Spoon-feeding is bad for students – and their countries

The literature on higher education invariably refers to a vast majority of African universities as teaching-focused universities. This implies that African universities focus primarily on teaching rather than on research. These universities also often claim in their mission statements that their main role is to provide human resources necessary for the development of their respective countries.

Teaching quality in African universities, with the exception of South African universities, needs considerable improvement. Yet African universities’ leaders give little or no attention to teaching quality and associated issues in their institutions. We are yet to observe in African universities a sustained verbal and written discourse on teaching quality or standards at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

Nonetheless, to improve the quality of teaching many African universities have put in place policies that require lecturers to possess doctoral degrees in their fields. But such policies will not necessarily lead to an improvement in all aspects of teaching quality.

Certainly, acquiring a doctoral degree allows lecturers and professors alike to improve the knowledge of their discipline that is taught but not their own pedagogical knowledge and skills. This requires a special type of education and training via professional development or enrolment in university teaching courses.

Motivating students to learn

From a practical as well as psychological perspective, improving teaching practices in African universities is most likely to lead to improvements in learning. While a universally acceptable definition of teaching is lacking, we conceptualise teaching as a process of inspiring and motivating students to learn how to do something or understand something through experiences, literature, examples or case studies.

Thus, both researchers and practitioners share the consensus that the ultimate purpose of teaching is to motivate learning.

We note that learning as a process is not something that lecturers or professors do directly to students; instead it is something that students do to themselves. Of course, learners have responsibilities too. That is why African universities should establish high teaching and learning standards and review them periodically.

One fundamental way to establish high learning and teaching standards in African universities is to stop lecturers spoon-feeding their students. Spoon-feeding is a metaphor that describes a situation where lecturers or professors do everything for their students, while the students only have the responsibility to listen and absorb what is fed to them.

As an illustration, a lecturer who spoon-feeds his or her students reads several pieces of literature, prepares notes based on that literature and either dictates them to their students to write down or gives them to the students as handouts. In this case, the only responsibility of the students is to digest what is given to them and regurgitate it during tests or examinations.

Nonetheless, learners’ responsibility is about much more than merely listening and absorbing information presented to them by lecturers, textbooks and other media. It includes researching, analysing, synthesising, evaluating and questioning information. It also includes not jumping to hasty conclusions and maintaining a healthy degree of scepticism.

Broadly, the outcomes of learning in higher education institutions are mental, behavioural and attitudinal changes in ways the lecturer or professor had envisaged or not envisaged. We wonder how a spoon-feeding teaching style can contribute to any of these outcomes.

Negative consequences

Spoon-feeding has many negative consequences for students’ present and future learning and job performance. Since the lecturer does everything, a sense of intellectual dependency is perpetuated among students.

Eventually, such students develop a culture of intellectual laziness, making them vulnerable to manipulation, deception and media propaganda. This situation is very serious in this era of digital technology, with the multiplicity of information sources and information overload.

Students who grow up in a spoon-feeding environment lack problem-solving, problem-identifying and problem-posing skills. This is in sharp contrast to students who are allowed to learn how to solve different problems, real or imagined, and to experience the intricacies of decision-making, analysis and synthesis of information and to engage in critical reflection.

As citizens, spoon-fed students lack initiative and are limited to the information they have been fed. They do not have any ingrained motivation to develop any ideas beyond what they were taught. As students these citizens were not given opportunities to practise thinking on their own or for themselves, to challenge the status quo or make decisions based on data, vision or imagination.

Africa needs citizens who are creative, innovative and critical to use its vast resources to improve the lives of its people. This is why spoon-feeding in university teaching is dangerous to the development of Africa.

Moreover, it is easy to predict the depth of knowledge spoon-fed university students or graduates possess. As the late British fiction writer Edward Morgan Forster once stated, spoon-feeding in the long-run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. This implies figuratively that we can predict or measure with a large degree of certainty how much spoon-fed students know or have internalised.

A spoon-feeding teaching style is similar in its effects to propaganda which aims at achieving socially undesirable goals which are in conflict with national or local aspirations. In this way, African higher education institutions that practise a spoon-feeding teaching style have inadvertently become the ideological mouthpieces of ideas propagated by other countries.

A focus on student outcomes

When the objectives of academic courses are defined in terms of student outcomes rather than what lecturers or professors will do, spoon-feeding is eliminated because students have to engage in learning activities in order to fulfil the course outcomes. In defining course objectives in terms of student outcomes, the central focus is on the student, not the lecturer or professor.

Another strategy to end spoon-feeding is for lecturers or professors to promote original thinking, creativity and logical reasoning among students. There are many ways to achieve this. One way is for lectures to include questions, data collection exercises, self-reflection assignments and problems for students to solve.

In problem-solving, for instance, lecturers and professors should promote divergent answers, perspectives and solutions. In addition, lecturers should encourage students to ask questions, to respond to questions and problems and to make suggestions and recommendations.

However, lecturers and professors should resist the temptation to answer their own questions or provide solutions to their own problems. This is the case even if students as a collective are unable to find solutions to a problem.

Most mathematics lecturers or professors, for example, provide answers or solutions to test questions after the test. This is a classic example of a spoon-feeding teaching style. A non-spoon-feeding teaching approach involves working through the test questions either with the class as a whole or allowing the students to work in groups to solve the problems or answer the questions.

Furthermore, lecturers and professors should not give any course notes to their students. On the contrary, lecturers should provide all the reading and writing materials students need in preparation for lectures.

Where appropriate, lecturers and professors should assist their students to develop note-taking skills as well as reading skills. However, in some institutions first-year students are taught note-taking skills (from lectures and texts), effective reading and writing skills in a stand-alone course.

Over the decades, education practitioners and researchers have put forward a number of teaching techniques, such as technology-based learning, activity-based learning (reading, writing and presenting or sharing), group work, project work, discussion groups and classroom participation to prevent spoon-feeding.

These teaching approaches should be adapted by African universities in order to keep students actively engaged in the learning process and eliminate spoon-feeding.

Michael Antwi is a business teacher in the tertiary sector in Ghana. Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy analyst in Canada.