Mental pictures and their implications for higher education

Authors: Rutherford

Conference: HEA - ADM annual forum: Shaping Things to Come - Higher Education Academy

Dates: 17 May 2011


The use of ‘mental pictures’ is the oldest form of human cognition: our most basic way to know what something ‘is’ – through which we implicitly define (from Latin: ‘to draw a line around’) its meaning or significance. In other words, what we think of something is determined by the way in which we mentally ‘picture’ (or IMAGinE) it.

Constantly reinforced by parents, politicians, entertainment, media commentators (and, God help us all, university Vice-Chancellors), our students have been encouraged to IMAGinE (and therefore to define) higher education as a mercantile commodity: a product to be ‘bought’. As a consequence of the ‘mental picture’ with which many students arrive each September, they assume that HE requires the same (minimal) level of involvement or commitment demanded of the consumers of any other service: Pay your money, and the service will be provided ‘for’ you (on a platter). In addition, according to exit interviews, a common complaint among those withdrawing from programmes of study is their frustration and difficulty in “seeing how it all fits together…” I believe that this ‘consumerist’ metaphor for HE (which defines both what it is ‘for’ and how is supposed to happen) is the root of both of these problems now confronting us: the minimal level of student engagement, and their difficulty in seeing the purpose of what we ask them to do – both of which contribute to unsatisfactory levels of student retention.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Rutherford