Imagine that you're given the opportunity to do an extensive evaluation of undergraduate teaching and learning on campus with the idea that the data collected from such an effort would be used as the basis for subsequent changes on faculty development, curriculum reform, and oversight of instruction. What sort of framework would you use to drive the evaluation?
I know what I'd do. I'd survey instructors, then their department heads (perhaps also including on the department head's recommendation any and all other faculty who don't teach the course but who are knowledgeable about the course content, which is what I mean when I refer to department heads below), and then finally the students on these two rather straightforward questions:
(1) How important should memorization be for students to get a firm understanding of the subject matter in the course?
(2) In practice, how much of student study time is devoted to memorization in the course as a fraction of total study time?
I would expect such a study to show the following:
(a) There are some courses where all three groups: instructors, department heads, and students agree that the course demands a large amount of memorization. However, as a share of total course offerings, this possibility represents a small fraction of what occurs.
(b) There are some other courses where all three groups agree that little to no memorization is required but, as in (a), this possibility also represents a small fraction of what occurs.
(c) The bulk of the courses are in this category, where there is substantial disagreement across the groups with students saying the amount of memorization is high, department heads saying it should be low, and instructors somewhere in between.
I say this based on my own recent teaching experience, talking about the issues with my students and thereby learning about their experiences in other classes, and having some sense of what is happening elsewhere on campus, especially the adjunct-ification in the teaching of the large general education classes and the large classes that are the gateways to popular majors, even if those classes are not gen ed.
The hypothesis, not particularly novel or really much of a surprise but I've never seen it expressed quite this way, is that The Disengagement Compact, George Kuh's aptly put but discouraging label for the unholy implicit contract between students and instructor, where no party is burdened much at all while all parties get to reside in a virtual Lake Woebegone, is manifest in a very particular way. If the Disengagement Compact is the Devil making himself known in undergraduate education, then memorization is the Devil's disciple, an artifice for claiming both that learning is happening and that substantial effort in the name of learning is occurring. Hardly anybody, after all, wants to be labeled a slacker. Further, students want to resist the damning evidence of low grades. So students somehow feel that they've been tasked by their instructors to memorize course content. Many instructors indeed do task their students this way so as to satisfy student expectations and thereby avoid their enmity. Other instructors combat this pressure, but then are more likely to garner angry course evaluations from the student's after which they might change their tune about how to teach, in order to satisfy student expectations. This is the operating hypothesis that explains alternative (c).
Let me address a couple of criticisms about this approach before moving onto how the issues may be addressed in a way that is more than merely cosmetic. In each of (a) - (c) I'm taking the department head's view (or their delegated expert) as offering the norm for good behavior, in which case substantial deviations from the norm should be a matter of concern. In many areas, however, there is a powerful argument to be made on behalf of the learner to the effect that the learner should drive his or her own learning, with the so-called experts view on the matter playing at most a subsidiary role. When considering myself as a learner I subscribe to this view. On occasion I want the expert opinion of others to guide my thinking, but mainly I'm driven by my own explorations and what I garner from them. If as a learner I feel one way, how can I credibly argue for the opposite way in writing this piece?
The resolution of this apparent contradiction can be found by focusing solely on memorization and whether it is at the heart of the learning or not. On that question I believe the expert view can be trusted. The microeconomics that I teach, for example, is not learned by memorizing the textbook or the Excel homeworks that I assign. Students must work through the models. Indeed it is because I understand myself as a learner of microeconomics and how I went about internalizing it in a way to become expert that I can assert that memorization provides a false path. So, too, I believe it reasonable that other experts in their own fields reflecting on their paths can with high accuracy provide a view about the role memorization should play. I want to be clear here. Memorization is quite a distinct concept from memory. Any immersive learning experience will create objects that are committed to memory, but that happens en passant and is not the emphasis in the immersion. One may have committed a wealth of information to memory without the aid of any memorization whatsoever. Also, I don't want to deny the importance of the ability to retrieve facts from memory. In my present circumstance where I encounter health care professionals quite often, I'm asked to provide my date of birth and/or my home address with regularity. This is done, presumably, as a method of identification, though inadvertently seems a test of whether Alzheimer's is in the offing, one I fear I will fail in the not too distant future. My point here is not to confound identification with identity. My essence cannot be found in my birthday or my home address. So too it is with the college subjects students study, where the issue is whether the students penetrate the surface. I'm arguing that all too often they do not. They can retrieve what they have memorized only in a very limited setting, the one where the information was presented to them. Deeper penetration of the subject requires the ability to retrieve the appropriate information as the context dictates. It is a much higher order of understanding and places much greater demands on the students.
