Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Times They are A-Changin'

Doing another degree has been eye opening to see how much university has changed over the past 20 years since my last Masters. TL;DR: It's a lot more like high school! I'm doing it at the same time as my youngest is in first year (at the same university even!), so I'm able to see the differences in undergrad programs as well. 

First of all - attendance counts!! In all the uni courses I took between 1986 and 1999, attendance was never taken. Now it's worth 10% of the grade in my courses and my daughter's. I hate this change for a few reasons. Pedagogically, a student's presence in the classroom isn't an accurate tool for assessment. I can show up every day and be stealthily listening to a podcast, or never come but do a thorough read of the textbook and understand the content perfectly. The professor is there to explain the concepts, and some courses require less explanation for some students. I like being able to assess my own needs to be in class. In first year psych, I went to the first class, then just showed up to the midterm and exam when I realized we're just following along with the text. What I absolutely loved about going to university was being given the freedom to make choices -- and make some mistakes. 

I took a history of feminism course once, got perfect on the midterm without effort, so stopped going to class or reading the text and, of course, totally bombed the final. I didn't know how much I didn't know! But I needed to learn that lesson on being too cocky for my own good! The more that people are saved from themselves, the fewer chances they have to learn how they learn. 

And... Covid. If attendance is worth 10%, then people show up when they're sick, and then other people get sick. That's just dumb.  

Next: So many things!! Back in the day, most classes in the humanities and social sciences would have 2-3 assessments: typically a midterm and final or two essays/reports and a final. The exams would often have a few essay questions that we had to write in about an hour per essay, no notes or cheat sheets allowed. And the courses would focus on a single textbook with some chapter questions at the end to check your own understanding, but they were never assigned. Now each course I'm taking has a few textbooks, and a pile of videos to watch. On top of attendance, my courses this term have a rotation or repetition of meetings with a group, a discussion post, responses to two posts by other students, a journal of what we learned that week, and a two-hour multiple choice "quiz" each week! On top of that, courses each have essays and exams. It's good, in a way, in that the repetition of material helps with learning. But there's little time to sit and think about it all. Each course should just take 10 hours/week, and I'm clocking in at about 30 hours for some of them. I can't imagine being full time! 

The universities seem to have succumbed to the myth that the number of minutes of learning matter most, and some profs seem to scramble a bit to fill ten hours of content instead of factoring in thinking and writing time. It feels like they're working hard to justify their existence by keeping us hopping!   

Everything is open note - it's like they wouldn't dare make us remember anything because somehow we've all agreed that that's too stressful, but can we really say we've learned something that we can't remember? We're just learning how to look up answers quickly. The texts are online, and some of my classmates lamented the videos because they can't search them during the multiple choice exam quiz. I realized that some students don't take notes on anything, and I wonder how much they're possibly retaining from just cntl-f-ing their way through the course. I showed them how to copy/paste the video transcript into a doc because... whatevs. I think, then and now, many people aim to get the credits not the information. But now I think there are more who really want to learn, but can't possibly do any learning while they're in school. It's too busy with all the things!! 

Collaboration: So much more groupwork!! The only groupwork I did in university was in a business class that I dropped after a few weeks. I'm just profoundly lucky that my current group is amazing, but we all need to recognize that it's totally luck of the draw. I'll never forget my oldest being put in a random group of five for a major presentation worth a huge chunk of their grade 12 English mark, which has a ridiculous impact on university admissions and scholarships. The night before the seminar, three group members demonstrated negligent effort, so my kid stayed up all night to do all their work as well - or else just not get into university! That same kid, who struggled all through school, won awards in uni because they could go off on their own to really think about each topic. That's how they learn best. Forcing people to work together doesn't teach anybody how to collaborate, and it's a nightmare for some ASD kids. I've worked through collaboration tips with my students in the past, but then always allowed them to choose groups, and a group of one is always an option.

The final thing that feels very high school is student complaints to the prof. I don't remember any profs changing the syllabus during the course in the old days, not around assessment at least. It was set in stone, and people rarely questioned the expectations unless something was really amiss. You know what you're getting into the very first day: take it or leave it. But student complaints don't end after high school anymore. We've lost any reverence for experts - for better or worse. One of my profs acquiesced to demands, but instead of reducing the content (three different text on the same topic read in tandem??), she agreed to take off the lowest quiz mark and to take off the time limit on the quizzes. The result is that some people are spending six hours or more on each quiz, looking up each answer. It might help to "ensure success in the course" in that more people will ace the quizzes, but I think it's pedagogically bereft. It means people can get by without reading anything now that they have time to google every single answer.   

