Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education

Keynote address by

Philip C. Candy
Queensland University of Technology


I would like to begin by thanking the organisers for inviting me to be one of the Keynote speakers at this Forum.

A concern with lifelong learning has a noble pedigree; indeed, as I will show at the end of this talk, it can be traced back to the very origins of higher education in Australia as elsewhere. However, for the purposes of this paper I will start with a quote from the 1990 Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Training (the Aulich Committee) which came out under the title Priorities for Reform in Higher Education:

Australia is producing graduates who all too frequently are not familiar in any disciplined sense with the society in which they are going to practise their chosen profession, who are not critical, analytical and creative thinkers, whose education does not provide the basis for adequate flexibility, who are not sufficiently attuned to the need for lifelong learning and who are not good communicators. In short we are producing highly trained technicians who are under-educated in the broader sense of the term. (Aulich Report, 1990, p.3)
At least some of these ideas were picked up again and echoed a couple of years later in the Higher Education Council's report Achieving Quality, where it was stated:
It is broadly agreed that if higher education is to enable graduates to operate effectively in a range of activities over a period of time, a lifetime in effect and not just immediately after the studies are completed, then it must develop the characteristics that support learning throughout life. Discipline specific skills in many areas have only a short life, and what will be needed in even the medium-term cannot be predicted with any great precision. (Achieving Quality, 1992, p.20)
Thus, the 'birth certificate' for the research project I will talk about today can be found most immediately in the document Achieving Quality, although a concern with lifelong learning is in fact much older.

The project

In 1993, there appeared in the public press under the title of "The enabling characteristics of undergraduate education," a call for expressions of interest in undertaking a project to be jointly sponsored by the Higher Education Council and the Australian Vice Chancellor's Committee. A group of us at QUT successfully bid for the commission. What we were asked to do was to examine the degree of active commitment by institutions of higher education to their graduates' willingness and ability to continue learning throughout their lives. We investigated and made recommendations on the ways in which the higher education system itself and institutions within it can promote and implement the principles of lifelong learning and enhance students' learning-to-learn skills in the course of their undergraduate studies.

To give you an overview of the Report and how we undertook the study, I will provide a very compressed picture of the project. We started with what one would normally expect; a literature review, through which we identified about 1,000 items of English language literature. We tracked down and read about 600. We also advertised the project in the Higher Education Supplement and Campus Review and received some sixty submissions; from individual graduates, from professional societies and associations, from employers and from institutions of higher education. We looked at the mission statements of every publicly funded university in Australia; interestingly, we found that of a total of 37 only 8 mention the development of lifelong learning as part of their mission.

As a kind of 'snapshot' of what was going on generally in higher education, we wrote to the course co-ordinators of 18 randomly selected undergraduate programs across Australia and asked for documentation about each course. That gave us a sense of what a representative group of courses might be said to be doing across the Australian higher education system. In order to identify some 'exemplary' undergraduate degree programs, we also examined every Disciplinary Review in Australia since 1980, and we also got in touch with professional societies and associations and accrediting bodies. We asked Vice Chancellors to nominate which of their undergraduate programs they thought best exemplified a commitment to the principles of lifelong learning. Using these various approaches, we tried to 'triangulate' so that more than one source was saying "this is an interesting course," and as a result we ended up with 13 examples of particularly good practice. We also profiled seven student support services, by which I mean libraries, computer based education facilities, or learning and study skills units.

Having identified the programs we wanted to focus on, my colleague, Dr Gay Crebert, actually did a lot of the leg work. She spent nearly seven weeks undertaking interviews with staff, students and graduates across Australia. For every one of those 13 programs, she interviewed first year and third year students, graduates, employers, teaching staff and support staff. Overall, she undertook 160 interviews which yielded 3,000 pages of interview transcripts. These were analysed in two ways. To write the body of the report we took a horizontal slice and examined the responses of, for instance, all the first year students, all the graduates, or all the teaching staff. In this way we were able to search for underlying themes and recurrent issues. To write the ten case studies which form the second half of the report, we actually explored what everybody associated with each particular program said about it; aiming for what ethnographers call 'thick description.' Thus, the report, which is some 300 pages long, consists of two parts: some generic findings and overall recommendations in the first part, and then 10 detailed case studies in the second part.

