May 20, 2011, by Teaching at Nottingham

Saul Becker on Learning to learn at university

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Saul Becker: “I teach the first four lectures that our first year students have on a particular module, called Social Problems. So that I am the first academic they will see in terms of those first four lectures and then it gets handed on to other people. So of course, these students are coming from every different background. Some of them are A level students, some are Access students. Some have come back from working for many years. Some are very mature students in their 50s. I’ve had some students that are close to retirement age. And what I’m trying to do … I’m very explicit with them in that first lecture. I’m, if you like, giving them a map, or a guide to how to learn in the lecture.

“I think what we need to be doing from the outset is to teach our students how to learn. So that when they come to University, particularly those that have come from A levels or Access courses, but also for the students returning to learning after many years in the workforce or after caring responsibilities, or whatever it is that has interrupted that learning process. You know, the obstacles to learning for them are as much as the obstacles to learning for a recent A level student, because actually, we don’t necessarily want that A level student to continue to learn in that way here, because what we should be doing is stretching their knowledge. We should be making them be critical learners; engaging them much more interactively. So in a way, you have to almost start from scratch with any kind of learner because the old rules don’t necessarily apply and shouldn’t apply. So, I want my students in their first year to not only learn about what we’re teaching them, but to learn how to learn. So to understand that learning isn’t just a process of us feeding them information and knowledge in some passive way. But it’s an interactive process of them engaging in their own learning; of them being inspired to go out to the library to learn more. Of them reading around the topic, of them talking with fellow students and other people in the common room, in the bar, wherever it might be, in the seminar that this is an ongoing process and this is the beauty and the excitement of coming to University. It’s about the fantastic way in which we learn and the knowledge that we get that makes us better people. That makes us able to engage in our societies, our communities, that helps us in our jobs, in our workplace, that gives us the ideas that move things forward and that helps us find a place in the world.

“So, we’re teaching our students to be critical thinkers, and we’re teaching them that through our own example of being critical researchers. And I think that transferable skill about being a critical thinker will allow them to make judgements in whatever domain, whatever area of work they go into. It will help them to, not just to accept everything but to work out, ‘What do I need to know? What do I need to know more about? How can I go about finding that information and that knowledge’. And I think that’s the virtue and the benefit of coming to University, where research is at the core. But the teaching is also really critically important.”

Saul Becker
School of Sociology and Social Policy

This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Curriculum designStudents' academic developmentTeachingTransition into HE