And now my classmates are pushing to move the weekly due dates. I said nothing about the quizzes, but spoke up about this one: 

Just my two cents: I think it doesn't really matter what the due date is because people will always feel like they need more time. We'll just end up asking for more time again at the next discussion post. I'd keep it as is, knowing that she's fine with extensions (but then write it down in your calendar as due one day earlier). 

I'm very good at meeting deadlines, and it's fascinating to me that the people struggling to finish things often think the problem is the specific time something's due. As a teacher, I tried to drill in the skill of starting an assignment the day it's assigned - give it 30 minutes of your time on that first day - not the day it's due. It seemed like many of my students wouldn't even look at it until the due date. So, the problem isn't when it's due, but when they start working on it. And I get how that works. We think we'll be able to do it in a week, then start to talk ourselves into finishing it in a few days, then "I can probably do that in a night" -- and then -- "I can throw that together in the hour I have between classes" -- and then, "If only it were due each week on Fridays instead of Thursdays, THEN I'd be able to finish it on time." But then the dates just get pushed to different days of the week, and it can result in a pile up at the end.  

Teachers have the same problem. Students would often (really often) come to me to complain that no other teacher marks anything right away. They'd beg me to talk to their teachers, and they told their other teachers about my marking prowess, which, as you might imagine, didn't add to my popularity! Finally I made a doc they could share as needed, knowing I'd be hated for it: Mark Like a Boss! All the methods I used to try to help students to work more efficiently can be applied to teachers, and many tactics were force fed to me when I worked in an insurance company, which are bastions of efficiency. This bit on time appears to be most misunderstood:

Marking [or completing] the work later doesn't give you more time, it's just different time. You'll be busy later on, too, maybe even more busy. You will really wish you had gotten it done earlier. Remind yourself of that over and over. Once you get it done, then you can have fun (or do everything else that needs to be done). Remind yourself, forcefully, that you'll be so much happier to have it all done than having it sitting at the back of your mind gnawing away at your conscience. You don't need a huge block of time before beginning, just work away at it in the spaces available to you. Just DO IT!!

I've also seen that some of my profs and my daughter's profs don't mark an assignment before the next assignment's due (in part because there are so, so many), so we don't have any idea if we're on the right track! There's no timely feedback. I heard of this happening all over the place in high school, but somehow thought profs would be more on the ball. Nope. 

ETA: We're past the halfway point of the course, and here are my marks so far:

BUT, some people don't have the same level of executive functioning and just can't meet deadlines (for assessments or marking), which is why extensions are important and why we need to be understanding. Absolutely, I get that. But I don't think that it's likely the case that prefrontal cortex issues are quite so common. I believe this is more of a case of a skill that's devolving as we collectively decide that it's no longer necessary. 

All my journals and discussion responses for class are due on Sunday nights. I would expect profs to set that due date because they have a chunk of free time Monday mornings to mark, which is how I set up my own marking due dates, but it appears to be entirely random -- and weirdly consistent for all my courses and my daughter's courses. Maybe it's just a Laurier thing that we're all writing posts for Friday, then writing responses for Sunday, which mean none of us are entirely free on weekends! Curious.

I really miss the feel of being a university student, being free to come and go as we please, read what interests us, and face the consequences if we can't demonstrate our understanding of the material in one or two big assessments. Now we're micromanaged in a way that assesses way more frequently but with much less certainty that anything has actually been retained. 

I dropped out of high school for all these reasons. I hated feeling policed by my teachers to be in the room to learn instead of reading or running my own experiments. I hated getting perfect on tests, but losing marks for not having my homework done -- that I didn't need to do because I clearly understood the concepts off the bat! I hated not being allowed to make choices that worked best for me. It felt to me that their concern wasn't how much I learned, but with how well I was being contained. And I felt vindicated when I read that public schools started with urbanization as a means of keeping all the lower class kids off the streets and make them easier to control (check out Katz for more on that). After three years of working, I ventured into a few uni courses and absolutely loved it. Nobody tracked my whereabouts. I was free to question everything. My professors welcomed debate. And then I became a teacher to try to teach like this, allowing students to use the bathroom without asking permission even and monitoring understanding instead of task completion. Can you imagine!! I'm pleased that my board seems to be moving in this direction sort of, in bits and pieces. 

I love the content of the courses I'm taking, but this term is exhausting me with the the redundancy of the readings and assessments. My most recent assignment asked me to write a discussion post reflecting on how I'm growing and learning from the readings. I pointed out some concerns with the textbook's position, specifically that we must respect a peer or colleague's cultural beliefs even if they announce, repeatedly, that women belong in the home, not at school or work. My response included Robert Jones's famous line: "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression." I was reminded by a classmate that the assignment isn't asking me to critique the book, but to reflect on my learning. I'm not convinced there's a difference. And then I had to journal on the same topic. 

