If university students are not taught to think, we all lose

In my previous article, I spoke about the purpose of education and the types of graduates higher education should be creating to positively advance society. My focus here is on the teaching-learning process which should facilitate active student meaning-making to produce those types of graduates.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no single right way to educate a teacher, an accountant, an architect, an engineer or a nurse. Just as university students are drawn from diverse backgrounds with varying life, work and educational experiences and interests, university programmes of study, modes of delivery and teaching-learning approaches need to recognise these differences.

Programmes of study must be contemporary and comprehensive, relevant globally and locally and informed by quality research. They must, through their curriculum, ensure that they are preparing graduates as high-quality, creative, adaptable global citizens with an appreciation for lifelong learning.

Programme delivery, whether face-to-face or online, must be innovative, engaging and learner-centred and cater for diverse learning styles. These elements should factor into the teaching-learning process, that is, recognising that students come with prior knowledge, experience and learning and that not all students learn the same way and no one teaching methodology or activity type fits all.

Different teaching styles

Let’s consider two opposite teaching-learning approaches.

We have all witnessed the university teacher who provides maximum direction to his or her students. For example, they spell out almost every single detail of what is expected in an assessment task, including the readings students should consult, the sequence in which students should tackle each part of the task, the headings that are expected to be used for each section, how the referencing must be set out and provision of a word limit that cannot be exceeded.

In other words, they provide a formula with an accompanying set of rules they require the students to follow. The grading is typically commensurate with how well a student has followed the formula. Those who deviate from it are marked down.

Conversely, there is the teacher who provides the assessment task but hands over ownership of how to approach the task to the student. The expectation is the student will locate and then critically analyse the latest relevant research and construct a coherent argument based on the assessment question informed by that research. How it is set out is up to the student as long as it is sound and demonstrates critical thinking and learning.

There is a place for both types of teaching-learning approaches at different stages of the learning journey and for different purposes.

In their first year of university studies, students do need to be introduced to the protocols associated with communicating successfully in the discipline they are studying. There are knowledge, vocabulary, modes of inquiry and communication styles specific to a discipline that students must become conversant in to ensure they are as well prepared as they can be for the profession they will enter.

However, it is so very important for students to encounter the second teaching-learning approach during their studies. They need to be given the chance to think for themselves. They need to be provided with opportunities to problem-solve individually and in teams and come up with their own solutions to problems. They need to be encouraged to be creative in their ideas and empowered to make research-informed decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, such an approach is so much more relevant and rewarding for students and better prepares them to handle unexpected challenges they will encounter.

It may be uncomfortable for some students to accept this approach, preferring the instructor who provides a defined prescription on what to do and how. It can also be challenging for some instructors to change their approach too, but, in the end, universities are first and foremost places of learning that have a responsibility to ensure students are given the tools that will set them up for long-lasting learning.

Dumbing down

The unfortunate reality is that teachers in some higher education institutions are compelled to solely adopt the first approach.

The standard of entry into some degree programmes, and in the case of international students, the entry level of language competency expected, has been seriously lowered. This is not the fault of the student or the instructor. But it can impose unreasonable pressure on university instructors to ‘dumb down’ what they do in order to ensure a certain percentage of students pass and complete their degree.

The end result is costly in more ways than one to all involved stakeholders. There is a financial cost to the university in the additional learning support mechanisms that need to be set up to assist such students finish their study programme. There will also most certainly be a cost to the reputation or academic standing of the university as a whole.

There is an emotional cost to the student who struggles and, even with extra support, fails part or all of their programme. There is a further professional cost to the students who may have considerable pressure placed on them by family to do well and-or who self-impose high expectations and then don’t achieve their expected end goal.

There may be a professional cost to the university instructor and his or her integrity for not being able to fulfil a responsibility to provide as intellectually and creatively challenging a teaching-learning environment as expected and planned for.

Finally, there is a cost to the discipline and society more broadly as its new graduates will be ill prepared to contribute to developing continuous quality improvements that positively transform the social and economic conditions of our world.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.