16 May 2006

On encouraging surface learning

I'm bemused! On 3 May I posted about the Cambridge University Extension Course I am taking at the local Retirement Education Centre, the content of which continues to be stimulating and enjoyable.

But last week I was slightly surprised that the lecturer introduced the session by telling us how to write an essay on the material covered to date (the tri-partite nature of knowledge). He explained that as it had to be 1500 words, it would consist of seven (or perhaps eight) paragraphs, and then summarised on the whiteboard what each paragraph should contain. Odd, I thought. One does not expect this kind of thing on a course such as this.

Today, after the coffee break, he raised the assessment issue again. It is important, he explained, because the funding of the course, and hence that of the Centre, is affected by the number of people passing the course. A discussion ensued, of course. If this were an Oxford course, he told us, we could have passed by merely producing a two-paragraph proposal, but under current Cambridge regulations we do actually have to write the essay, and it needs to be at least 1300 words. I asked whether we were confined to the set titles. Absolutely, he replied; after, all they did between them "cover the whole syllabus".

Did it matter, then, since the assessment was merely to secure the funding stream, whether we passed or not? He was surprised but then explained about the sheer hassle which would be created if anyone submitted and failed. But there was no reason to fail, he said, because he would explain exactly what was required...

Cambridge University is one of the great universities of the world. It is a bastion of liberal, if sometimes antiquated, educational values. The very idea of teaching a course on epistemology to a bunch of retired people who can only be expressively motivated is a wonderful remnant of liberal education in an increasingly instrumental world. What has it come to, then, when they are apparently forced to adopt an assessment regime which is both inherently anti-andragogic (sorry for the jargon—it's just shorthand) and even anti-humanistic, in one of the great traditional humanities disciplines?

It is, moreover, the kind of assessment which is almost forced to promote surface learning, in a group of students who would naturally tend towards deep learning. It virtually rules out engaging in the higher levels of the SOLO taxonomy, and indeed I would tell my students that it pitches at the lower levels of Bloom (or Krathwohl and Anderson)

Interested as I am in the notion of hidden and unintended curricula , (and especially given that the course is about the nature of knowledge), I am bemused by these contradictory messages.

Apparently only one person has ever submitted and failed (and he was a former Fellow of an Oxford College). Sorry, there may be another on the way!


  1. Coming from Cambridge, this is hilarious to say the least. I think this is what they mean by Learning Outcomes - intended for the benefit of the system. The unintended consequences for and of the students are not taken into account. I agree with you that the teacher should keep space in his mind to capture unintended consequences.


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