There was an interesting article in the Times Higher Education yesterday entitled ‘To spoon feed is not to nuture’ which examines research into learning behaviours undertaken at the University of Cumbria. Peter Ovens, Senior Research Fellow, suggests that many of today’s students are “puzzled” by the idea of independent learning, as a result of being spoon fed through their GCSEs and A Levels by teachers who have been forced to focus on targets and league tables. Dr Ovens further warns that current reforms that focus on improving the “student experience” could lead to even greater spoon feeding of students, which is not in their best interest, nor that of their Universities.
This is an issue that I’m very interested in, as I currently work at an Institution that is trying hard to improve it’s National Student Survey results which means that I hear the phrase “the student experience” roughly once a day. I’m also familiar, as I’m sure a lot of my fellow librarians are, with the irritation that is the Spoon Fed Student. You know the ones; they stand in a queue to ask how to get to the first floor, despite the large signs pointing to the stairs. They come to the Help Desk to tell you that the PC attached to the scanner is not turned on, to which the only response is “well why don’t you turn it on then?” They try and persuade you to look up every book on their reading list on the catalogue for them, then get all teary when you tell them you’ll show them how to do the first one and thats it. Then they ask for help finding them all on the shelf, even once you’ve explained DDC to them and shown them the stacks. They complain that no one ever sat down with them personally to go over all the Library rules and regulations in detail, so how can they be expected to comply with them? In short, they make you want to tear your hair out. And there seem to be more and more of them every year.
Now I’m not really qualified to suggest a solution for this state of affairs, but I certainly agree with Dr Ovens that more spoon feeding of students will not help and this is why I really dislike the focus on the sodding Student Experience. Everyone is so concerned that final year students will rate them badly on the NSS that they go out of their way to keep them happy; reading coursework before it’s handed in to advise on structure, being lenient about having student ID on campus, waiving deserved fines if someone kicks up enough of a fuss, giving direct links from Blackboard to e-journal articles that are required reading* etc etc ad nauseum. None of this helps the student in the long run, it just leaves them thinking that there will always be a way out of any difficult situation they find themselves in, they don’t really need to make much effort and if they complain enough their problem will go away. That is no preparation for the real world and is bound to have an effect on employability rates, which is not ideal when we’re releasing graduates into a recession.
I understand that students who are spoon fed through their school years are going to expect the same at University and this situation is unlikely to change unless schools and colleges change it themselves. I also think that it is unfair to expect 18 year olds to work in a way that they have never worked before, and to succeed at it straight away. Nevertheless, instead of giving into these expectations throughout their University career, maybe we should explain the realities of higher education in induction week and give them the first year to get used to it, with some assistance, and then let them sink or swim? After all, the current situation doesn’t seem to be working very well for any of us, and I would quite like to retire with normal blood pressure levels and a full head of hair!
* Unpopular opinion: I don’t even like putting Reading Lists on the catalogue. When I were a student (and this were all fields!) we got one printed copy of the Reading List and had to look up everything on it ourselves and it didn’t do us any harm!!!