Why lack of knowledge is at the core of third level’s problems

I think it’s fairly obvious from my last post that I’ve found the last few weeks quite stressful. I’ve been really disappointed with the quality of work I’ve been getting from students and not just work that has been done under the pressure of the exam hall. The continuous assessment work has been the big disappointment . To some extent, though, many of the problems I encounter (shoddy graphs, shoddy formatting, meaningless sentences etc.) would be fixed by a simple change in students’ mindset – a little more conscientiousness would go a long way.

The real source of worry though is the fact that many students (not all, there are some good ones) seem to be unable to write coherent, well-argued answers to what are very straightforward questions. The typical response of many education commentators is that “we need to teach critical thinking”. But you can’t think critically unless you have knowledge in your long term memory to think with. And that’s the crux of the problem: many students simply don’t know very much at all. They will freely admit that most of them do not study during the semester but leave everything to the last minute when they rote learn in the hope that, whatever the question, they’ll be able to do a brain dump of information that has at least some connection to the question being asked. Talk to students about the 125-hour module and they’ll laugh and give you a look that says “you must be joking”.

The approach to learning that students are taking means that material studied at the last minute is rapidly forgotten so when the next semester of modules comes around they have very little knowledge in their heads that they can build on. In that sense they are always starting from scratch. And that’s why final year students frequently cannot make up solutions of a given molarity. And it’s why I’m frequently met with blank faces when I remind students that they have studied material before in an earlier module. They literally have no memory of it at all.

3 thoughts on “Why lack of knowledge is at the core of third level’s problems

  1. This is, in my opinion, a massive issue in the third level sector, and one to which all parties are turning a blind eye.1500 hours of student effort spread over an academic year is going to be 50+ hours ON AVERAGE, per student per week. This is before you take into account any questions of efficiency. The HEA figures tell us that 46% of full time students work during term time, for an average of >18 hours per week. College should be a time where students expand their horizons in all dimensions, but our increasingly compressed academic year structures (by international standards), dysfunctional transport and housing situations (esp Dublin), and the 3rd level financial crisis means that there aren’t enough hours in the week and something gives – often the amount of time students spend on self-directed work, or attendance at things they see as optional (those things called lectures….)


    1. Totally agree. I remember as a student doing exams during the World cup. The academic year was much longer then and the Easter holidays was a key study time when you put in the work that you set you up for the per-exam period a month or so later.


      1. Yes independent study time during a prolonged easter break, a shock to the system after secondary school but a necessary one


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