Are students conservative, or just scared?

Other people's classes always seem to be more fun
Other people’s classes always seem to be more fun

Yesterday, I was invited to talk to a colleague’s class in another university. As always, it was good to get out and about and see other places (even if that place was a tad unprepossessing), but it was the discussion over a sandwich afterwards that was most enlightening.

Discussion was ranging over a number of topics, when one of the party said that they were always surprised by how conservative students have become, in the sense of disliking anything other than conventional, lecture-and-seminar formats. This has come after someone else had related how they felt obliged to provide the more passive lecture content in addition to the active learning, so that their (final-year) students wouldn’t feel too deprived of knowledge.

I’ll admit that I bridled at this, not least because I know that my students have embraced the range of techniques and formats that we use, and I don’t think our students are special (in that sense).

Essentially, this is a question of whether students have a well-developed conception of what they should have, or rather just hang on to what they know.

As anyone who teaches new university students knows, a key challenge is getting them to accept that they are learners, rather than people to be taught. And yet, all too often, we humour this, by only slowly making the transition. Surely, if we’re serious about this, we should start from day 1 with a clear signal of our intentions?

I’ve tried, in different ways, to practise this and have always been struck by the quality of the response. If we can be confident about our pedagogic choices, and be clear about them to students, then more often than not, they will follow our lead. Sometimes that’s easy – like when I tell my negotiation students that it’s stupid to just have lectures about negotiation – and sometimes it’s more difficult – like when you ask students to produce group work – but that is also true of traditional formats (Research Methods, any one?).

Sure, there is a cost to you in justifying/explaining your choices at the front of a class, but that is more than paid-off by the increased engagement and participation of students. I would always argue that if your novel method can show some benefit to students relatively speedily, then it’s worth the chance.

In short, students aren’t the problem, but rather academics.

No, I don’t mean you, but us more generally. Conservatism is flavour of the day among academic managers, who worry that ‘trying something new’ cares risk, and risk is bad when you get judged on your student evaluations or satisfaction surveys. All too often, I hear colleagues talk about the deep unwillingness of managers to allow innovation, or of their colleagues discouraging the same because it might highlight the weaknesses in what they do.

As I see you all roll your eyes and say to yourselves “yeah, that”, i’ll ask you a question. If this problem is always coming from someone else, then why aren’t we all doing something about it?