This article is more than 2 years old

Weaning students off teaching is more important during a pandemic

Is there too much focus on teaching rather than students' learning? David Baume thinks through dependency during the pandemic.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Baume is a higher education consultant and Fellow of the University of London Centre for Distance Education

I’m stuck in a student flat. Strongly discouraged from going out, for lectures and classes or for fun. Some online teaching is happening. Mainly canned lectures, and some scrappy and interesting seminars. But this isn’t the university experience I signed up for! I want to go home! I want my money back!”


I’m living in this moderately comfortable flat, with a group of new and unexpectedly close friends. They come from a variety of backgrounds. They have a variety of academic and professional interests and enthusiasms. I’ve got decent broadband, and a laptop. My head is fizzing and churning with questions and ideas about what I want to learn, who I want to become. There are a few online classes, and some assignments to do. I’ve got most of what I need. I occasionally get a bit stir crazy. We all do. The noise-cancelling headphones were a terrific buy. But I can do some great researching, reading, writing, talking, listening, arguing, thinking – in a word, studying. Apart from a couple of niggles – OK, some quite large niggles, but I’m young and resilient – really, how good does it get?”

Right now, I’m guessing more students would sign up to the first account than to the second. I hope, however, that some of them are moving towards the second.

I’m not criticising students. I’m in awe of the courage and commitment and sheer optimism that it takes to sign on for the mysterious expensive quest of three years or more full-time higher education – especially during a pandemic.

But I’m sad if students don’t feel they can give the second response. It may suggest that they are still hooked on being taught – locked into a view that being taught is the only, or at the main, the best or most legitimate way of learning. Because it isn’t.

We ought to hope that university policy was already moving students away from this dependent condition carefully, supportively and thoroughly. Right now, that move needs to be happening a lot faster.

Conditional logic

The basic conditions for learning are simple, and well known, though not universally the subject of policy or practice.

Students need some overall sense of purpose, and derived from this, some clear accounts of what they are trying to achieve, where they want to get to, goals they want to achieve; accounts couched in whatever form works for them.

Any halfway decent course should provide this information, and encourage students to make, and then develop and quite possibly change, their own personal, academic or professional sense of their purpose on the course.

They also need some activities they can do that will help them to achieve these goals. At least until they have developed the skill and confidence to design such activities for themselves.

This may be the most productive thing lecturers can do – planning learning activities, on a range of scales from small to large, easy to difficult, individual and collaborative, fully defined and partly defined and student defined against clear criteria for what makes a good learning activity. Mainly what makes a good learning activity is that it’s engaging; challenging, but do-able with effort. Above all that it’s clearly helping students to move towards their own goals and the goals of the course, which hopefully align with each other.

Writing such activities is a high-value activity. A few hours spent writing such an activity can generate a few hundred, or thousands of, good productive student learning hours.

And the rest

They need access to resources, to be used and interrogated and critiqued and gone beyond as students do the activities. Online library – tick. World Wide Web – tick. Any materials already written for the course – tick. Good, thoughtfully curated resources from other places – tick.

The ability to use all these confidently and competently and critically? This is learnable, and a vital academic, professional and personal ability.

Students need feedback. This is potentially very time-consuming, but group assessment, assessment checklists and, perhaps most productive, helping students develop the ability to self- and peer-assess for feedback – these can all raise the benefits and drive down the costs of feedback to students.

Students also need collaboration. Providing online spaces on the course where students can safely get to know each other, and some carefully crafted activities that require student cooperation – as well as giving some marks and grades for good cooperation as well as for the content of the answer.

These and other methods can bring collaboration to life, make it as natural a part of studying as it is of much academic and professional life. (if your assessment is norm-referenced in any way, then “Why should others benefit from my hard work?” is a legitimate question. So, I suggest, don’t.)

It’s all work, work, work

It’s the work that students do that generates their learning, not so much the quality of teaching. I‘ve recently read absurd, heart-breaking accounts of lecturers spending six or eight hours to get a decent recording of a one-hour lecture. This is not the best use of their time.

