Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 37

Submission from Anand Raja,[118]


Executive Summary

  This paper is based on my experiences since I joined the student community at the University of Birmingham in October, 2007. Whatever the reasons, the University is failing in encouraging students to think independently and argue from their corner. Instead learning "facts" or worse data and teller clerk skills gets a heavy emphasis. The result is disorientation and disenchantment among the student community.

1.  The Universities can be seen as an arena where people are mainly involved in the business of creating new knowledge. However, as we all know, knowledge is constantly created and recreated (your reading this is part of a process to reach a new understanding of an issue). Hence the so called "facts" and theories are always changing. At any given point in time, we cannot rest with a definite store of knowledge. To put it very simply, this realization is the largest guiding motive of research. Ironically a person who is truly knowledgeable will be a seeker of knowledge, knowing that the present stage of knowledge and understanding is uncertain and evanescent.

2.  Since students are a part of the university, they should be a part of the process of seeking and creating knowledge. Only this can make the University experience worthwhile. Hence people who are interested in knowledge (which students should be) need to be trained to think and speak as individuals. Since there is no final knowledge that can be simply passed on, to create good students we need to cultivate the capacity and interest to create new knowledge.

3.  However, what is happening is exactly the opposite. Students are given a picture of knowledge that is fixed and factual. Students are coached to attain a set of knowledge rather than as people who would create new understandings. Regardless of rhetoric and pretension to the opposite, neither the interest nor the capacity to seek knowledge for oneself are capacities that are sought to be created. I shall argue with evidence. I will quote specific cases but they are representative of the general situation.

  4.  Lectures are given with the intention of passing on sets of information and theories to students, and are half hearted in encouraging students to argue from their corner. The personal tutoring system has been drastically cut to size. Also, exams are increasingly based one's ability to remember facts and information rather than create new ideas.

  5.  The idea that truth and facts and theories that stand for it are evolving in their nature is an attitude that needs being cultivated in any student. The form our lectures take do not seem intentioned to cultivate this idea. I will quote from a lecture in abnormal psychology, which I will use as a representative example for the rest of the paper. In a given lecture, we will be taught the nature of the mental disorder of schizophrenia. The lecture will start with giving a working definition of schizophrenia, then quote the symptoms of schizophrenia, and to add on to that would quote figures on the prevalence of schizophrenia. The students will not be encouraged to think of the many weaknesses and complications of the classification "schizophrenia". The students will not be encouraged to think that the classification being talked about is itself developing in its nature. The insistence will clearly be on giving a picture of the world as it truly is (a picture no one actually has), rather than creating individuals who would aspire to create new understandings.

  6.  Another odd against cultivating the idea of knowledge being prospective is a reduction in the opportunities of face to face discussions with capable tutors.. Group discussions or individual discussions with capable tutors are the best opportunity to bring new ideas to the table, argue and create new knowledge. It is in discussions that the prospective nature of truth is clearly revealed. You only need to switch in to the most mediocre TV talk in to realize this.

  7.  Written examinations have become the preferred means of evaluating student progress, and students are writing a far lesser number of essays or reports than the past generations did. However, we need to ask what should their form be? In most cases examinations emphasize collection and cramming a lot of information and regurgitate in the exams. To keep with the abnormal psychology example, the examination would consist of multiple choice questions. Not an insignificant number of questions would test your memory for data. A typical question would look like: what is the total percentage of schizophrenics in America and one has to choose from a number of options. Such examinations incentive learning transient "facts" rather than thinking and arguing in the process of creating new understandings.

  8.  This is compounded by the fact that as assessment becomes more examination based, which in turn are based on facts, the incentive for continuous learning and comprehensive perspective taking of issues is reduced. Since getting good marks becomes a function of cramming facts for examinations, studying gets reduced both in content, to the very essential textbooks and the time around examinations.

  9.  So the capacity to think critically is not being cultivated, and there is little incentive in getting engaged with the course. As the course becomes increasingly data based, and chunks of information are supplied out to be swallowed and regurgitated in the exams, it does not need a great imagination to understand what the mental state of the student body would be like.

  10.  Socrates, in a different context, once said that to attain knowledge if we were to observe every aspect of a phenomenon, the sheer quantity of information would "blind our souls." As lectures start being concentrated more on facts and reduces students to passive recipients of knowledge, the disenchantment with lectures starts to shoot through the roof. Sometimes this is reflected in decreased attendance, but a generally dulling and disengaging of the mind from the lectures is apparent to both the student and teaching fraternity. Students increasingly find themselves attracted to idle pastimes and wasteful activities. For the sake of students themselves, this needs to be corrected.

  11.  Sociologist Frank Furedi has somewhere pointed out that the search for truth is as important as truth itself. As student body is disengaged from that search, its inclination towards debating their way through this process goes. Also the singular focus on facts and theories and not speculation in teaching and assessment in courses leads to a "whatever" attitude towards ideas and debate in particular and learning in general.

  12.  As a solution, we can easily begin by making sure that examinations do not measure the student's capacity to remember information, but to think critically. To work with the abnormal psychology example, this would mean replacing the question about percentage of Schizophrenic Americans into one which asks you to critique the nature of classification of disorders.

  13.  The importance of creating students who are interested in thinking critically is imperative for creating new knowledge. The current emphasis on unreflective "facts" and "theories" which produces students who feel disengaged with the process of creating new knowledge is an unwelcome trend warranting immediate reversal.

December 2008

118   The author is a second year undergraduate student in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. He is in receipt of the University of Birmingham International Office Scholarship 2007-2010. Back

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