Lack of effective learning in higher education institutions

By Hussein Hussein & Priya Chetty on January 31, 2023

With the growing prevalence of online learning, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutes are expected to account for effective learning, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) metrics (Busteed, 2021). Universities globally are discussing the current metrics to bring:

  • perpetual change to learning and teaching techniques,
  • reduce excessive workload,
  • increase governance and accountability; and
  • work on the overall well-being of students and faculty (Erickson, Hanna and Walker, 2021).

Education is now no longer limited to tried and tested classroom curricula and techniques. It has facilitated better teaching and learning methods, better access to resources and increased interaction among teachers and students with greater flexibility (Kizi, 2021). For instance, experiential learning and flipped classrooms are quickly gaining traction.

However, teachers lack the technical capabilities to handle online teaching  (García-Morales, Garrido-Moreno and Martín-Rojas, 2021). A lack of new learning materials, techniques, and spaces lead to a gap in learning (Mohamed et al., 2022). Most universities still follow the traditional rote learning model which diminishes students’ academic performance, retention rate, and knowledge transfer (Ahmed and Ahmad, 2017; Abertos et al., 2020).

Furthermore, other negatives include a lack of cooperative learning experience which allows students to interact with each other (Malatji, 2016). It impairs their ability to retain information and apply knowledge and skills outside the classroom. This collectively makes learning less effective, leading to failure in the workplace.

Critical problems laid out in the literature

Higher education imparted today is seen to focus more on quick learning and technology adoption rather than encouraging creativity and innovativeness in students. Most universities still focus on rote learning inhibiting student knowledge gain and transfer capabilities (Ahmed and Ahmad, 2017). However, it has been seen that incorporating innovative education techniques leads to development and expansion of quality education, leading to students inculcating high quality creativity and innovative skills (Atamanyuk, Semenikhina and Shyshenko, 2021).

Though technological progress has helped the education sector adopt emerging technologies to materialize on creative and innovative problem solutions. Furthermore, many universities are not seen to implement such processes to bring in creative and innovative teaching methods to aid effective learning (Mirandaa et al., 2021). Most faculty lack online teaching experience and are resistent to change, leading to imparting ineffective teaching (Syed et al., 2021). Such problems are seen to impact effective knowledge transfer to students resulting in lack of creativity and innovation (Tambrin, 2021). Students also find it difficult to apply their knowledge in the outside world leading to a gap in qualification and expectations.

What is effective learning?

When it comes to effective learning, it becomes essential to define what ‘effective’ means. There is a variegated opinion among education stakeholders in this regard, since the objectives and goals of an institute play a huge part. These objectives, according to Allan, Clarke and Jopling (2009) are different for each institution; however, the overarching goal is to improve the higher-order learning process (Evans and Abbott, 1998).

Theorists agree that effective education means that learning outcomes were achieved. This not only includes students’ test scores which have made learning a passive activity. In the traditional learning model, students gained knowledge of concepts in a classroom which was then tested with predictable and measurable instruments.

Today, however, it has evolved to include the crucial aspect of reflection and critical thinking. Learning outcomes are being determined not only using test scores but also by how well these concepts are applied later in life and learners’ ability to express them.

Watkins (2002) further describes effective learning as the ability to generate knowledge with others rather than simply knowledge acquisition. It, therefore, involves students in the meta-cognitive processes of planning, monitoring and reflecting.

The need for critical skills in higher education

In the modern higher education context, effective learning is one that assesses students’ strengths and weaknesses to help students achieve (Campbell et al., 2004):

Assessing and building skills using effective learning
Assessing and building skills using effective learning

There is a growing consensus among researchers that the higher education segment is facing a ‘learning crisis’. Critical skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and communication are not being emphasized enough in the teaching. Standardised testing methods are still in place, creating over-emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, limiting their ability to adapt to changing situations and contribute to society.

Absence of responsible behaviour as a skill in university students

Countries are investing more in education centered around economic growth rather than sustainable growth. This leads them to cultivate learning environments that encourage students towards ‘consumption-driven’ pursuits rather than a holistic way of living (Palmberg et al., 2017). They argue that as a result they fail to think responsibly, like maintaining accountability and transparency about their actions (Bricage, 2018).

‘Responsible behaviour’ refers to “taking responsibility for the well-being of others” (Ruyter, 202), and can manifest in various ways like role responsibility, causal responsibility, and outcome responsibility. Behaviour is cultivated in reinforced in educational institutions and homes, and teachers play a very important role in the former setting. As such, institutions fail to account for students’ diversity in socioeconomic status, gender, parental education, and academic abilities (Washington, 2018; Armstrong, 2022), leading to behavioural problems later in life (Joshi, Gokhale and Acharya, 2012).

Emotional intelligence is undervalued as a skill for workplace success

Emotional intelligence has emerged as a catalyst for workplace success. Emotional intelligence refers to a set of emotional  & social  skills that  influence the  way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and  maintain relationships, cope with challenges and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way (Cotler et al., 2019). Not only does it help nurture leadership talent, but it also helps to make balanced decisions, not succumb to emotional outbursts, and manage their own emotions while dealing with others (Sener, Demirel and Sarlak, 2009; Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee, 2013; Bradberry, 2014). This is particularly necessary for Generation Z, i.e., the generation born between 1995-2010 which has have grown up using digital technology, have built two identities for themselves, personal and social. This generation is also exposed to violent and aggressive information, impairing their emotional intelligence.

Studies have also found a positive correlation between:

  • emotional intelligence of students and workplace leadership,
  • conflict management skill,
  • problem solving ability and,
  • acceptability at the workplace (Rupande, 2015).

One way to deliver this skill is by enriching lecturers’ knowledge and expertise in emotional intelligence. However, educational institutions have done little to design modules and curricula with emotional intelligence as a learning outcome (Machera and Machera, 2017). Studies have found high levels of stress, lack of control, and fear of failure among university students, suggesting low EQ  (Kant, 2019; Jahan, 2020).  This has a detrimental effect on the professional efficiency of students.

Adopting new age teaching methods for effective learning

New knowledge transfer methods such as personalised learning and simulation, play an important role in making lessons effective. They are applied to three types of knowledge:

  1. Conceptual Learning: It helps students focus on key concepts and central ideas over traditional method of learning by topics. Both students and teachers can utilize this knowledge in their education and career.
  2. Theoretical Learning: This talks about knowledge and its practical application in real life situations. Incorporating theoretical learning that helps student evaluate the techniques from a broader perspective (Doyumğaç, Tanhan and Kiymaz, 2020).
  3. Factual Learning: It focuses on acquiring and storing information that can be easily retrieved. Factual learning helps students develop advanced cognitive skills like reasoning and problem solving skills.

In spite of the effectiveness of the above learning methods, most universities are following traditional methods of learning as most teachers follow instructions that are limited to textbooks and syllabus. This leads students to learn under unconducive learning environments (Guthrie, 2019). Also, universities work towards matching teaching styles to learning styles of students that include visual, auditory, read-write or kinesthetic learners (Newton and Salvi, 2020). However, this is not seen to improve learning.

As most Universities lack proactiveness in adopting new effective learning techniques, students fail to grasp several concepts and techniques. In order to ensure the effectiveness of the lessons, higher education institutions need to upgrade their pedagogy and assessment methods that foster transfer of knowledge rather than rote learning.


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