Ensuring that students have good things to do, and the resources and support they need to do them, is the key. We should encourage them to have conversations with other students in their flat, who may be studying completely different subjects, and learn from each other, including about learning.

We should help our students to see their current setting, not as a second-best, but as a privileged time; living and working in a community of scholars, weaning themselves off the crack cocaine of being taught, and become capable enthusiastic collaborative and independent learners.

And, when higher education opens up again, whatever form it takes, we should keep the features that we have together with students invented in these weird times, features that worked. We must not let this crisis go to waste.

12 responses to “Weaning students off teaching is more important during a pandemic

  1. I personally agree students should be weaned off teaching and geared more towards inspiration for self learning – however this should also entail the universities accounting for the fees being reduced if they are moving toward this model.

    This should be a time for BOTH students and universities to pivot and learn from the changes taking place not shy away from challenges it poses. Many student in normal times already seek a range of online lectures/youtube sources that have already learned how to better reflect remote learning/support to students. It is time universities catch up and stop saying they are doing their best in this crisis to justify the fees.

    A current university student (third degree) and life time self directed learner.

    1. Well said, you have great insight! You are a student and are best placed to make this statement. What I don’t understand is how or if at all the Universities have justified full fees?

    2. Andre
      Thank you
      As a lifetime self-directed learner, you will be fine. I hope you are enjoying your studies
      Yes, students can access far more information on they used to be able to. The teachers are no longer the sources of knowledge, nor even the gatekeepers.
      On fees – one thought. I used the metaphor of being taught as an addictive drug. Helping addicts wean themselves off can be as slow and expensive as continuing to supply them with the drugs. I agree it’s a necessary pivot. But it’s not necessarily cheaper. And it requires different skills.
      Good luck.

  2. Mmmmmmm I suppose I will need to do a self directed look up of who David is?? The article has merits for sure but doesn’t address what the University as an institution is doing nor does he put any onus on them.
    Lecturers are only a part of the process with the faculty itself partly responsible for earning the £9,500 fees our students pay. Without doubt students are not getting what they’ve paid for, no one can refute that. You are purporting that they need to think laterally but that would only cover half the fees!!! Surely?
    So, in conclusion, its not a case of either one or the other but something additional. Have you talked to many students?

    1. Shelagh
      Let me help you –
      And, yes, I’ve listened to students. Some of them want help to navigate the long bumpy windy road to some kind of independence as learners.
      I hoped I was putting the onus on the Universities. The onus to help, support, challenge, et cetera students to make the necessary transition from (maybe) dependent to (absolutely) skilled enthusiastic independent learners.
      On cost, the things I said above to Andre may help. You may or may not agree.
      Best wishes

  3. As somebody who is in University Professional Services (so neither teaching, nor a student, but working closely with both), the fees issue will always raise its ugly head.

    Is it reasonable for some students to feel as though they are not getting what they paid for? Yes, I think so. Is it reasonable for universities to continue to charge the fees to maintain their incomes, especially as many have seen their expenditure significantly increase due to Covid? Yes, probably.

    It seems to come back to the spectre of student as consumer, receiving a service that they paid for, at the same time as universities’ teaching grants were vastly reduced. No-one could have predicted Covid’s impact, but it does create this odd situation where everyone justifiably feels quite hard done by.

    Oh, and I totally agree that good university education is a mix of facilitation and self-directed learning, with tutorial support as appropriate – but that is almost a separate issue from the arguments around fees.

  4. Rish
    With you on the problem with ‘student as consumer’ or customer. Best metaphor I heard is University as gym. You pay for the access to facilities and the expertise. But you have to do the work. You have to sweat.
    I guess I’m suggesting that we all need to rethink what University students are paying for.
    Best wishes

  5. I agree that it will be necessary to wean our students off teaching, but before we can do that we must recognise that it is a school system based on a prescriptive curriculum and high stakes testing that brings them to University with that teacher-led frame of mind. The sheep will find it difficult to become more autonomous if the lambs are so rigorously shepherded by the state system.

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