Keynote 2

  • David Kember

    David Kember is Professor in Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at the University of Hong Kong. He has spent over twenty years in Hong Kong working at three universities there and on an inter-institutional project

    Adapting study approaches acquired at school to suit the demands of university

    If students are to cope with university study they need to adapt study approaches and beliefs about teaching, learning and knowledge acquired at school to ones more suited to university study. As graduate attributes are increasingly recognised as a vital outcome for universities, it can be argued that making this transformation is the hallmark of a successful university education. Students’ beliefs about the process of their education can be characterized as a consistent trio of beliefs about knowledge, learning and teaching. Making the school university transition can be visualised as a journey in changing the trio of beliefs.

    The study reported here took place in a selective educational system, with entry to university confined to an elite. Progression from one level to the next depends upon external examinations. The pressure to do well in the examinations, in a Confucian-heritage society which places a high regard for education, inevitably influences approaches to both teaching and learning in schools.

    It is likely that students in other selective educational systems will experience similar pressures and, therefore, be induced towards similar study approaches. There is also evidence that many students in countries which have achieved mass higher education, enter university with naïve epistemological beliefs.

    A successful graduate will need to have changed the trio of beliefs to a more sophisticated set compatible with the academic demands of universities. Change to any deep-seated belief can be a difficult, lengthy and even traumatic process, particularly ones reinforced by years of schooling.

    This study produced evidence from interviews with final year students in two universities in Hong Kong of the nature of the transition and the processes by which it was made. The sampling concentrated on disciplines in which there was some evidence that students found transitions difficult because of a marked difference between expectations at school and university. This included programmes taught by problem-based learning and arts and social science subjects in which knowledge is highly contested.

    Secondary school cultivated an examination orientation. Teaching and learning model answers are common strategies. This tends to result in beliefs that knowledge is certain and defined by an external authority. The role of the teacher is to present appropriate knowledge for the students to remember and reproduce in examinations.

    At university students had to make a set of overlapping and inter-related transitions. They needed to manage their own learning in the less directive university environment. They had to become independent learners. There was a need to develop the confidence to participate in class discussion. They had to develop multiple perspectives and learn to write critical arguments in a manner consistent with their discipline.

    There was evidence that students did make the transition from model answers to multiple perspectives, though it took time and was a confusing and difficult process. To make the transition, students had to be exposed to conflicting positions and multiple perspectives. The mechanism for the change in perspective was through interactive discourse in class. The transition was most successful when teachers encouraged students to critically discuss contentious issues.

    Writing at school had tended to be reproductive. Learning to make a coherent written argument was conditional on developing sophisticated epistemological beliefs. Generic writing skills classes were not successful as they did not address ways of thinking within the discipline.

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