The other issue concerns demographics and where the Disengagement Compact is likely to manifest. One can vertically differentiate students, for example standardized test performance imperfectly does this, and then make the case that memorization is the path followed by the middle group of students. Students in the top group find their own way to make an immersive learning experience for themselves and learn from that. This gives them both confidence and a sense of independence. Students in the middle group have not yet figured out how to create their own path, so opt for memorization in its stead. This way of considering things also means there is a third group of students, who do neither. Either they have better things to do with their time than their schoolwork, or they are simply immature and have not yet found a sensible balance between having fun and doing their schoolwork, or they are alienated by the way instruction oocurs and have opted out in a kind of silent protest. The focus in this piece is with the middle group. Improving their situation and their own capacities to self-teach may have indirect benefit on the third group, as it may encourage some of them to join the middle. It might also sharpen what can be done otherwise to help them out. I'm afraid that on the immaturity issue the best I can offer is an admonition to hurry and grow up, yet not really mean it because I'm jealous of their youth.
There is also a horizontal way to differentiate students, by the nature of the subject they study and how that subject tends to task the students with work. A student in the fine arts or one in computer programming has to produce a product, one of his or her own making, or give a performance, or a combination of these two. This type of tasking encourages placing efforts elsewhere. Memorization doesn't play a primary role here, though it probably still is part of the mix. There are other subjects however, where the primary product that the student makes is a conceptual understanding of the subject matter for himself or herself. Even when there is a concrete intermediary product - a problem set to complete, a paper to write - the final product may seem abstract and elusive. In this case students are more prone to memorize as they go about their work because, in effect, they task themselves and they haven't found a superior alternative method to go about doing this.
My friend Lisa, with whom I had a conversation earlier this week, points out my academic character flaw. I'm a liberal arts college kind of guy in a research university setting, meaning I suppose, that I like intelligent argument as an end in itself and prefer it to the advancement of knowledge within a discipline. That is definitely true. But there is an additional meaning as it applies to public research universities, such as Illinois. Though the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has roughly half the students on campus, it is nonetheless the weak sister of other colleges, notably Engineering and Business, especially when considered from the perspective of the vertical differentiation of the students. The standardized test scores are lower, and LAS is a college that absorbs many transfer students, both within campus transfers and external transfers; so getting into LAS has some of the feel of a consolation prize. Further, on the horizontal differentiation front, it has more subjects that are, like economics, fundamentally conceptual in what they ask of the students. The effect is something of a double whammy at play in what I see in the students I teach.
We humans, as a species, tend to confound what we know based on our own experience with all that is possible to know by including potential experiences that are yet outside our scope. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow refers to this phenomenon and What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). I mention it here because it is quite possible that I'm guilty of WYSIATI in giving my analysis above and the picture one would get from looking at the full set of evidence is different from what I paint. This is one reason why I'd actually like to do the hypothetical study I described at the outset of this piece. It would be good to know what the real picture looks like. Absent that information let me give some support for why what I argue is not too far off.
First, there is the work of others. In addition to Kuh, there is the Declining By Degrees documentary and complementary book and there is the more recent Academically Adrift, which advance much the same hypothesis, although memorization is not given such a primary role in these other works. They tend to represent matters as overt shirking from instruction and learning. I think this point matters, because I believe the students in the middle group don't consider themselves as shirkers and their instructors probably don't see themselves as complicit in the matter. What might be recommended as cure depends on the diagnosis of the illness. To my knowledge none of these authors have recommended a direct assault on memorization, though to me that is required. The second half of this piece outlines what such an assault might look like.