The report

That's the background. Now let me take you into the Report. The first thing we did was to ask ourselves "Why is this suddenly such a hot topic?" If lifelong learning has been around for 2,000 years or more, and has made periodic reappearances in the literature of Australian education including Australian higher education, why is it suddenly something that the Government would seize onto? We identified the following six factors which, together, seem to have pushed the need for lifelong learning into the limelight recently: This is not an exhaustive list but just an indicative one.

The second question we asked was "What kind of learning do people have to do when they graduate?" I dare say that if I asked you about the kinds of learning experiences that your graduates have, you may not know a lot about them. Although you may know about their professional competence, about how they fit into the workplace, about their employability or about their starting salaries, it is unlikely that you have given a lot of thought to the issue of how much or what sort of learning your graduates actually undertake after leaving university. We identified four categories of learning that we focused on.

The first one is workplace-based learning. There is a huge body of literature about the kind of learning that happens in the workplace, some of it mediated by trainers, some of it adventitious and serendipitous or accidental. The point is that we don't know precisely what sort of workplace-based learning any particular graduate, or for that matter, any cohort of graduates is likely to encounter. Take law as an example; about 50% of law graduates don't practise the law as such. Of those who do, some will become a sole practitioner in a country town; some will go into a small firm, some into a large firm or a multinational; some might work in the corporate law department of a big company, a bank or a government department; some might work for an international agency or for a non-profit company. All these people are practising the law in one form or another and learning about the demands of their jobs.

How can one degree adequately prepare for such a diversity of potential learning opportunities and trajectories? It is not just a single unitary path that our graduates follow in learning at work.

The second category of learning is continuing professional education, which may be offered by a professional association, a university, a government agency or a "for-profit" provider. In many professions people are obliged, or at least expected, to attend these activities to maintain currency, or in other words to upgrade and to keep up with new developments. Such learning commonly resembles that which is undertaken in university, although there are significant differences including the absence of formal assessment requirements.

A third type of postgraduate learning is further formal study; however there are a number of sub-headings within this. Some undergraduates finish a degree and then do another one. Others undertake postgraduate awards, which may be post-graduate in time, or post-graduate in level, or both. There is also an interesting group of people who, after a degree, undertake a qualification in TAFE or in a vocational college. This latter trend is making a big difference to the culture of teaching and learning in TAFE as well as confronting vocational educators with the need to provide reciprocal pathways in terms of academic credit and advanced standing for students who already possess a qualification higher than that for which they are studying.

The fourth and final category is self-directed learning, which comprises a huge - indeed virtually unlimited - sea of opportunities whereby people as adults and as citizens seek 'to be,' 'to become' and 'to belong.'

After considering these various categories of learning, the next question we asked was "What kinds of skills and attributes, abilities and predispositions would a person need to be able to cope with such a range of possible learning contexts and challenges?" We read widely, we talked to our graduates, we peered deeply into our own experience and we came up with over one hundred different qualities. Out of this total list we distilled five:

You and your colleagues might not agree with these five. You might combine them into a smaller number, or add some that we have left out. The important thing, however is to discuss what are the generic learning skills and attributes you would like your graduates to possess, and then to consider how they are going to be developed during the course of their studies.

Armed with this sort of profile of the lifelong learner, we then turned our attention to various aspects of the undergraduate experience which might plausibly contribute to developing such attributes. In our terms of reference, we were asked to look at five components in particular: the content of the curriculum, the structure of the curriculum, teaching approaches, assessment strategies and student support services. However, before considering these five facets I would like to explore briefly the relevance of this study for teachers in higher education.

By talking about teaching as a decontextualised activity we actually lose sight of its purpose, which is to enhance or to facilitate learning; in fact the ultimate test of teaching quality is whether it leads to quality learning. This then raises the question: "What is meant by quality learning?"

