Posted tagged ‘students’

Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled

January 20, 2015

A former colleague with whom I worked in another institution a good few years ago told me recently that, about half way through a lecture, he had asked his class a question. No one responded. By this I don’t just mean that no answer was offered; there wasn’t even much evidence that the students were aware that a question had been asked of them. In fact, it turned out they were almost all focusing on their phones and tablets, because someone was live-tweeting an event in which they all had an interest. My friend suddenly realised he was talking to himself.

In this case there may have been a particular reason for the student inattention, but even in other circumstances it has become difficult to know how long students will focus on the teaching. A few years ago the BBC reported on a survey that had found that ‘the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes’. A more recent American study had this finding:

‘The researchers observed a pattern in which the first spike in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, likely reflecting the same “settling-in” period of disruption… The next consistent spike in reported attention lapses occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, followed by another spike at 7 to 9 minutes, and then another at 9 to 10 minutes into the lecture. This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.’

If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching. If in addition we factor in the impact of personal technology such as smartphones and the ease with which they provide nearly indetectable access to something other than what is going on in the classroom, we would have to wonder about the possibility of significant learning taking place at all in such settings. Part of the answer is to have as much ‘active learning’ as possible: when students are asked to do something, the evidence is that they pay more attention. Part of it is probably also related to the communication skills of the teacher. But overall we need to accept that traditional teaching may not engage students much these days, and we must ensure that we employ an active assessment of pedagogy that never assumes we must always continue to do what we did before.


Student leadership?

June 12, 2012

Ever since the mid-20th century, when students became more vocal in defence of their interests and universities started cautiously to include them in decision-making, the question has been asked as to how far this process should go. What, in other words, is a ‘student’?

Are students disciples who sit at the professor’s feet? Are they partners in a learning experience? Are they judges of quality in a university? Should they have a hand in curriculum design? Should they determine a lecturer’s career progression? Should they help to appoint the institution’s chief officer? Are they customers, who pay the money that maintains the institution?

As an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper shows, there is no unanimity in these matters. Some academics are enthusiastic supporters of student engagement, while others are concerned that students do not have the maturity to determine or judge programme content, and moreover are conflicted as they have a vested interest.

But these contrasting views demonstrate that, after a couple of decades of higher education reforms of one kind or another, there is little clarity as to what higher education actually is and what it is intended to achieve. The student voice is, as most will agree, a vital part of higher education. Recognising students as partners in education rather than just the recipients of teaching is a vital pedagogical insight.  Perhaps it is time to follow this up with a recognition of students as fellow stakeholders in the universities overall. The student voice, when encouraged, must be a valuable asset.

Student enterprise?

January 3, 2010

Here’s an odd news item: apparently last month the police were called to a student residence in the University of Arkansas, as neighbours had complained that a group of students had ‘reptiles and marijuana’. There wasn’t any marijuana, but yes, plenty of reptiles:  an alligator, a rattlesnake, six pythons and three chameleons. It seems the students in question had started quite a neat business, acquiring free reptiles on the internet and selling them on.

Just in case anyone gets any ideas, we are going to keep our eyes open in DCU to ensure there are no signs of reptiles in the residences. But there is a serious point here about how students get the means to maintain themselves while studying. A few years ago an informal survey revealed that a significant percentage of students were engaged in what would technically be considered full-time employment. This had significant implications for student attendance at classes; and there were occasional suspicions that the money so earned was not always paying for daily necessities and study materials.

Of course it has now become much more difficult for students to find such employment. Furthermore, the assumption that was still normal when I was a student – that parents paid for their children’s living expenses while they were students – cannot be taken as normal now.  So as we continue to look at ways in which higher education can be paid for, and as student contributions (whether in the form of tuition fees or other forms of payments or loans) are considered, we need also to assess how student living expenses and educational materials can be funded. Employment or entrepreneurial activities can be part of any model, but this needs to be compatible with their educational tasks and responsibilities.

Taking notes

December 16, 2009

Today I had reason to cast my mind back to October 14, 1974, the date on which I attended my first lecture as an undergraduate student. The place was the Old Chemistry Theatre in the then science building in Trinity College Dublin. No, I wasn’t a science student, I was reading law: but in those days Trinity had few adequate lecture theatres, and this was one we used quite a bit. It was an interesting location, as there was always a faint whiff of gas in the room, and on the benches you could read what seemed at the time to me to be the rather nerdy graffiti of the chemists.