Second, there is the matter of the transition from high school to college and whether students successfully get over that hump. Colleges have been sensitized to the issue, witness the university 101 movement. As with the first argument, there is the issue of the appropriate cure. Now students do get some coaching about time management skills. There is little to nothing said, however, about what students should be doing intellectually when they do study. So the memorization issue is largely ignored. Let me mention a related question for which I'm unsure of the answer, though it certainly would be good to know what is going on. One possibility is that memorization was the primary approach in high school and by the time college happens the students' intellectual habits are locked into that approach. The hump in this case results because college calls for a different approach, but the students are unwilling or unable to make the switch. Another possibility is that students are not so locked into memorization at the outset, but college material is much more difficult than high school material and that comes as a shock to students. They take their first set of exams and get slammed by those. Their ego is bruised and there is an immediate concern about creating permanent damage to the GPA. So they seek to self-protect against further bad grades and find memorization as the form of self-protection. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, though it is important to observe that the more important one is than the other would impact how best to address the issues.
Third, this generation of college students had the bulk of their K-12 education under No Child Is Left Behind and the excessive testing that the "accountability movement" has imposed. The socialization of the students that has resulted from years and years of this approach is to put an even greater emphasis on good grades as the object that students should pursue and indirectly has lessened encouragement for the alternative view that learning is an end in itself. To a parent who is not an educator, it might seem these two goals are one and the same. In an ideal world, they should be. But in practice they are different. The more risk averse among the crowd opt for the paper chase. This motive serves as impetus for any purely instrumental method that purports to provide good grades as the outcome. It's what elevates memorization for these students into contexts where memorization would otherwise seem inappropriate.
Let me close this section with the following observation. Focusing on the subject matter only, it probably makes sense for gen ed courses and introductory courses in the major to temporally precede the more advanced courses in the major. Lay the foundation first. Then build additional structure on top of that. If, however, we think of the issue not from the content perspective but rather from the vantage of student intellectual habit formation, we are getting things backward. Students should be moving away from memorization during their first year in college but in the current system many are inadvertently being pushed toward it. So the entire system must change. The issue cannot be handled with cosmetic change made around the edges.
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Below are a set of four "recommendations." Some really are concrete suggestions for implementation. Others are more a discussion of the underlying issues with suggestions for implementation still to be determined. The ordering in which they precede is from easiest to hardest, from assessment of performance to how teaching and learning should take place, and from where my expertise both as an economic theorist who understands incentives and as an administrator with first hand experience of what the recommendation entails to where I'm merely an enlightened amateur and others with more expertise should weigh in on how how the recommendation should be suitably modified and implementation should occur. Taken together I think these recommendations give a reasonable first pass at what an assault on memorization looks like, though I would welcome additional suggestions of what might be done to improve the impact from the recommendations working in concert. It is also possible to consider each recommendation implemented on its own, with possible other benefit emerging. I will do so explicitly for the first recommendation. I leave it to the reader to do so for the other recommendations.
Recommendation 1: Eliminate grade inflation by moving to a system of standardized ranking.
Let's first explain what standardized ranking means, then discuss some of the implications of the approach, some probable criticisms of standardized ranking that would likely arise, the implications of standardized ranking for the Disengagement Compact, and then other possible benefits of standardized ranking.
Suppose a class has n students. Those students can be ranked by their performance and let's call that the ordinary rank. Note that instructors who keep a grade book almost certainly have the information in it to produce an ordinary rank - say by adding up the points on the various assessments in the class and then ordering the students by their total points. So one thing to note here is that the proposal is not asking the instructors to generate any information that they don't already have. It merely changes what information they do have which gets reported. Then, standardized rank = (ordinary rank)/(n + 1). In actual grade reporting instructors could report ordinary rank and the recording software could then convert that to standardized rank, which is what the students see and what is recorded on the transcript.