There is no definitive or simple answer to this question, but in the following diagram I have attempted to identify and capture two major components with respect to higher education: the first is learning ideas and skills of quality, by which I mean learning outcomes which are valued by and worthy of higher education. The second is learning those "ideas and skills" (or other accomplishments and acquisitions that are obtained through higher education) in a high quality way. It will also be noted that the heading "ideas and skills of quality" further subdivides into the 'technical' or substantive content of the degree program, and some generic or transferable skills and attributes.

Quality Learning

Although this model is highly oversimplified, nonetheless it directs attention to at least three major dimensions of quality in learning: (i) the substantive content of the course or program; (ii) the concomitant learning outcomes which graduates are expected to gain as a consequence of their study at university (such as personal transferable skills); and (iii) the qualitative aspects of the learning in which students engage. We approached the task of looking at undergraduate programs with this simple model in mind, attempting, as I said before, to examine the content and structure of the curriculum, teaching methods and assessment approaches, and student learning services, from the perspective of how they each contribute to the development of lifelong learning skills and attributes (the first item in the middle column). In the next part of the paper, I will turn attention to each of these five facets in turn.

Content of the Undergraduate Curriculum

The first of the five terms of reference was the content of the curriculum. Clearly it lay beyond our terms of reference, not to mention beyond our expertise, to make recommendations about the detailed content that should or should not be in any given degree; this is a decision for the content-matter experts who design and teach each individual course. But we did recognise that every undergraduate program comprises more than just substantive content or applied skills and knowledge. Each degree, we argued, should have three principal components: applied skills and knowledge; a firm foundation of general knowledge; and, certain personal and transferable skills and abilities. However, while every undergraduate degree might have these three components, their relative weighting will vary from case to case.

We were more definite in our argument that lifelong learning skills should be placed - conceptually at least - at the heart of every undergraduate degree program. At present, most undergraduate degrees are dominated by substantive disciplinary content; in some degrees - accounting, engineering, information science and so on - it can be as high as 90% that is prescribed. Wrapped around that disciplinary content is a thin veneer of generic skills; maybe some lifelong learning and a few contextual studies. However, because these components are at the edge, they are marginal. What we have suggested in the Report is the reverse; that all undergraduate degrees in Australia should aim to have at their hearts, the development of some Lifelong Learning competencies. Why? We advanced three reasons. Firstly, because the document Achieving Quality says that we should expect certain generic attributes of all Australian graduates and one of these is the ability to go on learning. Secondly, in our view, if pride of place is given to learning-to-learn, then the learning of complex and often rapidly changing disciplinary knowledge will be enhanced, accelerated and improved. Thirdly, the skills of learning-to-learn will endure long after the detailed and specific knowledge is forgotten. Although it is a bit trite, it has been said that if you give somebody a fish, you feed them for one day; if you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. If you teach somebody how to learn, you are giving them probably the world's greatest take-home gift; the ability to learn things after you've disappeared off the scene, and indeed to shape their own destinies.

Structure of the undergraduate curriculum

In the same way that we cannot legitimately comment on the content of every course, except in the abstract, we cannot specify the ideal structure of each and every course in every field. However, our study showed that in order to produce lifelong learners, an undergraduate degree program should ideally provide: I will comment briefly about each of these in turn. Firstly, the systematic and integrated introduction. We found that many courses, by bending over backwards to respond to student needs and interests, and by being extremely flexible and accommodating, actually never introduce the students, in any coherent way, to a body of disciplinary knowledge. The consequence often is that graduates of these programs have breaks and discontinuities in their knowledge base which show up when they attempt to learn more in later life, and especially when they choose to undertake postgraduate study. Some sort of solid grounding in an area guards against this possibility, while at the same time introducing students to the modes of thought in the particular discipline.

