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Nurturing Africa’s critical thinkers

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Findings from a Loughborough University-led study will help higher education institutions in Africa to develop the nation’s future key players in industry, policymaking and political leadership.

The project – funded by the Department of International Development (DFID) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) – focussed on what educators in Africa need to do to create more independent, lifelong learners and strengthen the contribution of its researchers. 

The principle investigator for the research was Loughborough’s Dr Mark Hepworth from the Department of Information Science, in collaboration with Siobhan Duvigneau from the British Library for Development Studies at the IDS.

Three universities in Zambia, Malawi and Botswana, each with different resource levels, participated in the study.  Senior staff at the universities were asked about their thoughts and experiences of higher education in their respective countries, and what strategies they felt could be implemented to help their staff and students reach their full potential.

The key findings were:

  • Many African graduates currently lack information literacy, critical thinking and independent learning capabilities.  The students were often described as passive.
  • Students involved in innovative training such as problem or inquiry-based research with a ‘real world’ setting, or encompassing a competitive element, demonstrate the motivation, enthusiasm and capacity for developing their information capabilities.
  • Inadequate and inappropriate resources present real challenges to building information capabilities. Specific problems include high student and low staff numbers, funding issues, limited ICT, a lack of study space and out-of-date and Northern-biased information resources.
  • Academic staff need training in the use of alternative, more engaging, interactive and participatory approaches to learning in order to build information literacy, critical thinking and independent learning, as well as methods to monitor and evaluate the impact of these.
  • Staff need support in integrating information literacy, critical thinking and independent learning throughout the higher education curriculum.
  • The connection between research and teaching capabilities (pedagogic skill) was made in all three institutions, and both need support.  Building research capacity; developing pedagogic knowledge; involving students in research and developing information literate, critical thinking independent learners were shown to be interconnected.

“The issues raised and strategies that were suggested by participants were remarkably similar across the three institutions – despite the different stakeholder involvement, and the different contexts regarding resources and culture,” explains Dr Mark Hepworth, who led Loughborough’s involvement in the study.  “From these shared issues together we were able to develop recommendations and a plan for moving forward.”

Recommendations include:

  • Greater use of e-learning and peer assessment to counter low staff–student ratios.
  • Allowing students more time to do projects to counter resource limitations.
  • Using ‘real world’ problems in information training to foster student enthusiasm and develop research capabilities.
  • Rewarding the demonstration of good information capabilities to provide incentives.

The research also identified the creation of new partnerships as being important in building information capabilities – both to share lessons and resources, and to involve all relevant stakeholders. Such partnerships should be within institutions, as well as between the institution and external bodies.

“Clearly there are differences between higher education institutions in Africa and those in the UK,” Dr Hepworth adds.  “However I think some of the issues raised through this research are just as relevant to the UK as they are to these three institutions.  There are lessons we can all learn about how to help graduates boost their employment potential and their capacity to contribute to society as active citizens.”

The study – Building Research Capacity: Enabling critical thinking through information literacy in higher education in Africa – was funded by the Department for International Development, and instigated by the British Library for Development Studies at IDS.  The full report, downloaded over 500 times since its publication in February, can be viewed here.