A critical issue for such a system is whether ties would be allowed. In my view, yes that would be an important feature of the system. Then for the set of students who are tied, each receives the average rank of the group. For example, if students ranked 1 through 9 were tied, they'd each receive a ranking of 5 in their ordinary ranking. The use of ties is a way to introduce some cardinality within cohorts. For example, if the student ranked 10th is not tied with the first 9 students, then the student ranked 10th would see a drop off in ranking of 5 between him and the students who are ranked above him; this as distinct from the drop off of only 1 that would happen if students ranked 1 through nine were not tied. An ordinary ranking scheme that didn't allow for ties might very well encourage more competition across students to come out ahead of their peers. A system with ties need not promote any additional student competition.
The average standardized rank across all students in the class must be 0.5. This is how grade inflation is ruled out. There is no Lake Woebegone effect. Everyone can't be above average in a standardized ranking scheme. Standardized ranking eliminates the possibility of recording across cohort effects in the grading scheme, e.g., this was a very good class so all the students get A's, while this other incarnation of the course had students who didn't perform so well so some got B's and C's. In other words, standardized ranking takes discretion away from the instructor. As such, faculty might not like it at all. The argument to persuade faculty to think otherwise is that the system with discretion produces grade inflation as an equilibrium phenomenon; to eliminate that some concession on their part is necessary. Further, standardized ranking likely would lessen students haggling over grades with the instructor, because then bettering one student's ranking comes at the costs of lessening some other student's ranking, while in the current setup bumping up one student's grade appears as a victimless activity. Still one additional way to mollify instructors would be to allow both the standardized ranking and a letter grade to be recorded, likely a necessary step during the transition from the current system. Even after the transition was over the new solution would still have to require the instructor to report where the F line is because the standardized ranking doesn't itself reveal that.
If students were told their standardized rank going into the final exam, which is when course evaluations are typically administered, then the use of high grades by the instructor to bribe students to bias the course evaluations would be eliminated as a a possibility. The course evaluations themselves would become a more trusted instrument as a consequence. Further, one can do a backward induction on the way instruction is carried out to show that there is no benefit to the instructor in dumbing down a course to boost the student grades so to get a better evaluation. Therefore, there is apt to be an indirect effect from moving to such a grading system that makes the course difficulty level closer to what the instructor really believes it should be. (There remains a question here of whether students have a preference over course difficulty when abstracting from the implications of difficulty on the grades they receive. We might conjecture that they prefer to learn something substantial to nothing whatsoever, so their ideal difficulty level is somewhere in the middle, though the precise location might vary from student to student based on their prior preparation and aptitude for the subject.)
At present, when outsiders see a student's GPA or a grade in a particular course on the transcript, they have no context in which to evaluate that grade information. Getting an A in a class means something quite different when only 10% of the class gets an A as compared to the case where 100% of the class gets an A, but the way we currently do things an outsider is not able to discriminate between these two cases. An interested outsider really wants to see where the particular student fits in the grade distribution. So it would be quite informative if course grade distribution were reported. In the present system, instructors might resist that as it would reveal whether they are an easy grader or not. Standardized ranking eliminates easy grading or hard grading and therefore should enable the reporting of the course grade distribution, which means outsiders would get a more informed view of student performance.
Recommendation 2: In addition to course evaluations require that adjunct instructors get real and substantial evaluation from someone in the department with subject matter expertise.
Let me note at the outset that this is costly. Therefore current faculty likely will object at having such a burden imposed on them - they have enough on their plate as it is. The response to that criticism is as follows. On the economics of it, the cost of undergraduate education has been rising in real terms and the share of that cost that is covered by tuition also has been rising. For students in the top group, that is not a big concern. A college degree is a great deal. They should be more than willing to pay. For those in the middle group, who may become increasingly aware that they are not getting much in the way of human capital value add that should come along with the degree, they may therefore become increasingly reluctant to pay that tuition. When some threshold on reluctance is crossed enrollment might very well drop precipitously as a consequence. A faculty retort to that which would not be unreasonable would focus on current enrollments. Is there any evidence of decline there or even evidence of deterioration in the quality of incoming students? (My guess about the answer to this question is that if focused only on domestic students then there is evidence of both effects but if international students, particularly from South Korea and China, are included then there is no current evidence.) If there isn't much in the way of current evidence, why not let this go for now till more hard evidence on the economic front becomes available? At the appropriate time, this responsibility can be taken up.
