Jesus’ Students

Jesus’ Students August 29, 2013

I came across this cartoon some time ago:

It is worth reposting at the start of a new semester. We call them “disciples” but they were basically students. And as hard as an educator might try to explain things, students still ask questions like this one. Let me try once again to explain why the question is such a frustrating one from our perspective.

Education is not about being given a set of information which you know you will need and then reproducing it on some predictable occasion in the future when you know in advance that you will need to do so. It is about becoming well-informed, and competent to cope with the unexpected things which jobs, and life in general, inevitably throw our way.

I wonder whether the question “Will this be on the final exam?”, and the sense many of today’s students have that core curriculum and general education courses are irrelevant to their chosen vocation, are not connected. Both reflect the belief that the future will follow a predictable path, and that all students need to do is gather up the answers now and then have them ready for the moments when they are needed.

If we send you out into the world thinking that you can know what will be on life’s examinations, we do you a disservice.

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  • I am finding the “final exam” rhetoric no more prevalent than in recent talks about higher education ratings and jobs. The final exam is employment and the outcome of employment is a return on investment in that education. A job and money are what learning are all about. This would mean that religious studies is superfluous unless wrapped in, say, an international business degree. Once again liberal arts and humanities are on the chopping block as they were over a century ago. Funny how we keep coming back to LA to “reform” higher education when we go a utilitarian route.

  • Ian

    That’s all very well, but why is the assessment and qualification structure of the course set up the way it is. You can’t blame students when their whole framework is one of GPAs, number of modules, here’s a qualification, transcript available, go put it on your resume.

    The fact is, it is nice to think that liberal arts is an enrichment for life, but the qualification is a pre-requisite to employment. Employers will look at your GPA and your school, and judge you. Presumably butler hasn’t found a way to put “flexibly competent, well rounded and well-informed” on their transcripts. Instead it will say Introduction to New Testament 2.9, etc…

    • It is an excellent point. And I’ve made the case at Butler that we need to leave more room for experiences that are not graded. I’ve always felt odd asking for a paper after a short-term study abroad trip, for instance, just so that I feel like I have something gradeable that then allows me to treat it like any other course. It isn’t like any other course.

      It doesn’t seem as though we can do without testing. But we can test in ways that emphasize the point I made, which is that we as educators are more interested in whether you have fundamentally grasped methods and approaches and can apply them, than whether you remember ever detail precisely. Not that the latter does not have some importance. But the former is what will be of use when you confront new data and new situations.

      What do you think, Ian? I don’t see how we could eliminate grading altogether. Do you? Is there any alternative to having assessments that focus primarily on higher order comprehension?

      • Ian

        No, its a tough one. I’m not even at this coal face, so my opinions aren’t very concrete, must less born of experience!

        But two interesting threads I’ve come across

        1. The ‘Badge’ movement, which is being heavily driven by Mozilla, but keeps cropping up in various contexts. The idea of this is that students can amass a variety of different achievements. Some being traditional academic competency on a test. But others for a field trip, or other kinds of learning. As far as I can tell this is only starting to be trialled, but potentially could make a transcript much more heterogeneous than a series of grades.

        2. The ‘no college’ movement. In my industry there is a lot of talk about how college is a very bad *investment*. Because everybody does it, getting a degree doesn’t distinguish you. We’ve been through inflation of qualifications over the last decade. You need a masters now, or maybe a PhD. So an increasing number of tech bigwigs are saying: “take your college fund, and start a business or two – at the end of four years you’ll have better experience, broader life skills and more saleable resume”. In some ways this runs counter to the LA idea, but in some ways I think it is synergistic. Because LA is not a professional qualification, in most cases. The idea that you do it to get employment seems at odds. Perhaps there’s something to be said for encouraging folks to take LA degrees later, or not as an investment for a career. Of course – that would mean fewer students. Universities have a vested interest in keeping the degree = employment idea going.

        • Good point about badges. The badge movement is all the rage in the discussions around measurements of competency rather than a course grade.

          But this is also not a new idea. For example, colleges of education and nursing have used portfolios for years in order to assess student competency. Rather than use grades as a measurement, the artifact and qualitative commentary are used to substantiate the artifact in meeting competency requirements towards the degree.

