Journalism Redefined

Tom Davies' blog on student life, economics, education etc.

Archive for the category “Serious”

Is your degree worth more than just a piece of paper?

We live in a world where pragmatism dominates idealism. Does a nurse or an accountant provide more value to society? When faced with a question like this, the idealists among us would question the definition of “value”. By contrast, the pragmatists would revert to the only objective benchmark available and declare that six figures are better than five. Accordingly, it’s a sad indictment on the society we live in that there is a critical deficiency of nurses, but there are 100 applications for every vacancy in the City. This should come as no surprise given that financial incentives form the backbone of our capitalist economic system. In spite of this, it is perhaps surprising that, when it comes to the decisions made by young people today regarding education, the same pragmatic rationality prevails.

From a student’s perspective, attending university is no longer seen as a privilege. Education policy has sacrificed quality in favor of quantity. University is seen as an automatic next step for those in further education, with young people failing to consider the true benefits. The resulting over-supply of graduates means that a degree is now seen by many as a necessity in a job-market saturated by fellow university leavers. This self-enforcing cycle de-values higher education for all those involved. Granted, as an 18 year old moving away from home for the first time, along with my peers, studying was at the bottom of my list of priorities. In spite of this, us students have no concept of the value of education and will do everything our power to minimize our workload.

The problem is accentuated by the fact that employers have an all-consuming pre-disposition with the panacea that is a 2.1 degree classification. Whilst it would be impossible to assess the relative merits of every single job applicant, the blanket policy adopted by nearly all graduate employers is extremely unjust. A student graduating with a 59 average in Maths from Oxford will not even be considered by many of the same employers that will grant an interview to someone with a 60 average in Business and Marketing Management from Oxford Brookes. As a result, students place a detrimental level of importance on grades.

If it possible to get a first class degree through selective cramming and the completion of past-papers, what incentive is there for a student to acquire anything above a superficial understanding of the course material? (Why undergraduate education suppresses originality here). Aside from over-emphasis on exam technique, another deficiency of university grading is that, put simply, some modules are easier than others. Given the option to take a module that requires minimal work and will guarantee a first, even the most diligent student will sacrifice both their academic integrity and their personal interests in pursuit of a higher grade. This shortcoming is compounded by the fact that those taking the more rigorous modules tend to be stronger academically. As a result, given that students are marked relative to one another, the incentive structures strongly discourage weaker students from pursuing specific modules as they will be “competing” with those at the top of the year.

At university, this pragmatic approach is not confined to just students. Academics are valued and motivated by their research. What incentives, if any, are in place for a lecturer to provide decent undergraduate tuition? The success of their undergraduates has no bearing whatsoever on their research output. In the past, I have had conversations with lecturers who have made this quite explicit. On balance, it would be naïve to believe that academic staff would be committed to teaching undergraduates simply out of an ideological commitment towards academia. After all, academic staff at universities aren’t teaching professionals. Whilst it is extremely difficult to measure the performance of lecturers, an inadequate system of checks and balances is detrimental to the learning of students. The lack of incentives means that teaching is seen as nothing but a hindrance to many academics. The end result is that undergraduates are often taught poorly structured, poorly prepared modules with inadequate forms of assessment (shortcomings of undergraduate tuition here)

Having just sat my finals, the diligence of students over the last few months has been readily apparent (none more so than at 2am in the library). Notwithstanding, in the grander scheme of things, I question what all this hard work is actually worth. Standardized testing from age 11 onwards has resulted in the commoditization of education. As such, young people are poisoned by pragmatism and will never believe in education for education’s sake. This paints a depressing picture of the future. If the academics, teachers and policy makers of tomorrow are drained of any sense of idealism, who will be there to make the world a better place?

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Undergraduate education: the third degree

At present, A-level students are robotically completing past papers to make sure they can answer every single question written in every single exam. Teachers will be preaching the gospel that is “exam technique”. Pupils must be able to tick all the examiner’s boxes. I still remember preparing for my A-level Maths exams and completing the same question about 4 times on the day of the exam. I had no idea what I was doing, nor what it meant, I was simply memorizing steps that I could replicate in the exam. Needless to say, this strategy paid off and I was rewarded with 90%+ . Arguably, standardized testing is the best way of leveling the playing field given there is such a great disparity in teaching quality between state and private schools. In spite of this, as I made the transition from school to university, I began to ask myself- “is this what education is really about?”. The superficial nature of secondary education has long been a topic of debate. Year-on-year improvements in exam results can be juxtaposed with excessive “teaching to the exam” and 49% of the adult population demonstrating numeracy levels no better than the average 11 year old. Unfortunately, the same criticisms can be made of higher education.

Considering that exams comprise around 80% of formal assessment for most university courses, what is it that university exams actually test? When it comes to extended response questions, awarding an objective mark to a subjective piece of work can prove problematic. In an ideal world, for any piece of work or exam, a marker would make a justified decision in accordance to grade descriptors on a paper-by-paper basis. In spite of this, given that undergraduates are a secondary focus for the majority of academics, it is a natural tendency for markers to award marks on the basis of a checklist system as opposed to the strength of argument presented.

If one script has included something on the checklist that another has omitted, it will be awarded a higher mark even though the latter candidate may have elected to omit the detail for a perfectly legitimate reason. All too often, I find myself writing what is expected of me as opposed to writing what I believe to be correct. Frustratingly, as one of a hundred candidates, there is no scope to challenge the accepted view or, indeed, the question itself. Naturally, the necessity to tick as many boxes as possible in an exam means that quantity most definitely takes precedence over quality. Exams are thus so time pressured that original thought is not even a possibility. For subjective exam questions, the ability to write quickly is a considerable determinant of your mark.

Whilst this may be more applicable in courses that do not fall neatly in either the “arts” or “sciences” categories, the superficial nature of the marking system is not conducive to promoting depth of knowledge. In an attempt to feign a detailed understanding of the relevant academic literature, students may only read the abstract of a journal before including a tenuous reference to this in their exam. Since it is impossible for a marker to cross-reference every single paper, a student will get credit for this. What incentive is there for a student to engage with their subject if others are awarded the same mark after cramming for a two-week period before exams? Time after time, students are rewarded for “good presentation” whilst genuine academic interest and intellectual rigor are often overlooked. In the past, I have written essays that have been marked strictly on a checklist system. Points were awarded, almost in a literal sense, for ticking boxes.

Ultimately, there is little incentive for a university to implement sufficient checks and balances to ensure that grades are “just” (see here). A superficial system of exams has placed an all-consuming emphasis on exam technique and ticking boxes. Today’s undergraduates are not encouraged to think for themselves and are therefore incapable of doing so. In science based subjects, if a student is presented with a problem that does not appear in a format they have seen previously, they will struggle to solve it. This is the problem with over-standardization of exams and a lack of focus on learning from first-principles.  The entire education system promotes a mechanical approach to learning. Surely this isn’t what education is really about?

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