The problem is that we don't really know what real and substantial evaluation by subject matter experts looks like. So the reason to start sooner rather than latter is to allow for learning by doing and find mechanisms that might be appropriate. It seems obvious enough that this won't happen unless there is suitable administrative intervention to make it happen. Back to the economics, in an opportunity cost sense there may be other uses of faculty time on which the faculty themselves place high value but that are entirely orthogonal to any revenue generation by the university. Some of this time must then be reallocated to evaluation of adjunct instructors. For example, if the faculty member is not a big generator of outside grant funds it may then be necessary for the faculty member to reduce time on her own scholarship in order for her to spend time on the evaluation activity. That is the consequence of this recommendation.
Now let's consider the recommendation from other than a resource point of view and get to some of things that the evaluation by the expert is supposed to accomplish. One big question up front is the extent to which the evaluation is monitoring versus the extent to which it is mentoring.
When I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business, I implicitly mentored several of the large course instructors (all whom were adjuncts) though on the use of technology in instruction issues rather than on subject matter concerns. Some of these people had taken graduate microeconomics from me fifteen years or so earlier. In one case I had played golf with the person several times while he was a graduate student and I was a younger faculty member. So I had some prior credibility with these people and they were more than happy to engage in conversation. As a group they were quite risk averse regarding implementing any changes I suggested. On the monitoring versus mentoring issue that is what I'm trying to get at. Who has the last word about what changes will be made in the course? If you think of this as an ongoing activity rather than a one and done, it may be that more mileage can be gotten from mentoring. But it also may be true that there needs to be some triangle between the instructor, the person doing the evaluation, and the department head who sets the instructor's salary and writes the instructor's performance review, so both carrots and sticks get utilized and in the right proportion.
Now let's talk about the various learning issues the evaluation is aimed at dealing with. As a research university, we pride ourselves in how how research impacts instruction. The same course will be taught differently when it is taught by a researcher than by a non-researcher and as a consequence there is further benefit to the student from having the researcher as the instructor, at least according to our usual propaganda. Some might counter the propaganda with considering effectiveness as an instructor that really counts, especially in these courses taken during the first year or two of college. In this thinking, it is better for a student to have an effective teacher who is an adjunct than to have a researcher who is a mediocre teacher. Here I want to resolve this in a way I believe is appropriate given that the goal is to move students away from memorization. The necessary ability in the teacher is to have a view of the subject matter that can be well articulated entirely independent of the textbook. Some adjuncts may have that ability so I don't want to confound the ability with the job classification. But I believe many adjuncts don't have this ability or it is not something they pursue vigorously. It is more likely to be found with research faculty.
On the other hand, many research faculty have no experience at all teaching a large class. There is no doubt that large class instruction poses its own set of challenges and it may be that in addressing those challenges a research faculty member would tend to teach just like the adjunct, because the management issues in the large class setting trump other considerations. If that is really true, then this expert evaluation is largely a waste of time and energy (and I wouldn't have posited Recommendation 2). So it should be apparent that I don't believe it to be case, but I want to hold out the possibility because others might disagree with me.
Let me return to the role of the textbook in this setting and see how that matters. I've expressed some reasonably strong opinions about this in a post I wrote a couple of years ago called Excise The Textbook. But I recognize that because of the management issues I mentioned above, the current fascination with eTexts, and a traditional view of how college classes should be taught, textbooks aren't going away any time soon. So to get at my concerns lets consider the opposite extreme, where the instructor adheres quite closely to the textbook during lecture, possibly using PowerPoints supplied as ancillary materials in lecture, and using test bank questions for the online homework, with the exams closely mimicking that. In a lot of courses this is what students have come to expect regarding how instruction occurs.
In my view, in this approach the instructor has become the unwitting agent of the textbook authors, who are cast as the ultimate authority on the subject. The students, a few more rungs down on the totem pole, have been told implicitly that the textbook is the bible for the course and that they should know their bible. This approach, in other words, indirectly promotes memorization. If we are going to make an assault on memorization we need to move away from the approach. That is the primary aim of the expert evaluator.
