Undergraduate teaching is in crisis for one simple reason: we reward superficiality. We give away first-class and upper-second-class degrees like confetti, rewarding undergraduates whose knowledge is so limited that only a few years ago they would have done no better than a lower second. For those who have been lecturers for long enough to have witnessed this devaluation of education, it is a disturbing trend.
Yet synthesis is something we don't reward. The research assessment exercise has not rewarded researchers for writing books or reviews, nor does the current system encourage us to teach undergraduates to be synthesisers. Synthesis requires a broad view and, of course, part of that broad view requires basic building blocks, but if we exclude synthesis from the way we educate undergraduates, they aren't going to do it or value it. In fact, in general, we do exactly the opposite: we reward superficial, short-term recall.
There are several reasons why undergraduate education seems superficial.
- First, superficiality is what happens at school - and is rewarded. Teaching to the curriculum in school has a powerful effect on what happens at university. At school, and increasingly at university, the emphasis is primarily on facts and communication ability - the ability to recall information - and, to a lesser extent, on how to write and speak. There is hardly any weight at all given to how to think.(...)
- Second, there are too few rewards for teaching in universities.(...) Research and teaching have always been in conflict. Most people go into an academic career because they enjoy research: few do it because they enjoy teaching more than research. As a result, most academics tend to begrudge the time they have to "give up" to teaching. This is made worse by the fact that most rewards - job satisfaction and promotion - come through research success, that is, success in securing funds (and those essential overheads for the institution) from an ever-diminishing pot.(...)
- Third, the internet fosters superficiality.(...) Of course, it is not the internet per se that's the problem; it is that we have failed to train undergraduates to use it in a scholarly way.(...)
Changing the way we educate under-graduates within these constraints requires a few bold steps. Here are some suggestions.
- The first may sound a bit Orwellian - in the first year we need a strong re-education programme. We need to (gently) shake undergraduates out of their school-curriculum complacency and introduce a new set of rules.(...)
- Second, we should give fewer lectures and provide more interaction in the form of projects and tutorials. Learning to think in a critical and scholarly way requires dialogue between teacher and student. We should abandon or greatly reduce coursework, or not assess it, so that it doesn't count towards a degree, and we should introduce many more synoptic and general papers.
- Third, we need fewer forms of assessment. A high diversity of assessment is deemed to be fairer, providing opportunities for students with different abilities to excel. But too many assessments simply make it harder to discriminate. Worse, many of our assessments are meaningless - especially coursework, where we have no control over who has actually done it or how long it has taken.
- Fourth, we need a better system of rewards for academics who are good researchers and effective teachers. And the best reward would be research opportunities from the institution itself - such as studentships or postdoctoral posts or simply some no-strings research funding. Rewards of this kind would be a tremendous incentive.