Friday, December 15, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Classroom capers

The transition from school life to uni life is tough for many people. For most students, high school is a place of intensive supervision, with a confined range of choices available and an untrusting eye constantly cast over everyone. It has to be this way, given that at that stage in our lives most of us lack the emotional maturity to make wise choices over what we study, how we study, and indeed if we study. Whilst describing the latter years of high school at many private schools as intellectual spoon-feeding is a common cliche, it is a cliche which emerged with good reason.

For me, the latter years of high school were richly rewarding, spent at a private Jewish school with a year level of high achievers and bookish conformists. There was an culture of respect for learning and a celebration of high achievement, rather than the denigration it experiences in so many other schools. It was cool to work hard and intellectualism was nothing to be ashamed of. Still, high school was spent with teachers who would be constantly putting pressure on their chargers, querying every absense and constantly putting in place deadlines to be met. It was a place where just turning up was not an option.

Once at university, external motivation disappears. Truth be told, often at high school we did what we did because of the consequences if we didn't. Come university, these consequences don't exist. Except for the ultimate: results. As a university student, motivation needs to come from one's self rather than one's environment. Lack of attendance at class, failure to do the weekly reading, failure to get out of bed in the morning... only you will know.

For me, the transition wasn't so bad. Old fashioned as I am, I had already become a believer in the idea of effort for the sake of effort. Facile as it seems, I did things because they were the right things to do, not because of the consequences. Right from the start I took the approach that turning up to class was the barest minimum of participation, and anything below that was unacceptable. With no one telling me what to do, it was a good approach to take.

There were plenty of students, though, who floundered without strong guidance. In my experience, it was students who came from schools that closely monitored their performance who found the transition most difficult. In their final years at high school they had developed learned helplessness, and university life exposed it. On the other hand, students that had come from schools which gave them more freedom were far better prepared. It's interesting to note that whilst private schools have a higher percentage of their students reach university than do public schools, these students are also more likely to change or drop out of their selected course.

Studying at university is a slackers life. For most. With two twelve week semesters scheduled each year, this still leaves the majority of the year without any need to turn up. When we do turn up, for those of us studying arts, law or commerce at least, we have just twelve attendence hours each semester. The story is a little different for those hardy souls who have signed up for engineering, medicine, dentistry etc, where upward of thirty hours a week of attendence is expected.

More important than the quantity of university study is the quality. The format of university teaching actively encourages passivity and a lack of preparation. Lectures are overwhelmingly passive experiences, were students are spoken to rather than spoken with. Tutorials, although in theory interactive, rarely seem to reach the great heights of intellectual discussion that they ought to be.

On the surface at least, lectures seem to be a remarkably ineffective method of imparting knowledge from the teacher to the student. Though technology has transformed just about every other interpersonal experience, it seems to have left university teaching largely unscathed. There are many lecturers - particularly in the arts faculty - who have such a repulsion for technology that they eschew it deliberately and instead rely on chalk-and-talk. Those lecturers who do use technology to their advantage benefit greatly from it. The reality is that not all students are audio-learners: many rely on their visual senses. Furthermore, an audience is more receptive to a message if they receive it in both visual and audio forms. There's nothing revolutionary about all this, but sadly it seems forgotten by many teachers.

Power-Point presentations is the most obvious and useful addition to any lecture. When used badly, Power-Point is painful. At its best, though, it can liven up even the dullest of lectures and can crystalise ideas that otherwise appear allusive. Over the years more and more teachers have mastered PP and use it as a part of their lectures. There are still plenty, though, who thumb their noses at it.

There is nothing accidental about a poor standard of teaching. An output, after all, is the product of the inputs. It's accepted that many university lecturers are reluctant teachers. They've earnt their place at the front of the lecture hall not because they are brilliant teachers, but because of their brilliance in their chosen field. Also, many of them resent the need to teach at all: their primary interest is research, and teaching is merely the part of the job that pays the bills.

Still, most of them would find that a one year Diploma in Education would dramatically improve their teaching skills. It's not an unreasonable expectation that lecturers possess this basic qualification if they are to teach undergraduate students. The experience would be a wake-up call to somnambulist lecturers, and would do plenty to improve the Quality of Teaching that the university seems to take great delight in drawing our attention to.

As for tutorials, I have plenty of sympathy for the postgrad students who put themselves at our mercy. The extraction of teeth is a pleasure in comparison to the sheer agony of watching a tutor extract an answer out of a group of too-cool-for-school silent undergrads. The fault here is with the students, not the teacher. Most students keep silent not because they don't know the answer, but because they fear looking stupid. The irony is staying silent looks stupidest of all.

Part of the problem might be a lack of familiarity with our fellow students, an inevitability given the sheer number of students enrolled in most subjects. There's not a lot different between a high school classroom and a university tutorial room, yet discussion often runs riot in the former, but is non-existant in the latter. Part of the problem might also be a cultural barrier - many students who went to high school in Asia are used to a passive learning style, where students are expected to listen rather than speak. For these students, overcoming their unfamiliarity with speaking up, is a significant challenge, especially when combined with the challenge of having English as a second language.

At the start of my university life, I had a vision in my head of how student life should be. Every lecture should be electrifying, every tutorial discussion scintilating, and every assignment a pleasure to research. Like most fantasies of mine, this one never left my head. Shame 'bout that.


Anonymous said...

Ari... better!

You got the environment and transition from high school to University down really well!

You have to realise though some of the preassure hinges on harrasment. With that in mind there is alot of room for conjecture on the teachers part. It isn't so much students lack emotional maturity though. That part is a given. Its more a matter of moral judgments. Something a one year teachers diploma aint gonna make you better at dealing with.

Not sure about the irony of looking the most stupid of all when silent. The tutors predicament reminds me a bit of a line from a poem. Think it was Tennyson who said "elected silence sing to me". I think its implicit most students can exercise a right to being silent. Its a "pre elected" buffer for hard nosed post grads who have their own views and biases as well.

Sometimes its best to say nothing. In law its a virtue for some. For others its a matter of watching people fall in line as an impersonal subordinate they add to thier innumerable sad collection. Therin lies the problem. Some people like the chip on their shoulder to talk to them once in a while I guess. Tell them "don't worry you're better than this". In the end everyone falls in line I guess and subscribes to the we're all dead in the end school. So when you wannabe lawyers are having your existential crisis don't blame the silence for your court room woes...

Jiaying said...

Hi Ari!

I'm starting Law/Com next year and I'll most likely being joining the PIS! Too bad I won't see you there.

In some ways I am anxious about having my first taste of independent learning, seeing that I have just graduated from one of those spoon-feeding private schools you mentioned in your post... however I will make an effort to adapt!

Thanks for the insightful words on transition though, I am excited about moving on from the stressful way of life that is VCE. :-)

- Jiaying