There is a further related issue. Many of the adjuncts teach one very large course, over and over again. While each offering may pose unique challenges, there is a tendency for these courses to become very static and over time it may be that the instructor lectures by the numbers, bored because there is no remaining novelty in the approach.
The solution to both of these issues is for the instructor to view herself more like a peer of the textbook authors and take on some of the authoring activity herself - whether in the presentations, the homework, or the exams. Further this authoring must not be done as aping the textbook but rather in the instructor's own style and approach to the material. This won't happen all at once. It is a too daunting task for that. But over time the instructor can insert herself more into command of role of equal partner with the textbook authors and the evaluator can encourage that ongoing development.
Let me take on two other issues here. The first regards the psychology of students who are challenged in their learning and their reluctance to seek help because doing so appears to them a stigma. Hence the usual pattern is to shun help until times get desperate and then ask for help as a last resort. Our classes are not well designed this way in that office hours are optional and hence are lightly attended, especially early in the semester. This is why in describing the problem I repeatedly used the expression "how students are tasked." The key, it seems to me, is to embed the help in the tasking so that it is required of all students and hence there is no stigma attached to it and therefore is heavily accessed. In recommendation 4 there is further elaboration on this point.
The other issue regards the likely outcomes when the assessments in the class move away from rewarding memorization. It is reasonable to expect that raw scores on the assessments will decline. (The memorization had been masking the lack of actual learning and now we're eliminating the mask.) Students may take comfort from higher raw scores and that in itself might impact the course evaluations. In this case the evaluator must run interference on behalf of the instructor and argue that the instructor should be rewarded for making the changes. The transition to a more intellectually healthful approach might be quite painful and it might take several iterations of the course before the instructor is confident that the course is better than it was before the changes were put in place. It is very important during this interim that the instructor hear a voice counter to the complaining voices of the students, to keep at it. The evaluator provides that counter voice.
Let me also note that to the extent that this sort of change is happening in other courses the students are taking, they are less likely to be resistant, because their expectations are changing and they are learning to move away from memorization as their habit in approaching their studies.
Recommendation 3: Establish a campus research project about memorization as the line of defense by students in large classes. Get all staff in support of instruction on campus, regardless of the unit in which they reside, to be involved in this project. In other words, make the project the strategic focus of the campus with regard to undergraduate instruction. Build a community of practice among the various adjunct instructors across their disciplines, so they have people with whom to share their teaching ideas who are similarly situated as themselves. Let much of the the faculty development activity that the support providers offer aim at these adjunct instructors and let it be informed by the research results of this campus project.
In the present world adjunct instructors have very little standing and get comparatively little support, especially if looked at by the number of IUs (enrollments times credit hours) that these instructors generate. More support is aimed at tenured and tenure track faculty, who have greater standing and, in particular, at helping assistant professors prepare their teaching portfolio so they are ready for the promotion and tenure process. I don't want to diminish the importance of that, however one must ask from a utilitarian view focused on undergraduate education whether that use of support resources is the most effective, measured by how much improved learning it engenders. It would seem that steering support resource toward the adjunct instructors would create a bigger bang and further that by moving support resources in this direction it would signify to the adjuncts the importance of taking on this challenge and as a consequence offer them encouragement to do so. Absent such a campus project, it would become the expert evaluator's job to secure the appropriate support resource and there is no reason to expect that the evaluator has the inclination or the wherewithal to do that.
In my experience, evaluation projects tend to follow funding, to go strong when funding is strong and to fade away when the money does likewise. Further, while the evaluation results may be publicly available for anyone to read, the results nonetheless lose their impact on current practice in instruction when the funding has worn out. If that is taken seriously as a guideline with regard to how this project should be designed, either the target must be that most large courses have gone through a metamorphosis in approach during the time the project is ongoing or the funding for the project itself must be sustained for quite a while to enable later entering courses and instructors to benefit.
