February 26th, 2010

Revisiting the Purpose of Higher Education and Courses


Noel Entwistle writes in the conclusion of an impressive chapter that provides an overview of key research findings about learning that the evidence leads to “seeing the purpose of higher education as going beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills; to recognize that for the demands of current society and employment, graduates need to have acquired a personal conceptual understanding of the main ideas and ways of thinking in their area of study so as to experience ‘learning that lasts.’ Only this will provide flexibility in applying knowledge, skills, and understanding that will suffice at a time of rapid change and ‘super-complexity’ in dealing with emerging issues and new problems.” (p. 43)

Entwistle encourages the development of courses “that set a broad agenda from the start, highlighting the ways of thinking and practicing that are required, and introducing broad questions as ‘throughlines’ that keep students focused on the importance of reaching understanding for themselves.” (p. 43)

In theory, I suspect most of us would agree. Learning is about so much more than mastery of material in a rote, deterministic way. But curricular constraints make so many courses about covering material—there’s so much material that little time remains for any of the larger purposes that relate to learning processes. And then there’s the question of how one teaches so that students acquire “a personal conceptual understanding.” That doesn’t mean students get to interpret the material as they see fit. It’s more about them making the material their own, storing it where they can find it, and configuring it so that it usefully connects with what else they know.

I am convinced that most of our courses need to be reconstructed, if not destructed and rebuilt. I know, individual faculty often don’t have time or the institutional support necessary to redesign courses and curricula. But the truth is we’re living in old buildings that need to be modernized. In some cases, that means torn down. In other cases it means extensive retro-fitting if what we teach students is to serve them well in the decades to come.

Entwistle, N. (2010). Taking stock: An overview of key research findings. In J. C. Hughes and J. Mighty, eds., Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: School of Policy Studies, Queens University.