One more thing: It's a pre-packaged course from the states. This is a direction we seem to be moving in in public schools as well with Pearson laughing all the way to the bank. The part I hate about it the most isn't that it feels geared to a very Christian audience, but that the course can't be affected by student questions or ideas. When I first started teaching, I never planned more than a week ahead because one astute question from the class could veer the whole course down a different path. Teaching philosophy and social science, there is so much material to choose from, that if the class is all about art, I'd throw in a unit on aesthetics. Or if they obsess over the marshmallow experiment, we'd do a deep dive. It was before Covid that I started planning the entire term in August because things were tightening up around what we could teach. As a student in that system now, it's bereft of the give and take that used to happen in a classroom (or over a meet - being online isn't the problem despite being blamed for lots of things). In the good ol' days at uni, that final assignment was an open essay, and the exam hadn't been written yet, so let's toss in another week of Epicurus if that's what we're all game for. Now course materials are fixed and stagnant

And I can't stop thinking about how I would teach it!! Would it be too outrageous to offer to re-write the syllabus at least?

ETA: And another thing: I just wrote a "quiz" with written questions pre-prepared, then about 90 multiple choice questions. The written questions required lots of reading and took me two full days to complete, and I'm a very fast reader and writer. It's all really fascinating brain stuff, and I'll write about it later! Then the multiple choice questions took me about 90 minutes. BUT, the written portion is worth just 10% of the quiz mark despite being a much better method of assessment, particularly when the m/c questions are all open find and searchable! If I weren't so legit interested in this subject matter, I would just skip that written part, since, altogether, it totals 4% of the final mark (and m/c questions total 36%). As a teacher, I weighed portions of tests so that whichever a student was better at (m/c or long answer) was worth 70% and the other half worth 30%, so it worked to their particular skill set. Can't wait for that course evaluation!!


Lorne said...

Yours is a sobering assessment of contemporary education, Marie. In addition to the things you discuss, I can't help but wonder how the new dynamic, introduced by ChatGPT, will affect things. Will it just be another impediment to developing critical thinking?

Marie Snyder said...

Hey Lorne, I think critical thinking is out the window. It's not something that can happen when there's no time to think about anything. The busywork makes sure of that. And the volume of work required really lends itself to ChatGPT or some kind of cheating - even just to turn weekly discussion posts and responses into journal posts instead of scrambling to find new ways to say the same thing twice! If the assignment doesn't feel meaningful or useful beyond making sure to check all the boxes to get a prize at the end, then the work starts to become mechanically churned out. The worst bit is I was excited for these courses, but even the final papers are prescribed and don't allow for the freedom (or time) to delve into peripheral topics.

Cap said...

Nice summary of the current state of higher ed! Careful with that course evaluation though. If Laurier's anything like where I taught, most of your profs are sessional. They start out on a semester contract to teach one course. The evaluations determine whether they get let go or get another semester contract with enough courses to eke out a living. If at any time an evaluation dips significantly, it's adios.

The importance of those surveys is why profs are so quick to react to student complaints. Students are more likely to complain if they do poorly on a paper worth 30% of their course grade than if they blow a few 3% journal entries. They don't realize that those journals create more work for everyone and teach them less than writing a substantial paper.

Regarding open book exams, these are useful when done properly. In 1L, we had final exams worth 100% of our grade. These were typically three-hour, three-question exams that tested our ability to apply a year's worth of learning. They were open book, but anyone looking in a book was failing; there simply was not enough time. The key was to rely on a 5- or 6-page course summary prepared in your own words. The work of summarizing drove the concepts into memory, and the summary and book then became nothing more than security blankets. Being able to ctrl-f answers is worthless, although I can see how it would get profs a great evaluation from students more interested in marks than learning.

As for added time on exams, that's in many cases counterproductive. Students with ADHD get letters from the administration allowing extra time. What a joke. I have ADHD and know that extra time just encourages daydreaming. Less time would give them the adrenaline rush they need to perform at their best. I envy people who can work the way you do. I've always done my best work when the wolf's at the door.

Marie Snyder said...

Hi Cap, Thanks for the reminder about the downfall of an honest evaluation! I agree that an open-book format can work if students have to assimilate information, but this is all multiple choice, without a time limit, so we're all just searching for the info. I completely agree that more time isn't always better for students. We're so afraid of stress that we forget how useful it can be to actually get things done. Ironically, one of the courses is on neurology, and we learned the necessity of stress for learning!