Improving the quality of university education in Africa

In the African context, quality university education invariably focuses on student admission standards, lecturers’ academic qualifications, rigorous examination protocols, degree programme requirements, course content and availability of laboratory and classroom facilities. Little or no attention is paid to pedagogy, which is left entirely to the discretion of lecturers.

This assumes without any shred of evidence that lecturers possess expertise in the theory and practice of teaching, learning and assessment. While lecturers are undoubtedly experts in their chosen fields of specialisation, the vast majority of them, especially those specialised in the physical sciences and business fields, lack knowledge and skill in effective pedagogy.

We observed teaching in two universities' classrooms in the West African region. In those classes, abstract facts, figures, theories and concepts were literally thrown at the students in what might be described as ‘straight lectures’. The students just listened in silence, looked at the overhead projector screen or chalkboard and took some notes while the lecturers spoke.

Even where the lecturers posed questions, they consciously answered them without giving the students opportunities to offer their own perspectives.

The main purpose of straight lectures seemed to be to feed students with information rather than to stimulate them to think critically, creatively or analytically about the information communicated to them. Moreover, the lecturers were the sole actors in the classroom or laboratory, turning the students into theatre spectators.

Contextual factors such as limited teaching and learning resources, large class size and the use of foreign language for instruction should not influence pedagogical choice. ‘Straight lectures’ as a pedagogical choice are inherently bad for preparing university students for employment, graduate school, professional membership or citizenship in Africa.

Straight lectures do not stimulate the intellectual curiosity and creative development of students as students are offered no opportunities to ask questions, discuss, critique, problem solve or challenge what they are being taught.

Neither do they facilitate student connections with their society and economy. In fact, this type of pedagogy is partly to blame for the high unemployment among university graduates in African countries. The classroom as a community of learners is an essential place for students to develop collaborative skills and sharing of knowledge through verbal questioning, analysing, critiquing and problem-solving.

Accordingly, high unemployment among university graduates in Africa cannot be solved without a substantial transformation of university teaching, learning and assessment pedagogies.

Finally, this type of pedagogy suggests that what students are taught in university classrooms and laboratories has practically nothing to do with their society or economy. It thus indirectly perpetuates economic, political and social underdevelopment in Africa by producing graduates who are ‘cognitively boxed’, so to speak.

The normative argument that the onus of responsibility is on the students to make sense of what is ‘thrown at them’ is untenable. Certainly, both the professor and student have responsibilities.

For teaching to be relevant and a contributor to societal development, the lecturer has to deliver lectures with useful connections to the students' society and economy. Such connections could relate to present or future phenomena judged appropriate for the student’s social milieu and community economy.

Students, on the other hand, are obliged to prepare themselves for lectures by doing assigned or non-assigned readings and exercises. They also need to do course assignments and read carefully any written feedback from their lecturers. But the trajectory of the course and its undergirding pedagogy is determined largely by the lecturer.

Pedagogy is based on the core purpose of teaching, learning and assessment. It refers to the practices, strategies and methods of teaching, learning and assessment. These include but are not limited to course content, methods of content delivery, text resources, course outcomes (skills, knowledge and mindsets that students are expected to acquire), learning activities, lecturer feedback techniques, lecturer-student classroom interactions and assessment and evaluation practices.

This core purpose influences the selection of the other elements of pedagogy, such as delivery methods as well as assessment modalities.

Critical questions

Before teaching any concept or theory lecturers need to reflect on the following critical questions:

  • • Why should I teach these concepts or theories? What specific skills, knowledge and mindsets do I expect the students to acquire? However, the reasons for teaching a concept or theory should go beyond being part of a course or degree requirements.

  • • How do the students learn? This is not an easy question that can be answered without having first established close interactions and relationships with the students. Nonetheless, it is a question worth keeping in mind and exploring at least in the first few weeks of the course.

  • • Why and how are those theories or concepts that I will teach significant in preparing students for employment, citizenship, lifelong learning, professional membership or postgraduate educational progression?

  • • In light of the responses to the above questions, what teaching, learning and assessment strategies can be used to ensure transfer of learning?

  • • What connections could be established with the larger society, such as visiting places and institutions, and used as part of the learning resources?
Though some of these elements may be stated in the course outline, it is a useful exercise for the lecturer to go through those reflective questions. The key issue is to promote transfer of learning.

The importance of transfer of learning

Generally, education is touted as a tool for development. And university education is no exception. University education has zero effects on individuals, groups or communities and is a sheer waste of societal resources if students are unable to directly or adaptively transfer what they have learned out of the classrooms, seminars, forums and laboratories into real life.

Transfer of learning, as it is called, is about putting into practice what one has learned in different contexts – not only knowledge and skills that are transferable, but also mindsets cultivated during formal education. Habits of mind such as seeking evidence, intellectual curiosity, lifelong learning and self-questioning are all important parts of transfer of learning.

The ability to transfer learning is a crucial part of being educated. As the ancient Chinese proverb says: "Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice."

So if, for instance, I have heard of budgeting as an instrument for financial management; I have seen it being operationalised in a business finance course and I know the components of budgeting very well and can recall it easily from my memory, that knowledge is insignificant if I am unable to adapt it into practice in my personal life or workplace. It is equally valueless if I am incapable of explaining to others without a business management background the practical benefits of budgeting and its limitations.

In designing university courses in African universities, a significant emphasis should be placed on teaching activities and strategies that engender transfer of learning.

The first step is make the course content – including concepts, learning activities and assignments – relevant to the student’s world or community.

The second step is to incorporate individual and group presentations, problem-solving, case studies, simulations and scenarios into learning activities as well as teaching.

That means creating a collaborative culture for problem-solving and case studies which mimic what actually occurs in traditional African families, groups and communities. In traditional African society, groups or teams are increasingly used for a variety of decision-making like marriage arrangements, dissolution of marriage, funeral planning, communal work, administration of justice, child-naming and marriage counselling.

Nowadays a team or group system is used for everything from product quality, development of new products, enhancement of work processes, workplace safety and health, budgeting, workplace training, recruitment and the selection of new employees.

Private organisations use the team system to remain competitive and innovative. Some public and voluntary sector organisations have also adopted the team model for the purpose of achieving efficiency and innovation.

The traditional African saying that two heads are better than one has been found to be an invaluable piece of wisdom, while in most African universities it is regarded as a fringe, time-wasting pedagogy.

Third, it is important to create opportunities for active student involvement in the course through group or individual presentation, time for questions, suggestions, comments, debate or dialogue. Lectures should be laced with practical scenarios, thought-provoking questions and society-oriented cases aimed at amplifying the meanings and applications of concepts and theories as well as increasing the possibilities of transfer of learning.

Quality university education in Africa should include innovative pedagogies that increase the prospects of transfer of learning from the university to the larger society. Without transfer of learning all the narratives about education and university as a powerful tool for development have no evidential basis.

The possibilities for transfer of learning are immensely enhanced if the context in which the knowledge or skill is acquired is similar to the context in which the knowledge or skill is to be practised.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant. Samuel Kwaku Ofosu is academic affairs officer at Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons, Ghana.