Just take a second….

Recently, I had a discussion with my 3rd year undergraduate class about my perception that students no longer feel confident in thinking for themselves.  More and more I am getting question after question about lab times, or course readings, or detailed questions about assignments. Part of me wants to write this off as laziness, but there is an undercurrent of anxiety.  Students are afraid to trust their own judgement.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses the issue of students not thinking for themselves and suggests this is due to the policy of elementary and secondary education systems.  The policy that says we will take tests to ensure consistency across schools, but inevitably compels educators to teach to those tests.

Teaching to the test means that the test is created first and guides what we teach students.  If this is what they need to know to get the grade to get into university, that is what we will teach them.  It has all become about content, and nothing about process.

Basic skills for critical thinking, rigorous reading, high-level writing, and working independently have been lost.

At what point can you teach and encourage thinking for oneself? Is 3rd year of an undergraduate course too late?

What happens when these students are the leaders and there is no one to tell them what to do? Is it that somewhere in between they’ll develop the ability out of necessity and begin to use it? Will they become a generation of reassurance seekers checking in with each other and not knowing who has the correct answer?  I suspect it is the first, but is that the most efficient way to get there?

If everyone just took a second to think of what they would do, even if they do ask for guidance after, the more often their guess matches what is told, would they eventually build the confidence to act on their own decisions?  Too many questions I know.

Generic Graduate Attributes

As I mentioned in the Leadership post, the idea of generic graduate attributes has become more and more popular over the past few years. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Kathrine Mangan, less than half of employers and students felt prepared for “entry level” jobs.

I think before we start to generate solutions, we need to understand where the problem stems from.

1. More people are going to university because it is now seen as the natural progression. It may be that now we have far more graduates but the job market is the same. I’m not talking about number of jobs, but the kind of jobs that exist. For example, sales people, public servants, office workers and so on, didn’t used to have degrees. Is it now that we’re trying to explain how an undergraduate degree prepares people for these same jobs?

2.Could it be that we used to know how university prepared people for this but now we have to find the words for it due to increased competition? It my be that before, there was a general consensus about what generic skills were gained in university and therefore employers didn’t require having it spelled out explicitly?

3. Could it be that university was seen by employers as a foundation on which further training was built, but now employers want work-ready employees? There is a radio ad for the University of Canberra where a new employer is showing around a newly hired graduate and pointing out what the phone is, what the desk is and so on. First, I think if you have someone who doesn’t know what a desk or a phone is, then it’s your own fault for hiring them. Second, is there no responsibility on the part of employers to provide any kind of work place training?

4. It could also be that the number of people competing for certain roles is increasing, forcing graduates to look for ways to apply their education to positions that are not quite as clearly linked.

5. Is it that people with a university degree are not open to starting at very low levels because of the effort they’ve put into their degree. The article warns that if students work hard in school and don’t get the jobs and respect commensurate with their effort, there will be unrest, anger and even violence.  Who will these students be angry at?

Before we can try to address the issue of preparing students for employment, we have to answer these questions.

I think we also need to clarify the responsibility of the educators, the students and the employers.

Tweetering on the Edge

I just read a blog on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website about an in class experiment where the entire class discussion was conducted via Twitter. Some students loved it, some students hated it and the lecturer concluded that the discussion wasn’t as deep as it usually is in traditional class discussions.

One of the students commented that she felt “independent in her voice”. This is a common comment when we discuss using technology as a way to increase student involvement. Yes, some students may not feel comfortable voicing their ideas and opinions in front of groups. Would it be better, if we helped them to do so, instead of finding alternative ways for them to communicate?

Perhaps it is the psychologist in me that gets hung up on the importance of being able to communicate our needs, wants, opinions, and ideas to our functioning in life.

I like the idea of blending technologies and I love using every tool and gadget at my disposal for a multi-media classroom learning extravaganza! (ok, I’ve got PowerPoint and Moodle, but I use them like crazy).

What I don’t like is technology as a substitute. And I think the blog and the comments that follow really illustrate the point that these tools are useful but not sufficient. How can we find the optimal blend?

To read the blog, go to http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/in-classroom-experiment-all-discussion-happens-via-twitter/40976?cid=cc&utm_source=cc&utm_medium=en

Marketing Education

I am a huge fan of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Every day I get newsletters and every week I get the full Chronicle. If you’re in Higher Education, I strongly recommend it.

