We want dot-points


Thanks to cogdogblog for the photo.

My older son has started university this year. His core subjects are Psychology and Politics, and Logic is one of his breadth subjects. Today he was telling me that some of the students in one of his Psychology classes were complaining about a particular lecturer. They thought he was too vague. What did they mean by ‘too vague’? The lecturer gave them material to read, but he didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to learn, he didn’t give them dot points, and he didn’t make it clear what they needed for the assessment task or exam.

In other words, he expected them to read and think for themselves, to learn instead of just memorising dot points to satisfy exam criteria. According to my son, his lectures were more about making students think about things. eg. in a lecture about sensation and perception he might present an example that encouraged students to reconsider the way they perceived things, to deconstruct how they perceived reality.

What is going on in our education system that produces such an attitude to learning ?

Of course, this is a complex question which cannot be answered simply but, in my opinion, this is the result of teaching to the test, of putting all the pressure onto a final mark, an ENTER, which will allow access into a university course, which, in turn, will provide students with a job. Nothing wrong with employment. Nothing wrong with wanting further education. What is wrong, then?

The lamentable thing here is that academic success is based on performance which is made up of mastering discrete chunks of information. Why? In order to pass the assessment task or test. What is missing here is the desire to learn something because it’s interesting, because a deeper understanding enriches your life. What is also missing is the thinking behind the learning, the ability to independently read and understand, construct meaning, evaluate information, solve problems and construct creative solutions.

If students at tertiary level claim they cannot learn without the summaries or the dot points, then shouldn’t we reassess what we are teaching them? Shouldn’t we consider which skills are most important to them in their lives?

These students compared two lecturers: the one who frustrated them with the open-ended teaching method, and the one they preferred, who provided dot-point summaries, and provided notes, telling them that this was all they needed to know for the exam, and anything else they didn’t need to worry about.

My son liked the unpopular lecturer’s teaching style because it was more philosophical, more interesting because it required higher order thinking.  He said that it wasn’t the case that this lecturer would include in the exam things they hadn’t covered, it’s just that he didn’t present his information in pre-digested chunks.

What do other educators think about this? Do you see this as an isolated or general problem? What do you think are the most important skills students should leave school with? Are we preparing our students for their future world?

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8 thoughts on “We want dot-points”

  1. Tania, you’ve captured one of the great system flaws in education today. We’ve all placed so much emphasis on grades and getting into the right college, that students want the recipe. Instead of teaching them to learn to learn, and even more, to love to learn, we have prepared them to follow the script. Sad.

  2. What do you think can be done, and how do we do it? Is it possible to effect an en masse mindshift? I suspect if we, as educators, lived by learning, things would change. Is this unrealistic? Is there insufficient time, too many pressures?

  3. Having your first child at uni can be an eye opener.Your son will be bound to experience a variety of standards in his lecturers – not all of whom will be effective and stimulating teachers. There will be lecturers who’ll drone away reading from their notes or their PowerPoint slides. Web 2.0 pedagogy does not seem to have found its way into the upper echelons of education as yet. Your son is lucky to have that Psychology teacher who challenges his students to think for themselves – but this in itself can be a shock for some freshmen. I suspect this shock is greater sometimes for students who completed their schooling in a private school where the pressure on teachers to produce results is magnified for obvious reasons. I can’t produce concrete evidence but anecdotally students from government schools who have not been so mollycoddled and spoonfed often do fare better at the tertiary level. I’ll be interested to follow this discussion on your blog Tania.

  4. Good points, Pam. I’m interested in what others have to say about the government/private school debate. My son went to a private school, but not one of the largest or most prominant, and he also did IB which encouraged thinking.

  5. I don’t see a cure to this any time soon. Unfortunatey Oz has followed the managerialist mantras prevalent in the UK, whereby everything is treated like a commodity. Therefore students are consumers, many of whom are simply there to pass a test and get a piece of paper. What’s worse is this mentality is what your average 18 year old has seen since birth, all through school.

    It’s reduced higher education to a shadow of what it was. This article gives some context:


  6. Thank you David, a most interesting paper. Bit of a worry that it was presented 4 years ago and how are things better now? Where are our student unions of yesteryear -can Albert Langer be rejuvinated? (maybe better not!)

  7. Wow! I do think that most of how the economies of time have shifted over the past decades, the level of specialization included, have made the way for this unfortunate kind of teaching/learning. As not just a teacher, but as an avid cyclist/coach, I train to prepare for “real world” race situations. However, they are time -efficient, but rarely duplicate the real world, where creative thinking and problem solving are a must if you want to win or even stay safe.

    Teaching to the test would have me working on sprinting(remember bike). That’s great if I even make it to the finish. More likely I would need to size up competition(constantly), watch others, duplicate what I feel works and avoid what does not. Evaluate, think, interpret, reevaluate, take risks, and finally, reflect on what just happened. This sounds more like the professor who I’d like to have encouraging me!

    I’m glad your son choose to like the hard walk.


  8. Bill, that’s an interesting example. If only we could take time to rewrite projects envisaging real-world processes. Thanks for stopping by.

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