Why do Undergraduates Hate Archaeological Theory? Improving Student Experiences of Learning Theory

Posted on January 31, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

The QAA Benchmarking Statement for Archaeology states that ‘the vitality of theoretical debate within the subject is one of its intellectual attractions as an HE subject’. Yet, anecdotally, the ‘theory module’ tends to receive poor student feedback, and among academic staff it is widely thought of as a challenging module to teach. This session invites speakers who consider the challenges of teaching and learning archaeological theory in a university setting. Topics may include, but are not limited to: • Why is there a disconnect between staff appreciation that ‘theory’ is an intrinsic part of our subject and students’ exasperation with the theory module? • Does student engagement differ between the theory module and other modules? Why? How can we enhance engagement? • Examples of successful (or not) pedagogic approaches • What do students ‘get’ from the module? Do they apply the knowledge/skills later on (in other modules, as postgraduates, in life)? If not, what’s the point? • Experiences of ‘learning theory’ from recent graduates (and current undergraduates!); what works and what doesn’t? • Should archaeological theory be compulsory for undergraduates? If theory permeates everything we do as archaeologists, is it not embedded within other modules anyway? Is it time to abolish the dedicated theory module? The session is intended to help gauge whether there is appetite for a network and/or collection of shared resources for lecturers who teach archaeological theory.

Organisers: Penny Bickle (University of York), Benjamin Gearey (University College Cork) and Emilie Sibbesson (Christ Church Canterbury University)

Assembling Theory: Teaching, learning and embedding archaeological theory


While it has traditionally been the case that archaeological theory can be unpopular with students, we argue, based on our experiences of teaching at the Universities of Bradford and Manchester, and from work with the Higher Education Academy and on training excavations, that it doesn’t need to be. Applying good pedagogic practice and a healthy enthusiasm will go a long way. We also advocate taking an assemblage theory approach, recognising the connectedness and importance of the student experience. We argue that theory can, and should be enjoyable to teach and learn, and is a fundamental, compulsory part of an archaeological education.

Hannah Cobb (University of Manchester) and Karina Croucher (University of Bradford)


Why do Undergraduates Hate Archaeological Theory? Is it only the students…?


The teaching of archaeological theory has been the centre of discussion at several EAA conferences in recent years, often with limited academic engagement. Returning to the spiritual home of TAG offers an opportunity to redefine the role of archaeological theory within the discipline. In an era of declining students, ever more ‘streamlined’ academic programmes, restricted research funding, and commercial fieldwork focus of graduates, is the need for dedicated modules on theoretical archaeology still there? A survey of UK based university archaeology departmental staff and focussed recent graduates and current students permits the analysis of both student and academic approaches to the relevance of ‘theoretical archaeology’ modules, and the benefit (or lack of?) their inclusion within an archaeological degree programme. How are these approaches and topics perceived within the world of commercial archaeology, by both students and employers? The paper aims to explore current trends in the teaching of archaeological theory, and perspectives from potential employers, current students, and recent graduates.

Benjamin Jennings (University of Bradford)

Application of Student-centred Teaching in Learning Theory


Teacher’s guidebooks make one believe that with the suitable method you can teach anything. However, finding the right method for a subject as difficult as archaeological theory can be very challenging. I am a keen advocate of active learning methods with good experience using them to teach archaeological theory for graduate (MA) students. Recently I began to teach theory at undergraduate level and it soon became clear that my previously used methods are not so effective anymore. This is partly because of the big differences in the undergraduates’ background knowledge, learning skills, and motivation. It seemed that a student-centred approach in teaching could have been a good solution because it takes into account the student’s individuality and promotes selfdirected learning. This gives students greater freedom of choice but also responsibility for their own learning process. In the paper I will introduce my application of student-centred teaching method and student feedback.

Marge Konsa (University of Tartu)

Theory? No Thanks. An approach to the issues of Archaeological Theory in scientific discourse. The Portuguese case


This work intends to find the main issues of archaeological theory throughout the history of the discipline in Portugal. With the analysis of various authors, notable by their contribution to the Portuguese archaeology, it is argued that the issues presented possess a cumulative nature, all of them condensed in the present. When the time comes for evaluating if theory should be maintained as a module to be taught, the discussion of this components become imperative, either for understanding its present status or to know the path that had traversed. This presentation provides one brief insight into the history of Portuguese archaeology, its stakeholders and their opinions about archaeological theory.

Daniel Martins da Silva Rodrigues de Carvalho (Universidade de Lisboa)

Embedding Debate From the Beginning: Teaching theory in Year 1


Although the Archaeological theory is regarded as an essential part of the undergraduate Archaeology degree, the ‘theory’ module is often left to the second or third years. Rather, the history of the discipline is commonly taught in the first year, acting as an introduction to theory and it place within Archaeology. In contrast, York has chosen to embed theory within the history of the discipline, in a first year module. This paper will explore the pedagogy behind this decision and raises two areas for debate; (1) the relationship between teaching the narrative of disciplinary development and presenting different theoretical approaches; and (2) whether we should think carefully about the point at which theory is taught as a distinct module with programmes. Finally, the paper asks is the disciplinary understanding of the nature of ‘theory’ changing, and is that feeding into the teaching of theory in Higher Education?

Penny Bickle (University of York)

Undergraduates Don’t Hate Theory: Reflections on three decades of teaching archaeological theory


Although ‘the theory module’ is sometimes viewed with trepidation by students, my experience of teaching a course called ‘Theory and Philosophy of Archaeology’ (or something similar) at three different institutions has been overwhelmingly positive. The process has certainly been one of trial and error, and in this contribution I will outline what has and hasn’t worked for me, and well as indicating what I have hoped to achieve in teaching the course.

Julian Thomas (University of Manchester)

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