22 November 2008

On relying on textbooks

I had an enquiry from a reader in Romania, who teaches psychology to students taking the International Baccalauriate. She was initially concerned with the structure and tone of the textbooks, every more abstract and distanced from practice. But as we discussed it, it became apparent that it was more to do with the students' approach to the textbook... And then I had something of an epiphany. With the possible exception of two years spent teaching "A" level sociology (very useful experience, that; I knew no sociology at all when I started, and had an article published in the prestigious Sociological Review by the end of it. OK it was 1970-71...); with that possible exception I have never had to teach a course to a textbook, so I had not thought about how it works. I do keep a few standard undergraduate textbooks on my shelf as a quick way in to the "standard model" of particular areas of study, so I looked at how they were structured, and I realised...
It all stems from the assessment system, in practice. The textbooks are not about teaching psychology as such; they are about equipping students to pass the exams in psychology, which is quite different as you have understood.

Your students are highly anxious and focused on the assessment (and they are probably under pressure from their families to perform well). They /dare not/ concern themselves with anything else until they have passed their exams (by which time they may well have forgotten that they were once interested in psychology for other reasons...) I applaud your efforts to introduce group work, etc. but for them the bottom line is---"will it help me pass the exam?"

There is an extensive research strand exploring this issue; see http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/deepsurf.htm for an introduction, but none of it helps you to solve the problem unless you can change the assessment regime.

You will be familiar---more than I am---with the research on how a problem or challenge is "framed". You have no alternative but to use the frame, "This will help you to pass the exam." If you can get the students to accept that the groupwork or whatever strategy you propose will indeed help with that limited goal, they will rise to the challenge. However, they are--as you now know--very conservative. They find it very difficult to adjust to any approach to learning which does not seem aimed directly at the assessment; but you of course know that the direct approach is very limited...
Or am I on the wrong track? (Thanks to Oana for posing the original question.)

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