Our second criterion has to do with providing the graduates with a vantage point from which to understand both the antecedents and the consequences of their field of study and practice. If somebody knows about the limitations of their field, about how knowledge is created, about where it is going, and so on, then they are not just narrowly trained but rather more broadly educated.

Our third criterion relates to broadening the student and developing generic skills. This is important not least because society at large has the expectation that graduates will be better rounded and more fully educated than those with a narrowly vocational preparation. It is also important because, while much disciplinary knowledge is transient, there are certain other accomplishments - such as skill communication; team membership and team leadership; the ability to find, use, and evaluate information; and a capacity for critical thinking which should be the hallmark of any graduate irrespective of the field in which he or she has studied.

I recognise that in many fields there is an abundance of disciplinary content which has somehow or other to be accommodated within the ambit of the degree, but in terms of lifelong learning, space must be found - or made - for this kind of broadening too.

The fourth area is also something of a challenge; freedom of choice and flexibility. It is a challenge because it involves giving up some of the control that academics traditionally exert over the curriculum. It is a challenge because different students might choose patterns of subjects or alternative pathways through them, which can seem messy and inefficient. And it is also a challenge to reconcile such freedom and flexibility with the goal of providing 'a systematic and integrated introduction to the field of study,' because students may wish to exercise choices that will lead them away from, rather than towards, a comprehensive understanding of the subject. However, notwithstanding these problems, flexibility and adaptability are essential features of the undergraduate degree. Increasingly, many students are mid-career professionals or people seeking particular skills or knowledge, and the degree structure must allow for choices to meet the needs and interests of such students.

Finally, there is the incremental development of self-directed learning. It strikes me that over the course we should probably be trying to devolve to students greater responsibility for valued instructional functions. This is not the same thing as dropping students into the deep end, and forcing them to sink or swim. But one of the hallmarks of the lifelong learner is the ability to take control of one's own learning, and I believe these skills should be intentionally and progressively developed throughout the undergraduate experience, so that by graduation, the students have had experience of setting goals, researching topics, and generally learning on their own. The 'staged withdrawal' of staff over the period of three or four years, however, should be both explicit and agreed, so that students recognise this as a legitimate part of the educational experience, rather than regarding it as an abdication of responsibility on the part of the academic staff.

Teaching approaches and assessment strategies

In addition to considering the content and structure of the curriculum, we were asked to identify those teaching approaches and assessment strategies which are likely to enhance the continuing learning of students after their graduation. Unfortunately, this study was not longitudinal, and it is therefore impossible to state with certainty which particular approaches will work. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that the following teaching approaches are most likely to encourage lifelong learning skills and orientations: teaching approaches which encourage students to engage in self-directed and peer-assisted learning; those which involve experiential and real-world learning; methods which make use of resource-based and problem-based learning; and those which include reflective practice and critical self-awareness. We also argued that universities should, wherever practicable and appropriate, make use of open learning and alternative delivery mechanisms.

We included this last item because very commonly people are obliged to keep up through a variety of different learning strategies, not simply through classroom instruction. I had the privilege recently of giving a talk to The Alliance for Continuing Medical Education in the United States. I was interested to find there that medical practitioners often receive, through the mail, CD Roms, video discs, floppy discs, VCR cassettes, audio cassettes and printed notes, all designed to help them with their continuing professional education. They also log on to bulletin boards, and download case notes and diagnostic aids from the Med-line medical data base in Washington. These are just practitioners dotted around in the countryside, not academics or researchers. In our view, we really need to be introducing our students to these technologies whilst they are with us, so that they are comfortable and competent with them when they graduate.

Turning to the issue of assessment, a good deal of recent research indicates that students are particularly sensitive to the assessment requirements that govern their courses. Many of them are, in the words of one researcher, "cue conscious" and are particularly attuned to the subtle - and not so subtle - hints that lecturers give out about what is to be assessed. If, however, students are accustomed to forms of assessment that encourage 'reproductive' rather than 'transformational' learning, in other words which simply test their factual recall or which treat knowledge as decontextualised fragments of information (as many multiple choice tests do), then they may have difficulty in adapting to the complexity and fluidity of learning in real world settings. Accordingly, we recommended assessment practices which evaluate what, rather than how much has been learned; which provide an opportunity to teach as well as to test; which depend largely on peer - and self-assessment; and which provide timely, constructive feedback that results in congruence between course aims and learning outcomes. In our view, those assessment practices which focus on the learner, rather than on the teacher are most likely to yield graduates who will be able to critically evaluate their own performance in whatever context they find themselves.

