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.
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.