Next to me at this opening lecture was a girl whom I was meeting for the first time on this occasion. I don’t actually know what happened to her since our Trinity days, but by heavens she was organised. As I watched her unpack her bag I was amazed to see colour-coded binders and pens, and as she opened up her note book and held her pen at the ready, she offered the observation that academic success was all about ‘keeping a good set of notes’. Then the Professor of Law entered and began lecturing (with minimal introductions, as I recall), and my neighbour was off! Head down, as far as I could tell she took down every word he said. Even when he repeated his statement (as he often did), she took it down again. She didn’t do shorthand, but she was a fast writer, but the speed of the writing that was required made her look agitated at times. I was so fascinated by this display I didn’t take down a single word on that occasion. As a result I never worked out what was the initial argument that introduced us to the law of torts. At the end of the lecture I’m not sure she did, either, but she could certainly look it up; I couldn’t.

A few years later when I started lecturing, one of the things that irritated me most was when a student was visibly just transcribing my words of wisdom without stopping to think about them. I used to interrupt my own lectures from time to time to invite such students to make a comment, and to encourage them to see the lecture as a dialogue rather than a speech. I succeeded with some, but there were always others to whom a complete set of notes was a matter of religion rather than of learning. To try and re-educate these I sometimes told students that, for a few minutes at least, they were not allowed to write anything – they should just listen and then respond.

I wonder what it is all like now. Recently I was chatting to a group of students and asked them whether they took notes at lectures, and what approach they had to them. Some never went to lectures and so couldn’t offer a view, but those who did seemed to me to have an approach not unlike that of my neighbour in the Old Chemistry Theatre. And indeed the non-attenders thought this was great, because their approach to picking up what they were missing was to borrow (or even buy, I discovered) the regular attenders’ notes.

It seems we still have a way to go before we have persuaded students that active learning trumps highly organised regurgitation. But then again, when I put that to the students I was talking to, they replied that they would believe me when first they saw a hyper-organised note-taker fail the exams, or at least perform at a grade worse than a 2.1. We are, they suggested, good at talking up the value of active learning, but very bad at rewarding it. So maybe that’s something to think about.

Do students read?

July 14, 2009

Recently I had an opportunity to chat with a group of law students from a number of different universities. I mentioned to them a book considered to a legal classic, and was astounded that not one of them had ever heard of it, much less read it. I then asked them about a number of other seminal books, about some famous cases – and when again none of them had read any of these, I turned it around and asked them to tell me what they had read or were reading. There was a good deal of hesitation, but when some of them started to tell me what they had read it became clear to me that they were mainly reading standard textbooks, but no monographs, no classics, and it seemed to me no case law.

These were all law students, and indeed they may not have been representative of the wider group. But I am aware of the many pressures students now face (not excluding pressures from their jobs, which many often have or need to have for financial reasons), and also of the changing habits of young people today, and I have started to wonder whether students are more generally failing to read the primary texts and materials of their subject areas. If that were so, it would be a serious issue.

I think that it is important that we persuade students that the purpose of their studies is not to learn answers but to gain a deep understanding of the subject. This cannot be achieved without serious and wide-ranging reading. We also need to make sure we are giving them the time and space to do this.

Are my concerns justified, or did I merely encounter an unrepresentative sample?

The flexible degree programme

April 9, 2009

I used to have a German friend who was by inclination, temperament and vocation a university student. When I last had contact with him in the mid-1980s he had been what we would call an undergraduate student, in the same course, for nearly nine years, and he was showing absolutely no sign of wanting to bring that phase of his life to an end. For all I know he is a student still. In this part of the world we have taken a very different approach: your degree programme is, probably, three or four years long, and most students will complete it in that timeframe; a small number may fail enough examinations to extend their progress by a year. But that’s it, really.

Our approach to this has been guided by economic prudence – it is expensive to keep a student on a course – and educational principle – students should focus on their studies and complete them in a timely manner. This has been based on the implied assumption that a student is, usually, a full-time learner. But a lot has been changing. As participation in higher education has grown dramatically, so the student body has become much less homogeneous and different persons have different needs. For example, a significant number of students nowadays help fund their time at university by engaging in what is often nearly full-time paid employment. This can result in a situation where the student struggles to keep up with their studies for lack of time.