Student support services

Finally, we were required to look at the provision of student support services which are linked with lifelong learning outcomes. We focused on three: In our study, we profiled seven of these student support services, in an attempt to distinguish those that simply concentrated on helping students to be better students, from those that had a broader mandate and sought to help the students to become better learners. I will not say too much about these various support mechanisms, as there is a whole chapter about them in the full Report. In brief, however, we discovered that there is an enormous reservoir of expertise embodied in many of these units, which needs to be harnessed to the purpose of producing lifelong learners. We found that the best way of achieving this is through routinely building such institutional support into undergraduate programs, and through treating the staff who work in them as full and equal partners in the design and delivery of the learning process.

A climate of intellectual inquiry

When we had completed our survey of the five basic building blocks of the undergraduate program - curriculum content, curriculum structure, teaching methods, assessment approaches, and student support - we had an uneasy feeling that a university could be attending to all five of these things, and yet still not be producing lifelong learners. This was an intriguing problem, and so we asked the graduates, "how come?" Their answers were very enlightening, because many of them reported that lifelong learning did not seem to have been valued in the departments and programs where they had studied. It was not something that they saw being modelled by the staff and, in many cases, there was no real sense of intellectual excitement in the department. So we added a sixth term of reference; creating a climate of intellectual enquiry.

I guess that our plea would be for a return to some of the traditional liberal and humane values of higher education. Why did you choose to work at university? To be part of a giant technical college? No: because you're excited by ideas; you're stimulated by debate, by research, by reading, and be spending time in the laboratory or the library. Most of us had more idealistic motives for getting involved in university life, yet we find that some of the life blood has been drained away. In our view, we really need to inject back into universities that elusive but vital ingredient: a climate of intellectual inquiry.


Out of all this, one of the most interesting and sowewhat salutary learning outcomes for us was that if we actually did what we already know to be good practice, our universities would be a lot further down the track in terms of developing lifelong learners. Many of you may have seen the HERDSA document 'Challenging Conceptions of Teaching.' It consists of 47 questions designed for individual academics, groups of academics, teaching teams, maybe even whole departments, to spend a couple of hours reading through and talking about, as an aid to reflection on their practice. One of those questions asks: "what approaches do you use to help students reflect on their own learning intentions, behaviour and practice and to develop effective skills for lifelong learning?" That is question number 17. However, this whole document is really about enhancing students' learning experiences at university and beyond; it is reproduced in its entirety as an Appendix to our Report.

I have long had an interest in history and one of the things I did when I prepared the Report was to go back to the Inaugural Address for the University of Sydney, the oldest and arguably the most venerable university in Australia. The Inaugural Address was given in 1852 by Rev Dr John Woolley, foundation Principal and Professor of Logic and Classics. This is what he said:

Our undergraduates will.... we may reasonably hope, possess a well cultivated and vigorous understanding; they will have formed the habit of thinking at once with modesty and independence; they will not be in danger of mistaking one branch of science for the whole circle of knowledge; nor of unduly exaggerating the importance of the studies which they select as their own. Above all, they will have attained the truest and most useful result of human knowledge, the consciousness and confession of their comparative ignorance.
It seems to me that the acknowledgment of one's ignorance is actually the beginning of this lifelong journey of continuing learning, and that in a sense, by focusing on developing lifelong learners in undergraduate programs, universities are actually reaffirming their historic commitment to providing support in its many forms, contexts and manifestations throughout life.

Please cite as: Candy, P. C. (1995). Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p ii-viii. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/candy.html

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