Most of us have been spoon fed at some stage and this can be likened to teaching as in feeding the students knowledge. Young children being spoon fed sit and wait for the next spoon full and while they are waiting their brain is in neutral ready to accept the wisdom of the ancients from their parent or teacher. The problem here is the brain is doing very little while waiting for the next piece of knowledge and it is in this time the students should be thinking and analyzing.

When we spoon feed our knowledge to the students they start to expect the next morsel after a certain amount of waiting. The students often do not understand the knowledge they are spoon fed and can lose the thirst for knowledge if they are waiting too long, during this time they can also start to become bored and the brain can wander on to other more interesting topics as they are not interacting with the morsel of knowledge they are simply expecting to be fed.

So far this is nothing new to most experienced teachers but the issue lies when is spoon feeding not spoon feeding, at what stage can it be considered that we are over teaching.

Over teaching or spoon feeding is a recognised problem especially at the university level where the results of spoon feeding are most obvious.

Dr Ovens' research, which was discussed at a conference at Nottingham Trent University. The discussion was titled
‘Learning How to Learn in Higher Education, and suggests that a growing proportion of students are "puzzled" by the idea of independent learning. This is because they have often been led through their schooling by their teachers, who he said were focused on "meeting targets and Ofsted requirements".
Dr Ovens added that the current generation of students had been assessed "more than any other", and that the problem of dealing with students unused to independent learning was not unique to the UK: "When we talk to colleagues worldwide, they have very similar problems, and they agree that the problems are getting progressively worse year on year."
Cunnane. Sarah. (2011).

To help students start their tasks quicker, teachers need to make the effort to give students the necessary and sufficient information in the minimum time.

This maximises the time available maximises the time available for the students to attempt to solve the problems themselves before they request the information.

If not, the teacher runs the risks of:

.- giving too much information (or knowledge) at the beginning – ‘just in case’,

.- taking too long to map out the activity – ‘students’ minds become dull and bored’.

The objectives include for the students to attempt to solve their own questions first.

Then the information can be given or proposed to the students – ‘just in time’, in a different style or format which has the added advantage of diversity in presentation that is catering to the different learning styles.

This utilises the concept that the things that you learn when you need it, are remembered longest rather than forgotten just after an exam.


Many teachers will spend a lot of time on presenting the knowledge to the students and give them lots of examples. An hour later the students are starting to get involved with their tasks and most will start asking for answers that they have already been given. The whole explanation has to be given again at staggered intervals. One could assume that most of the presentation at the start was immediately forgotten as it had no immediate relevance to the student.

Assessment is another compounding issue in that when teachers have very strict testing and exam systems to follow they have to teach to the exam content leaving out context and concepts involved with the subject matter as this takes longer to teach. Also when a curriculum is too full of 'just in case' content teachers will fall back to this just in case style of teaching so they can say 'I have taught it'. Assessment is a double edged sword in that it is very easy to overdo and waste good classroom teaching time with revision, testing and followup with resits, but there is another side to assessment that many overlook in that in some environments it can become a good teaching tool. The small test/quiz situation can set students up to ask questions where they get just in time information about a topic or concept. Of course if overused it becomes just another boring time where the students could be better off interacting with the concept and context of the subject matter.

Often teachers will complain “I told them all they need to know and they just don’t listen”, Yes well so what else is new? This is an aspect of students that has not changed in thousands of years according to some of the earlier philosophers. Socrates was believed to have pointed out that Plato, years before said similar things about students more than 2000 years ago. It is certainly easy for parents and teachers to forget how much they learn with age and experience and it never ceases to amaze that adults expect students to be at the same level of experience and understanding as themselves.

Listening and concentrating has a lot to do with the speed the brain processes the spoken word, If the student is not given anything to do other than listen. The brain according to’s 'Ask' pages states that the average persons brain can process between 500 words per minute and 800 wpm. According to further research from many years ago it was determined that the brain jumps ahead with its processing and after several words stops processing and goes into rest mode (for want of a better term). After a few bursts of processing it is not long before the students have to apply conscious effort to listening. If students can not deal with their brain rest modes, their consciousness shuts down to miss several bursts of what should be processing of language. The upshot of this is the student ability to focus on the spoken word and retain the information for long periods of time is very limited. As is the many staff members who have fallen asleep during staff meetings.

When we spoon feed we get students that wait for knowledge to happen and when they feel they have not learnt something they blame the teacher for not teaching them. The teacher blames the student for not learning or listening. Educational psychology would indicate that maybe there is a better way to tackle the issues. Get the students working on the basic need to know information/knowledge and then add to the information they need to have as they start to need it.

This tends to be the authors style and recently some students complained saying they had not been taught (they were expecting a didactic presentation of knowledge). Questions were then levelled at the students.

Teacher: “Did you know how to do this task 2 weeks ago”?
Student: “No.”
Teacher: “Did you know anything about the topic before you started the activity”?
Student: “No.”
Teacher: “Could you explain anything about the topic to anyone 3 weeks ago?”
Student: “No.”
Teacher: Could you now explain all about the topic to another teacher?
Student: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Did you finish the activity successfully?”
Student: “Yes.”
Teacher: “What has happened in between starting and finishing the activity?”
Student: “I don’t know but you did not teach us.”
Teacher :)

The students have a strong feeling of having taught themselves while the teacher has quietly guided the student in a direction to a successful ending.

