Are we failing our students by meeting their demands?

Upon completion of their (traditionally) three years at university, students are awarded a degree with a certain classification; the accumulation of a battery of assessments taken throughout their degree. This classification has a huge influence on their likelihood to get selected for subsequent interviews for jobs or further academic positions.

Yes, I am sure we are all in agreement that there is a lot more that students get from their time at university. However, the classification of their degree is still used as the underlying marker for a successful degree. This is especially true with the introduction of all fees needing to be covered by the student; previously only one-third of fees were paid by the student.

The problem with their degree classification being the end point/goal, is that the majority of students come in focusing on assessments and grades.

“I want to achieve the best grade possible, what do I need to do?”

“What should I read to do well in the exams?”

“How many drafts can I have read before handing it in?”

“If I’m not happy with my grade, can I resubmit?”

These are all examples of questions that I commonly get asked. The problem with this is that it suggests students are becoming overly focused on passing the assessment and getting the highest grade possible. You may think that this is great; they want to do well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it isn’t great they want to do well. BUT, in doing so, they are “learning” to pass the assessment. Importantly, this does not mean retention, knowledge, and most importantly, understanding, are going to be present after the assessment.

Laying the foundations

The students have travelled through an education where everything is assessed, and subsequent schooling depends on the grades they achieved, with this mindset being sculptured through years of schooling (I wanted to use the word education, but the more I think about it, the more I question whether it is an education). As such, are we encouraging students to be rote learners and surface learners?

Students come into university thinking about assessments, and what they need to do to pass them. They want us as lecturers to tell them what they need to know/do to pass. They are not so much focused on learning and understanding the area/topic, or the physical and cognitive skills required to be successful on a broader level. If it isn’t to do with the assessment, they don’t care. This is great for the pass rate of a module, but not great for the development of the student’s understanding and ability; they will likely forget what they remembered for the exam afterwards. This doesn’t bode well for the student when they finish their degree, get awarded a certain classification, and yet can’t actually work to that level.

Meeting their demands may be wrong

As lecturers, we are told we need to gain a certain pass level in our modules. This is a good thing on the surface of it; it places responsibility on the lecturer to develop a successful module. There are a number of options to the lecturer in order to gain a successful pass rate; (a) make the assessment easy, (b) meet the students’ demand and inform them of what they need to remember to pass, or (c) re-ignite a culture of deeper learning that cultivates understanding. Option (a) is generally not an option as we have external examiners who’s role it is is to determine that assessments and grading are at an appropriate level. So we are left with options (b) and (c).

For those of you with any integrity, option (c) is the obvious choice on paper. As educators/teachers/facilitators (whichever term is trendy at the moment), we have a responsibility to the students to guide/help/facilitate/teach (again, whichever term is trendy) them to better UNDERSTAND the information, to be able to think critically about the information, to collect the information themselves, to ultimately THINK FOR THEMSELVES. This all takes time. It requires changing the behaviour and belief of the student in how they perceive their education and their degree. It requires over-writing the thinking they have developed throughout their whole education. It requires a different way of teaching, one that maybe is not suited to the traditional university ideal. IT TAKES TIME! However, a module is not very long (either a year, or half a year depending on the university), and as such, limits how much real change you can impart on a student.

So, if we deal with learning on a module by module basis, we are left only with option (b). We might endeavour to throw in a little bit of option (c) though, just in the off-chance we can promote change in their learning, but without it risking the pass rate of your module. This isn’t good. It’s not good for the student, it’s not good for their future employer, and it’s not good for my conscience.

What is needed is a change in HOW we educate our students at ALL levels, both before they get to university, and when at university. There are pockets of great teachers who are doing this; it’s this selection of teachers that are getting out, collaborating with others, asking questions, and being open and saying “I don’t know…”. The problem is that it appears to be against the current; institutions are reluctant to change, a lot of lecturers are reluctant to change.

It does requires work. It does requires time. It does require effort. But if the end result is a student who can actually work at the level suggested by their degree classification, possesses a much broader range of core skills to help them in life, then it is what needs to be done.

But how do we get this change throughout the whole educational setting???

2 responses to “Are we failing our students by meeting their demands?

  1. Pingback: Are we failing our students by meeting their demands? | Higher Education and more... |·

  2. Pingback: Making the Grade…Do Students Care about Learning? | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation·

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