Anyhoo, in the newsletter yesterday, I was struck by the headline “Clever, Catchy and Descriptive? A forum on Effective Course Naming.” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/clever-catchy-descriptive-a-forum-on-effective-course-naming/44390?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en)

It instantly reminded me of a chat I had during a flight from LA to Sydney next to another academic. She was in engineering and was lamenting the shrinking of her area.  Her department head suggested that they would be able to attract more students if they changed the program name to “Corrosion Engineering and Media Studies”.

It was a joke….at that time.

Are we really at the point where we are coming up with catchy course names to entice students to enrol?

In the article, the author explains he was trying to be a bit cheeky with the title and it may have simply confused the students and prevented them from enrolling. He titled it “Pamphlets & Pirates in Antebellum US Print Culture.” and I agree with his comment – It has pirates in the title! Who wouldn’t want to take this course?! But as he said – funny to him, obscure to the students.

One of the best things about the Chronicle online is the comments that follow the articles.  One reader is going to be offering a course called “iPad Sex Ferrari, 90210”. I would sign up just to meet the person who came up with that.

Luckily, I have a pretty popular course – Abnormal Psychology. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s compulsory. I have no idea what new name would entice students more.

Abnormal Psychology, Pirates and Media Studies?



A decade ago I was involved in transdisciplinary training group for primary healthcare. Several students and academics headed off to a lovely location (White Point Resort in Nova Scotia – Gorgeous) to talk about working in transdisciplinary teams. Truly egalitarian,  harmonious and productive research and treatment teams. There were representatives from psychology, social work, medicine, epidemiology and possibly others. Part of the training was to gather into a group with a representative from each area and to choose a research idea. After a considerable amount of time generating several very good ideas and coming to no conclusion, it hit me!  I said “Oh, I get it! This is one of those experiential activities to illustrate that true egalitarianism isn’t possible!” (I was quite pleased with myself, I can tell you).


And the woman facilitating our group was NOT pleased with me.

Today I was invited to take part in the ANU Inaugural Leadership Symposium. Leadership, or at least the idea of it, is all the rage. The latest buzz word.  The idea de jour.  While I tend to mock and deride fads, I quite like the idea of offering training and practice for students and faculty to learn about leadership. Even for those who never plan to be leaders, the skills involved are easily transferable to life in general.  Just from today’s short meeting, I have identified a number of skills or attributes of good leadership that would be useful for anyone.

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Ability to face and manage one’s own and others’ emotions
  • Awareness of self and others
  • Ability to look back on experience and forward to action
  • The ability to recognise complexity
  • Awareness of one’s own perspective and the ability to see a situation from someone else’s
  • The ability to listen
  • Knowing your own strengths
  • Energy management (being a leader is exhausting)
  • Understanding how to communicate, not just what to communicate
  • Did I mention listening?

One of the questions raised at the symposium is how to implement this kind of education for our students. Psychology is in an ideal place to do this for our students because so much of what we teach already covers these points! Is it possible that all we need to do is point it out?

Online Learning

Recently and article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 11, 2012) about a man named Michael Saylor whose goal it is to create a free online university to provide education to everyone.  This is a truly laudable endeavour.

With a powerful business man like Mr. Saylor behind this project, it will probably succeed. I like the idea of education being available to everyone. Currently MOOCs (massive open online courses) are giving thousands of people the opportunity to learn from some of the best educators in the world. I have noted a couple of courses that I plan to sign up for myself!

Is this the university of the future, or are there limitations to this teaching format that are being overlooked as we run headlong into our technological future.

Really, self-initiated learning that is free to the masses has existed for as long as the public library. Anyone could go into a library and read about any topic they chose and many people did so. Now with the internet, the library is suddenly in our own home. The question of this information is the quality of the content and the source.

Now we have free online courses, with knowledgable experts controlling the quality of the content. Fantastic!

But these courses are not for credit. They do not count towards a degree. This is a key point.

When we, as university educators, pass students in our courses we are saying that they have met the requirements for the degree they are applying for. In a way, it is the minimum ability needed – 50% average on all exams and assignments.  With online courses, we can administer assignments and exams that are monitored by external officials if the student is unable to physically attend the exam at the university.  We can still demonstrate the degree requirements.

What I’m interested in are the parts of the university experience is being missed that are not being captured by exams and assignments. University is more than just reading, listening and being assessed. Is there something about in-person attendance at the university that helps us in our careers and lives that is being lost in the online environment.

I know that online education is going to stay, and that makes it all the more important that we identify the limitations of this mode of teaching, to compensate or correct them where possible.

I also think that identifying the specific benefits of in-person education will support the argument to keep our universities and quite frankly, my job 🙂