My sense of how best to do this is to have two phases, pilot and full scale. To make matters concrete, the pilot phase lasts three years (this can be tweaked to make it more sensible) and offers via a competitive process grants to units that are fairly sizable, to get volunteer instructors and incentivized expert evaluators to participate in the process outlined above and to be willing to become the subjects of intense observation so the mistakes can be learned and the fruits of the effort be found and so that those who follow will have an easier way of it. The pilot phase also offers the possibility that if each pilot project fairs miserably, then phase two can be scrapped. Assuming that did not happen, in phase two the intent is to convert all other large courses that are taught by adjuncts. The various department heads need to be behind such a plan up front and mean it when they lend their support. They may very well have to move around departmental resources during phase two to get it accomplished when the project funds themselves prove inadequate for the task.
Finally let me say here from what I've observed of the support community the past few years that they are aching to have such a campus level project so they can see a greater purpose to the activities they are performing. Consequently, on the principle of doing this I'd expect to hear a great deal of enthusiasm from them, though on how the implementation is done and who has control of what, there are likely to be lots of stumbling blocks. I don't believe those stumbling blocks are insurmountable, but people need to have their eyes open at the outset so that progress is not blocked altogether.
Recommendation 4: Students need to be provided with a venue where they express their own thinking about course content on a regular basis and where they are encouraged to reason through things when they get stuck, though also in this venue share tips and tricks for getting unstuck.
There is an issue whether class time should be used for this purpose, or if it happens out of class (meaning mainly during the evening). There is a second issue tied to the first regarding the people with whom the students share their thoughts. I've written something on this issue in a post entitled Rethinking Office Hours. I believe small cohorts of classmates (4 or 5 in total) along with an experienced peer mentor (a student who has taken the class previously) offers an ideal setting for having such discussions - about how to do the homework, how to prepare for an exam, what something in lecture meant that the students didn't understand, etc. The discussion section is supposed to manage these functions, but some of the large courses don't have discussion sections and in others the section size is fairly large and/or the TA opts to lecture rather than facilitate discussion. So it doesn't work. There needs to be a functional solution where students feel their learning needs are being addressed. In a large class setting that burden can't fall entirely on the instructor, even a very energetic one.
If there are both graduate TAs and undergraduate peer mentors in a course utilized at the scale I suggest, that can get pretty costly unless some other modifications are made to enable the activity - either giving the mentors course credit or some other perq that makes them willing to perform the activity even if much of it ends up as volunteer work. Deanna Raineri and I have advocated for quite some time that this sort of mentoring activity exemplifies what we mean by leadership, so the mentoring could be the practicum of a leadership course that the students take. But to pull this off successfully one would have to manage well the triangle between the leadership course instructor, the subject matter instructors, and the student mentors. Also, students who have previously taken the mentoring course and already served as mentors likely require some other form of compensation. How that would work offers a challenge, one I'm convinced has a solution that if found would make the rest of the proposal fall into place.
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This piece, already quite long up to this point, shows how I vent about something I care a great deal. When I see my students memorize in my course, it hurts me at my core l because I know it's the wrong thing to do. When I hear it is a learned behavior because that's how they've gotten through the other courses they've taken, it impels me to change the system, though unlike Archimedes, I will never get a long enough lever to makes those changes on my own.
So I hope this piece actually gets read by a few folks, long though it is, folks at Illinois and my friends in learning technology from around the country. It offers a different vision of what sort of change is needed in Higher Ed than what we read about daily in the Chronicle and elsewhere, how the next generation of online learning is where the train is headed, and might be of value simply for providing a counterpoint to that view. But I hope it is more than that because it is grounded in where we are now, while the futurists who argue for the online vision ignore the status quo other than to note that like print journalism, the current model is broken. Let's not try to fix that. Instead, let's just move to the new thing. I say, instead, before moving on let's bust a gut to fix what we already have, especially since it seems quite fixable to me.
I close by noting that my campus has announced a new position - Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Innovation. Ten years ago I would have aspired for that position for myself, so I'm a bit chagrined it has taken so long in the coming. Nonetheless, I'm happy to see it and I hope we get a very good person to fill it. Perhaps that person will read this piece. Perhaps then we'll get a chance to have a coffee and chat about it. That would be delightful.