It may be that we need to find some middle way between the not uncommon permanent student found in Germany and the strictly regulated programme duration in our own universities. As universities are increasingly operating modular systems it should become easier to design pathways that leave the student with more flexibility (for example as to how many modules to take in a given year) while still maintaining a degree of supervision and proper academic rigour. This, for example, is one of the aspects of DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation.

Neither our student body nor their expectations and needs are the same today as they were when higher education was much more elitist. Not only do we now have many more students who need to work to have an adequate income to live off, we have more mature people whose professional expectations have been overturned by economic events and who may benefit from retraining, but who cannot simply slot into the old ‘full-time’ courses. We need to ensure that we support the drive to open up higher education much more, and we need to be flexible in pursuit of it.

Debating the future

December 17, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to participate in a debate organised by DCU’s Debate Society. The topic was university tuition fees, and I was one of several speakers (including the Labour Party’s education spokesperson, Ruairi Quinn). It was a lively event, and at the end, as you might possibly guess, the majority of those present voted against the reintroduction of fees.

However, my point here is not about fees, but rather about debating as a student activity. The event was attended by a reasonable number of students, but the room was by no means full. The quality of the contributions was good, but there wasn’t altogether the undercurrent of passion that accompanies really good student debates. For a debating society to succeed, it needs topics that stimulate real bursts of fire, the active participation of articulate and quick-witted debaters, good visiting speakers, regular injections of humour, and lively and full participation.

As a student (in some other university), I was an active debater and a committed participant in the main debating society of that university. We did not always manage to have debates of genuinely high quality, but it happened often enough for students to want to be there on every occasion. It seems to me that this is a really important ingredient of student life, and in many ways a vital aspect of a good education.

Debating is however also a by-product of good teaching – if teachers encourage participation during lectures and other classes and prompt and support debates around topical issues it will help to create the environment in which student debating will prosper. The tendency of university education over the past decade or too to become too career-oriented for the students has not helped this.

The debate I attended was not disheartening. The society seems to be doing well, and the students who were there were keen to take part actively. But I suspect the time is right to encourage a whole new generation of lively debaters to emerge. In the past such students debaters became the political and business leaders a generation later.

Students as customers?

September 21, 2008

Tomorrow (or rather, I should say later today, as it’s past midnight) I shall be welcoming a new group of first year students to Dublin City University. It’s a moment I really enjoy, as you can almost smell the sense of excitement and of a new adventure amongst the people in the room – a lot of raw idealism mingled with just a tad of anxiety. It is always a moment when I experience the sense of shared ambition between the students and the faculty, and when I hope fervently that this survives and prospers throughout the time they spend with us.

One of the things I try to tell the students is that they are not here just to acquire the information and analysis that we give them – it is a much more equal relationship than that, and must be driven by a sense of shared purpose and the willingness to engage in mutual learning. And what this also raises is the question as to what the relationship is between the students and those of us who are employed by the university.

From the 1980s it became common to talk about students as the university’s ‘customers’. The thinking behind this was based largely on the desire to describe a relationship between autonomous and more or less equal parties, with the students entitled to demand support and performance from lecturers and professors. Academics on the whole have been uncomfortable with this label, in part because it suggests that higher education is a market activity in which a commodity is being bought by (or on behalf of) the students. But if they are not customers, what are they? They are certainly not just pupils under instruction and subject to the lecturer’s control.

This is important also because the gradual introduction of quality control measures into academic life has made it necessary to consider what role students should have in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the courses they are studying. Some of the early quality assurance systems almost excluded students from the process. On the whole that has been remedied, or is being remedied, but there are still questions about the extent to which student opinions should be accepted as objective measurements – the fear being, for example, that popularity will be confused with quality.

We probably have not yet resolved the issues in this debate. However, it should be clear to all of us working in universities that students are not our subjects, but our partners in the adventure of higher education. We need to treat them with respect and listen to their opinions and act on their judgements to the greatest degree possible. When we do so, we are also likely to benefit from the contribution that many many students will make to the quality of the learning experience that we, as university staff, can and should also enjoy.