This of course is all very typical of the student centred classroom and the research shows this is a very successful way to run a class but be aware you may get accused of not teaching the students especially if the student’s environment has always been typically a didactic knowledge based learning environment. Many teachers when incorporating this style of teaching, have issues with feeling like they have not been working or 'teaching enough' as they are not the focus of the classes attention and they are not presenting full time, this feeling is very strong especially if they have been a didactic teacher in a teacher centered classroom all their career.

Back to the original point when do we stop spoon feeding the students information?  Some general guides could be. (a little cynicism may have crept in here)

  • When the students eyes start to glaze over.
  • When they start to become fidgety.
  • When they have all gone quiet (the term is ‘the lights are on but no one is home’.) the students have stopped absorbing information and have quietly let their brains go to sleep. This can bring up the other issue of how quickly the brain processes information.
  • The teacher cannot think of a question to ask the students to keep them awake.
  • The teacher has been talking didactically for more than 8 minutes. (Older students may hold on longer but it is not necessarily good use of time as mostly they have shut down by then.)
  • The teacher keeps thinking they need to know this stuff so pushes on regardless.
  • The students have all started to strike up their own conversations or play with their phones.
  • A sound system has to be used to overpower the background noise.

What do we get when we spoon feed students.

  • Students that blame the teacher if they do not know something.
  • Students that cram information for tests with no understanding of content.
  • Students that do not learn the context of what they are being taught.
  • Students that happily sit doing nothing while waiting for the teacher to feed them.
  • Students that don’t learn initiative.
  • Students that do not become active learners.
  • Older students that believe they cannot learn as they don’t currently have a teacher.
  • Students that do not actively pursue knowledge or answers to questions.
  • Students that often have problems with Blooms Taxonomy of higher level thinking

Oxbridge University has determined the problem of spoon feeding is a real issue
Rachel Spedding(2011) the managing director of Oxbridge Applications

has had to change their applications process to get a better quality of graduate. In part this is blamed on the tendency of schools and teachers to spoon feed the students on their way to university.
Now ‘the process is not focused on knowledge, but on the application of knowledge and is a chance to demonstrate intellectual curiosity and the use of logic.’ These being more apt skills for a university graduate. Rachel goes on to say, ‘Something has gone badly wrong in the education system, now that we have ended up with so many students glaring at admissions tutors for asking a question they are not expecting; unable to deal with its unpredictability.’ The students cannot deal with change or think creatively which makes them poor graduates. She also says ‘What we need to work towards is an education system that gives students the skills to solve problems creatively and with structure, rather than depend on a set of rules.’

The ultimate goal of all this is to not spoon feed students, but to teach them to ask questions, and to convey a concept that the most intelligent students always knows there is a question that needs to be asked and asks it, the average students asks questions when they find one and the slower students never ask questions. (Some might not ask as they know it all :))

The next step is to give them all the opportunity to ask questions by setting up problematic situations or problems the student has to solve using all the resources available to them. As A. Karim (2011) tells us ‘teachers should change their mindset from “more is better” to the “less is more” approach to classroom teaching.’

In the end it will be the individual teachers call as to determine when they are spoon feeding and when they are not. It is a fine line between spoon feeding and not spoon feeding and ultimately it is only a problem if the teacher only knows one style of teaching and that is to spoon feed the students their meals all the time.

Some follow up reading for those interested.

Asian students studying in Australian universities have had follow up research done to try and better cope with the cultural differences.

This is a recommended reading as it is also useful for western teachers starting to teach Asian students.
Download the document from the link.

Or the University of South Australia
International Education Journal Vol 4, No 4, 2004
Educational Research Conference 2003 Special Issue
Are the Learning Styles of Asian International Students Culturally or Contextually Based?

Dr Law. David. (2006 )’The study by Oxford University's educational studies department and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, interviewed academics from 250 universities. It says that today's students, even those with top grades at leading institutions, are likely to "lack independent thought",’

A follow up comment from Karim

‘I posted a question about this issue in my e-learning portal (title: Spoon-feeding: Are you being pampered?) and asked the students to give their response. Here is one of the responses (verbatim): “Here is my two cents' worth. Honestly, it is not only me that has been spoon-fed, in fact "all" of us will have to raise up our hands and own up! (Please don't sue me for defamation because I think that this is true) Ha ha.... From young, we have been fed with a silver spoon by our biological parents and in school, the same goes with our dedicated "second-parents". The spoon feeding practice is part of our Malaysian education culture which has long built its warm nest and is still very much alive and breathing. That is why we turn out to be pampered passive learners...” (Chan Lai Ean).’


Cunnane. Sarah. (2011). To spoon-feed is not to nurture. TSL Education Ltd [Last accessed 26/01/2013]

Spedding, Rachel. (2011). Are school students becoming spoon-fed exam machines? The Independent. [Last accessed 26/01/2013]

Dr. Law, David. (2006) 'Spoon-fed' pupils can't cope at college (centred upon falling educational standards), [26/01/2013]

Yahoo.coms (2009) Ask pages. [26/01/2013]

Karim. A. A. (2011) Do you over teach your students? One Stop Learning [Last accessed 26/01/2013]

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