Today I went along to a meeting of the University’s ‘Teaching Network’. It was great! Two whole hours of talking about teaching with like-minded folk.
Now, before you accuse me of ignoring the huge amount of good teaching done by my fellow academics, I need to justify my first comment. Most university lecturers are not trained teachers. They’ve typically been taken on for their research skills & it’s generally assumed that they’ll pick up the necessary teaching skills & strategies as they go. Which generally happens. But it means that often they are researchers first & teachers second, & it can be quite hard to get a conversation going about matters related to teaching: things like curriculum (I suspect some lecturers think that means, the stuff they talk about in lectures, but it’s so much more than that), assessment strategies, engaging students with the subject, bridging them in from school… you can probably add to the list.
So you can see why today’s session was so good. The main topic for discussion centred on bridging students in from secondary school, & while we went on to talk about a whole heap of related issues, it’s the ‘bridging’ one that I want to talk about at the moment.
If you’re a lecturer reading this, then you’ve probably heard something along the lines of ‘students just aren’t as well-prepared for uni study as they used to be’… (I suspect you would probably hear that every generation, but anyway.) One of the issues here, I think, is that we’re all thinking back to when we were students. And for many of us, that was a loooong time ago. (Oh, all right, 36 years ago if you insist!)
But here’s where I think there’s a major disconnect: between tertiary teachers’ expectations (coloured by their own experiences) of what their students ought to know, and the prior learning experiences of those same students. I’ll use my own area, biology, as an example.
First up: in the ‘old days’ (when I was at school), the only kids who went on to the 7th form (= today’s ‘year 13) were those who were going on to university. This is no longer the case; preparing students for uni study is only one of the tasks of a year 13 teacher.
Secondly, the school curriculum has changed. The ‘new’ version, in schools this year, is the second iteration of the document since I began my teaching career. It differs in significant ways from the previous (1993) one: not only is the content altered & moved around between year levels, but also – & far more importantly – the ‘nature of science’ has become of overarching importance right across the science disciplines.
Assessment has changed. The ‘National Certificate of Educational Achievement’ (NCEA) and its attendant Achievement (& Unit) Standards were brought in a few years ago now, but with the change in curriculum these are having to be realigned. Now, while assessment shouldn’t drive what’s taught in the classroom, nevertheless this happens, & so from 2014 on students arriving in my classroom will have studied different content, & in a different way, from their predecessors who also gained their NCEA. Not least, they will have spent more time learning what science is all about, & less time learning content. (Which is a Jolly Good Thing, in my opinion.)
What’s more, way back when I was a student, & more recently when I started my secondary teaching job, all schools pretty much taught the same stuff. With the NCEA & its Standards, that has changed. Take biology: at present there are 7 standards, worth a total of 24 ‘credits’, that schools can offer their students. Most of the teachers I know would teach 20 credits, max, & may sometimes be under pressure to reduce that to make room in a crowded school curriculum for a range of other material. It’s also possible for the actual standards taught to differ from school to school: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear, for example, that the ‘evolution’ standards aren’t taught in some ‘special character’ schools.
In other words, our incoming students’ backgrounds differ far more than would have been the case 20 years ago. Now, surely this means that we (tertiary teachers) need to be aware of what’s going on in schools, what’s in the curriculum & so on, in order to help us be more effective in bridging students into their tertiary learning experiences?
I suspect I’ve got a bit of an advantage here: I used to be a secondary school biology teacher, & I still work extensively with secondary teachers & students, & I’ve been involved in development & review of our Achievement Standards (which give an indication of what students are capable of, in a particular subject) & the ‘new’ curriculum that’s being implemented this year. I do think that gives me an edge when it comes to helping students make links between what they’ve already learned & the material I’d like them to take on board.
Yet a PhD study done here at Waikato (Buntting, 2006), which looked at universities across the country, found that not all lecturers are aware of the gulf between their expectations & assumptions and where their students are actually at. The study also found that there are things we can do that are very effective in helping to bridge that gap, such as the use of concept mapping (e.g. Buntting, Coll & Campbell, 2005: food for thought for another post, perhaps…). Think how much more effective such interventions would be if they were used in the knowledge of our students prior experiences of learning.
C.M.Buntting (2006) Educational issues in introductory tertiary biology. A thesis submitted in the fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Waikato.
C.Buntting, R.K.Coll & A.Campbell (2005) Student views of concept mapping use in introductory tertiary biology classes. International Journal of Science & Mathematics Education 4(4): 641-668. doi: 10.1007/s10763-005-9014-7