3 Solutions to Problems in Higher Education

Modern research suggests that we may be educating students wrong.

Posted Mar 17, 2014

The most important moment of my educational career occurred the first day of my sophomore year of high school. My geometry teacher, a bright and dedicated woman, explained a few core concepts to us. “A line” she informed us, “is a perfectly straight object with no width connecting two points.” The idea that a line could have “no width” was immediately fascinating to me.  “How can that be?” I asked. “If a line has no width then you could never distinguish between one line and 500 lines stacked upon each other.” My teacher glared at me, no doubt identifying me as a trouble maker rather than a child who was highly conceptually engaged. She said “Moving on!” in a sarcastic and dismissive way and—in typical immature fashion—I sulked, for days and weeks after, ultimately withdrawing from the course with a failing grade.

The sense I had as a teenager is the same sense that many students, even those in higher education, have today: education is less like a gift being offered than it is like an imposition.   

As evidence of the ways that education can actually be unhealthy consider the study by researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng of psychological stress caused by exams. Compared with a control group of students who were not taking exams, those who were facing tests smoked more cigarettes, drank more coffee, ate more junk food, exercised less frequently and for shorter periods, brushed their teeth less, washed their hair less, did less laundry, washed fewer dishes and lost their tempers more frequently.  

If you are a parent of a college student or a college student yourself this should be cause for alarm and reason enough to sit up and ask “what are we doing to students?”

In the case of higher education one possible answer to this question is “treating them like children.” In many ways universities operate much like secondary schools. Students are told which courses they need to take, which books they need to read, and how and when they will be evaluated. Despite the fact that there are somewhat more opportunities for elective courses the basic message of the higher education system is that academics and administrators know more and therefore are in the best position to tell adult students how and what to learn. That may be wrong and here's what we can do about it:

        1. Increase pedagogical support  for instructors

One solution to contemporary educational shortcomings, then, is to provide instructors with more support around the activity that is—arguably—the center of their work: instruction.

While many academics are expert in their respective subjects-- precious few instructors have actually studied pedagogy. Having a strong publication record does not necessarily translate to being a gifted instructor despite the fact that tenure at most universities is based more heavily on the former than the latter. In fact, the committee, mentorship, and research demands of the typical instructor’s workload leaves little time to keep abreast of educational best practices.

In my field, psychology, scholarship on teaching and learning has mushroomed but it remains a niche topic within the larger discipline. Chances are, most university instructors are unaware of the research comparing whether multiple choice tests should have three or four possible responses. Instructors also probably don’t know whether taking longer to complete a test is associated with better performance, despite the fact that research was published on the topic as recently as 2009. Similarly, they likely do not know that top educators recommend that students outline reading material rather than having an outline provided for them.  

One solution to up-skilling instructors would be to create digital information clearing houses—beyond already existing chat rooms—in which higher education instructors could share and test best practices in an organized way. Rich Lucas, a psychologist at Michigan State University, for instance, sometimes offers his students the opportunity to take tests twice. The first time provides their base score and then they are welcome—right then and there—to take it an additional time with open book and notes. Their score on this subsequent test is added as extra credit to the first score. More importantly, the exam itself provides an opportunity to learn. Too often these types of potentially powerful educational experiments are passed on in an ad hoc fashion.

               2. Students should be educated about educational best practices

Students have all sort of beliefs about learning strategies. They highlight seemingly important information, ask for class notes from professors, re-read material, and cram before tests. If students had better access to informational best practices they might know that a third reading of material provides little additional benefit or that breaking study sessions into multiple, shorter sessions is superior to long “study-hauls.”

It is true that most universities and colleges offer high quality learning resource centers that provide exactly this type of information. I would argue that this information should be included at the classroom level by making an appearance in syllabi, in virtual classrooms for download, and come straight out of the instructor’s mouth.

              3.  Students can improve learning by designing the course and materials

Ample research suggests that self-determination is a primary motive for humans. Why not give higher education students more power to explore their passions and determine their own learning? One example of this with which I have experimented and on which I have published is inviting students to co-create the course syllabus with me. I make suggestions for important core content but empower the students to choose additional content. In this way the course itself mirrors the college experience with some required and some elective information. I also give students wide leeway in determining multiple methods by which they want to be evaluated for the course including at least two of the following: quizzes, attendance and participation, a final project, a final paper, or a group project and presentation.

 A similar solution, at least in the field of psychology, can be found in Noba. Noba is a free digital psychology resource that allows anyone to cobble together an electronic “textbook” of any length by choosing from among nearly 90 chapters, each written by a noted authority on the subject. (Full disclosure: I am senior editor of Noba, but it is a charitable and not a money-making venture. In fact, Noba has never collected a single dollar of revenue). Right now Noba can be used as a high-quality no-cost alternative to traditional textbooks, but it could be more. Can you imagine a classroom in which an instructor allowed each student to compile (and be held accountable for learning) his or her own unique textbook based on some combination of suggested core material and individual interests?

Lecture hall at MIT