Developing Independent Learners: Not a Task for the Faint-hearted

The majority of students entering university are not used to being independent learners. They expect lecturers to give them all they need to know. When faced with coursework material that goes beyond the lecture material, their typical response is something like : “We haven’t been taught this  material. Show us how to do it!”  In almost every case, it’s  a demand, and not a polite request.

To be fair, it’s not their fault. Prior to coming to university they have been given everything they need to know for the exams.  And it’s not the fault of the teachers either – schools are under ever-increasing pressure to produce students with the highest possible grades for entry into the top universities. Governments expect and demand this, and both parents and students have been led to believe that it’s the student’s inalienable right.

How then should the lecturer of first year  students deal with this? The lecturer can choose to ignore the requests from the students, and simply let them get on with it. But this is not helpful. Students can easily interpret this as an act of neglect on the part of the lecturer, and they can get militant. This is especially so in these days when teaching and learning is increasingly viewed as a commercial transaction – “I pay the fees, you teach me (or,  more accurately, “you give me”) all  I need to know”.

An easier approach would be to just give in to the students and leave some other lecturer to impart independent learning skills in their own  course module. This sounds like cowardice, but it isn’t. I have received overtly threatening  e-mails from colleagues who ought to know better: “I had a meeting with my tuttees yesterday. They tell me that in your last coursework you assessed them on material that  you had not covered in lectures. This is clearly not acceptable.” For better effect, some colleagues routinely copy in the Director of Education and the Head of Department.

Even more ominously, a senior academic can accost  you in the corridor and declare “This is against university regulations. You seriously ought to reconsider your position.” In these days of academic league tables, this can amount to a direct threat to your continued existence at the university, particularly if you are on a fixed-term or temporary contract.

Of course, there is nowhere in the university regulations where this is written. To the contrary, university management expect  all academics to impart independent learning skills in their day-to-day teaching. However, faced with student demands, colleagues can conveniently forget that in the last programme  review meeting, alongside everyone else, they were vehemently  expressing concern at the lack of independent study and learning skills exhibited by students progressing from the first year.

So how then can you impart independent learning skills in the face of hostility from students and fellow academics alike? Here is my answer: Adopt the Socratic method when dealing with student queries. Wikipedia defines the Socratic Method as a way of “asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.”

It’ is not that difficult to put the Socratic method into practice. All you need to do is to start from the known lecture material, and then lead the student on a journey of self-discovery using a series of guiding questions. In my own experience, students end up appreciating this. More often than not, students end up adopting the same questioning style when faced with unfamiliar questions. And that’s a powerful foundation for self-directed learning.

Here  is a recent example from my own experience. It is an excerpt from a recent email exchange I had with a student:

Student: Quite a few of my course colleagues and myself are confused regarding question 1ai) of the current coursework. The question tells us to obtain mathematical expressions that model the velocity, acceleration and distance of the space vehicle based on the data given in the table below. Are these supposed to be best-fit equations based on the whole time period or separate expressions for each individual time segment? I hope you can clarify this issue.

Abel: Let’s start from this point: How do you plan to come up with the best fit equations?

Student: I could plot the data and then use the basic fitting tool to find the equation. However, that would be quite inaccurate. But then if we are to find an expression for each segment, are we to assume a linear relationship between each point? This also seems quite imprecise as the acceleration of the vehicle does not seem to change at a constant rate.

Abel: Part 1 is correct: Which type of equation would describe the graph that best fits the data – a linear equation, a second degree (quadratic) equation, a third degree equation  or some other equation?

Student: The graph for velocity and distance seem to follow a quadratic path but acceleration – a cubic. Would such an expression determined using this method be correct?

Abel: For the velocity, which is more accurate –  linear, quadratic or cubic, and how are you evaluating this?

Student: On closer inspection cubic does seem more accurate, as the residuals are much smaller.

Abel: So which equation should you use for the velocity profile, then quadratic or cubic? And if you know the velocity equation, how can you obtain the acceleration equation and distance equation from this, and why?

Student: I should use the cubic equation because it’s much more precise. Then I can derive the mathematical expressions for acceleration and distance using differentiation/integration as this will provide a clearer answer than using a basic fit for those.

Abel: Looks like you have provided a very detailed answer to your query. Do you still have another question/query?

Student:  Thank you very much for your guidance and your quick responses. Goodnight.

 

 

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