnecting them from the young student body.

The problem with small group teaching, he suggests, is that ‘professors are loathe to give bad grades to students they see at the other side of a table every day.’ In other words, he believes that teaching a small number of students makes it difficult to treat them objectively, and this in turn stokes grade inflation.

Larry Summers is not a typical spokesperson for the academic community, but on the other hand he has a ready audience for his statements. So then, is he right in relation to these points? It has long been my view that the compulsory retirement of academics (and others, for that matter) is now hard to justify. But of course an older average age follows – and does this indeed create an academy to which students will find it hard to relate? And have we been wrong all along to seek to defend small group teaching? Or could it be that better grades flow from the better attention students get, rather than from familiarity?

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Really small tutorial supervision

January 26, 2011

Many years ago when I was a student, I visited a friend in Oxford. As I arrived he had just come from a tutorial, at which he had been alone with the tutor (which was normal in Oxford). I had always envied Oxford students their one-on-one tutorials, but as he explained his experience I changed my mind, and I have never again thought of it as educationally good. He had been asked to prepare an essay in advance. He had read this out to the tutor during the session, as the tutor stood looking out the window. When he had finished (after perhaps 25 minutes), the tutor rummaged around on his shelves and then handed my friend a book, opening it at a particular chapter. He asked my friend to read this, which took a perhaps another ten minutes. Then the tutor asked my friend to suggest ways in which the chapter he had just read was relevant to his essay. Then the tutorial was over.

About three months ago I drew attention in this blog to Oxford’s recent attempts to raise philanthropic donations to resource their one-on-one tutorials, and to the possibility that the university might have to abandon them because of the cost involved. Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge University may also end one-on-one tuition (called ‘supervisions’) in order to save £600,000 each year, as part of a general review of costs.

If I were in Oxford or Cambridge I would also be arguing for the ending of this particular teaching practice, but not for budgetary reasons. I think it is pedagogically wrong. As research has shown, the value of small group teaching lies not just, and maybe not even primarily, in the interaction between student and instructor, but rather in collaborative learning between students. For this to be effective the groups have to be small, but they do need to contain more than one student. The teaching methods used traditionally in Oxbridge have probably helped to create a sense of having been through a special learning process, but I would doubt whether they have really nurtured the students’ analytical and critical skills to the fullest extent. It may be, therefore, that financial pressures will force Oxford and Cambridge to make reforms that will, in the end, improve the quality of the learning available there. And if a byproduct is greater value for money, then so much the better.

For the rest of us, however, it may be worth reflecting again (as I have suggested before in this blog) that small group teaching is a major strength of our higher education system. We should not lightly let it go. In many institutions it has already been lost.

Educational quality: the student to faculty ratio

April 20, 2009

We know that the global university rankings compiled by the magazine Times Higher Education use student-staff ratios as one the key criteria for the league tables. Interestingly, the only Irish institution that makes it into the top 100 on that basis is Dublin Institute of Technology. And we also know, in the context of the continuing budget cuts in Ireland and the anticipated further reductions in public expenditure later this year that the position of Irish universities in this regard will erode further; indeed, quite apart from the budget cuts there is now the public sector recruitment embargo that has, with some modifications, also been applied to higher education.

In fact, even in much better times the student-staff ratio in Ireland has been bad by international standards. And it is probably fair to say that neither our politicians nor, if we’re honest, the general public really believe that in terms of academic faculty we are under-staffed. There are however not just global rankings affected by this, there are also major pedagogical considerations. In principle the Irish system of higher education has subscribed to the British model of teaching that uses the lecture as a tool for communicating and disseminating information and an evaluation of that information, and small group teaching (in sessions variously described as tutorials, classes, seminars, demonstrations, supervisions etc) to undertake discussion, critique and analysis. Small group teaching is also used to allow students to develop their presentation and communication skills.

These latter sessions only have intrinsic merit if they are genuinely conducted in small groups. If you take the Oxbridge model, ‘small groups’ ideally consist of one student, but perhaps two or three are also acceptable. That was never a viable option in Ireland. When I first began lecturing my tutorial groups typically consisted of eight or so students, but I am told by academics from around the system that it is far from unusual to be teaching to upwards of 15 – at which point it clearly is no longer a small group session.

Maybe such education is no longer affordable. But if it isn’t, we need to undertake a proper pedagogical analysis of what could be an acceptable alternative; and we may also need to persuade the international educational community that the student-staff ratio is not an appropriate criterion for compiling international league tables.

But what we should not do is to imply some ongoing commitment to staffing levels that permit small group teaching while at the same time standing by as our ability to undertake that is eroded beyond a point at which we can still actually do it. We have, I think, reached that point, and we had better get serious about developing a model of higher education that can hold out a realistic promise of a quality student experience within our existing and likely future constraints.

Is small group teaching doomed?

November 24, 2008

In the university system in these islands, one of the basic points of consensus, at least in pedagogical terms, is that learning is most effective when teaching is conducted in small groups. This has had its most pure form in Oxford and Cambridge, where traditionally tutorials (or ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge) were conducted on a one-to-one or maybe one-to-two basis; and while this Oxbridge system may be ideal, it is generally recognised as being unaffordable for most higher education institutions. However, small groups of somewhere between five and eight students provide an environment in which the interaction between tutor and student, and indeed between the students, can significantly enhance the learning experience.

In fact, small group teaching at that level has become quite rare. When I was a student in the 1970s in Trinity College Dublin, we did have eight (or so) students in each tutorial or seminar, but by the time I left the norm was already eight or nine; and when I began lecturing in the same institution two years later I was told that groups smaller than 15 were too labour-intensive to be affordable. When I was in Hull in the 1990s, it was actually being suggested in some official papers that small group teaching was elitist and pedagogically suspect, but you could sense that there may have been resourcing considerations at the root of that suggestion.

Now as we face further and increasingly severe cuts in Irish higher education funding, we have to start facing the reality that the money we get cannot pay for small group teaching in any systematic way. We need to start addressing the impact of this and explaining it more coherently than we may have done so far. What we are experiencing right now is a fundamental change to our understanding of how we should design the student’s learning experience, but this is being done by stealth and without any real consideration of the educational principles and consequences involved.

It is time to address the matter more systematically. The arguments about how we teach and learn most effectively are not familiar to the public, or even the politicians; they need to be.