A three-headed monster

A three-headed monster
Photo by aldi sigun / Unsplash

The more I look around higher education, the more clearly it seems to me that there are three practices which we carry out every day – which seemed baked right into the very DNA of our current system of higher education – that are inimical to the actual purpose of higher education. Those practices are:

  • Lecturing,
  • Traditional grading, and
  • Student evaluations of teaching.

Before you get upset, let me say: I don't think any of these practices is "evil", and my understanding of the history of education says that all three were developed with good intentions, for legitimate reasons, to solve real problems. (With the possible exception of student evaluations of teaching – I'm working on trying to figure out where these came from and why they were invented.) But regardless of the background and intentions, they have taken over higher education like an invasive species.

By "the actual purpose" of higher education, I mean knowledge: its discovery, its refinement, and its generation in the minds of the next generation. This way of thinking about it covers both research and teaching, which go hand in hand in the modern university. How are these three practices working against this purpose?

Lecturing was the cornerstone of the college experience for centuries out of sheer necessity. You simply couldn't present information or ideas to a large group of people without gathering them in the same place to listen to an expert. And even today, it's not "wrong" to lecture. I've long held that lecturing, despite the mountain of evidence for more active approaches, still is a useful tool – for imparting one's perspective on an idea or a process, for sharing one's personal experiences, for answering questions in a long form. But when it becomes the primary tool, or even the only tool, in a prof's teaching toolbox, it's probably not because the prof has mindfully thought about what works best for students, and the lecture – and nothing else – is it. It's more likely because the professor is pathologically risk-averse, or just plain lazy, and needs a crutch.

Grades, as David Clark and I wrote about in our book and blog about every Monday, have taken over the minds of students and faculty alike like the cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us. For many (most?) students, the sole purpose of college is the earning and preservation of grades. Faculty and administrators are complicit in this, having used grades for the entire lifespan of students to rank and sort them like agricultural products (where do you think the word "grade" came from?). Some faculty are unaware there are alternatives. Many are aware but believe that change is impossibly risky and time-consuming – spoiler: It's neither – while many are aware and frankly don't want to do anything about it, despite the evidence plainly visible that traditional grades demoralize students and break down their learning and well being. The corrosive effects of traditional grading remain the same no matter the context.

Student evaluations of teaching are the inverse of grades. Just as we sometimes naively think that traditional grades actually measure learning, we can believe that SETs are legitimate measures of teaching quality. But in reality they seem to be used typically as retaliatory devices by students for the professors having given them a certain grade, or because of the way the prof acted in class, or – distressingly commonly – because of the way the prof looks, or speaks, or which gender they identify with. Faculty can be just as cruelly ranked, sorted, broken down, menaced, and demoralized by SETs as students can be by grades.

And all three of these are related. Pick any one of them as a starting point and you can complete a vicious Hamiltonian cycle through the other two and back to the start. Faculty often lecture because they believe this is what students want and anything else will get them bad teaching evaluations; and if the prof is focused on preserving teaching evaluations, a fixation on traditional grades will soon follow; and if you're fixated on grades, you won't want to risk anything other than lecturing in your classes whether you're a faculty member or a student.

In other words all three practices reinforce the old mutual non-aggression pact: Faculty agree not to make things difficult for students, and in return the students agree to go easy on evaluations.

But there's two very serious problems with this:

  • Knowledge is nowhere to be found in the dynamics of the non-aggression pact. Pure lecturing doesn't count; I think we all realize that significant learning experiences require more than listening and note-taking. In this three-way dynamic between lecturing, grades, and SETs, knowledge – the real purpose of higher education – is, at best, a bystander.
  • This would be bad enough, but it gets worse because this dynamic is not sustainable. We faculty know, and students also know, that higher education needs to be something more than this. Despite what the most cynical of us say (and what most of us believe in our most cynical moments), I think students really want to learn things; they want to be challenged; they want to find meaning and have a real impact in their lives. They have a sense of urgency in their lives now, compounded by global crises and personal needs, and if they're going to invest time and money into an education, it has got to produce more than lecture notes and report cards – or else they will vote with their feet. And many are doing just that.

I think there is a hopeful ending to all this. First, we can now be aware of the problem. We have decades of research and practice about the effectiveness of active learning and how to implement it in any class, any subject, any context with a minimal cost in time or money. We are starting to see real alternatives to traditional grading (did I mention I co-wrote a book on this) that similarly can be scaled to fit into many different teaching situations. As far as SETs go, it seems we have farther to go, but at least we are quite aware of the wild inequities and statistical invalidity of SETs in saying anything useful about teaching, at least by themselves, and in my experience people are started to get fed up with them. And most encouragingly, some administrators – who have the power to change systems – are starting to listen up as well.

In the meantime, all of us in higher education need to keep the focus on knowledge and on students – and stop blindly accepting traditional ways of doing things if they get in the way of either.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.