          In a more radical way, Alverno College has about done away with grades altogether along these lines. And yes, their students can go on to grad school just fine. It simply means that grad schools have had to adjust to how Alverno does its measurement of student achievement. The combination of competencies (badges) with portfolios has a lot of potential.

          The good news is that I think higher education outside of colleges of education is starting to see the value of this. Think about it for accreditation self-studies. How great would it be to pull all of this data where the university mission can be drilled down to specific student assignments? Oral Roberts basically does this with their integration of Chalk & Wire.

          These are positive movements and if MOOCs have done anything positive, it is to spur this discussion!

          • The badge idea is an interesting one. We also discussed (in a faculty discussion about technology and teaching that I am part of) other models that track progress and proficiency. So imagine someone getting a “black belt in computer science” for instance. 🙂

          • Ian

            Yes, so far the badges I’ve seen proposed seem very underwhelming. They seem basically to be an excuse to chop courses into smaller units. Or have them as aggregates of courses but less than a degree.

            But the benefit, in principle, surely comes from having badges be different. So you could have programs of lab work that weren’t courses at all, but that gave credit for contributing to a professor’s research, say (in wet biology students with an eye on grad school can sometimes volunteer to baby-sit the boring experiments, or make observations). Or badges for researching and giving an open lecture on your field to high schoolers. Or, in computer science, perhaps for producing an app that is downloaded at least 10,000 times from the app store.

            I think that angle is interesting. But, as I said, I take my own opinions with a handful of salt, because i have no skin in the game either way.

            Interesting neither you or Andrew mention the ‘no college’ trend. This is big, slightly worrying, news among CompSci folks I know. Has it just not registered as a ‘thing’ in the LA?

          • Is “no college” referring to something other than simply not going to college?

          • Ian

            In CompSci it is a specific not-going-to-college, one where you just do whatever you wanted to qualify to do, and use the college money as investment into the doing.

            If you’re going to spend 20k on tuition and more on 4 years of living, why not spend $60k on bankrolling your own business.

            So if you want to qualify as a programmer, you just write and release a bunch of apps or build a web-service. If you want to end up in PR, start a PR company and be your own client to start with. If you want to do branding, create a brand. Etc.

            Obviously doesn’t work for academic or some qualification based professions, but I wondered if it had hit the radar for LA. I’m not advocating it, nor really against it, it probably is okay for some folks. It just seems to be part of the tech zeitgeist at the moment, and I wondered how far that went.

          • In religious studies, you use your tuition to start a religion… 🙂

            But seriously, if you can teach yourself to program well enough that you can write apps then you might well be able to do without formal training in that area. I like to compare a university education to hiring a trainer, especially because it emphasizes that, just as no one can exercise for you, no one can learn for you. You are paying for expert supervision and for someone to hold you accountable to the goals you’ve set. If you can get in shape without that, great, although demonstrating expertise without traditional academic structures can be harder, apart from specific vocational skills.

            And no matter how impressive their self-taught surgery skills, I’d still prefer that my doctors have diplomas from traditional institutions of learning…

          • Ian

            I agree on all fronts. I wasn’t trying to push it, I was just asking if you’d come across it, or whether it was more a Silicon Valley type thing.

            Incidentally, I’ve taught hundreds of people programming at uni. Very few people who didn’t start the course being able to program left being able to. Though just about everyone improved. Perhaps that is damning on the tuition. But I suspect there’s something deeper that links with your point: if you are passionate about a field enough to spend four years studying it, why aren’t you doing it already? A teacher I once knew said the same about English lit – the number of students turning up to do english lit degrees who had only read the set texts from their school and a couple of fantasy novels.

            The ‘coach’ or ‘trainer’ model I love. That’s exactly how I learn best. But isn’t it rare to find actual university courses set up that way? From the professors I know, and from my time teaching, you were expected to produce packaged courses on a topic that could go in the prospectus and be delivered to a cohort. Even seminar groups / sections are a far cry from a personal trainer.

            But yes, there are some professions where it is important that a student has had exactly the same input as everyone else. I think that’s the minority. Certainly isn’t true of theology, history, biology, computing, math, etc.

          • I’m hoping that things like hybrid teaching models, moving lectures online and perhaps at least some discussion boards, might free up more time for other things, including chatting with students individually over coffee and other things like that which might allow for more individualized mentoring and training.

      • abigjohn2

        The greatest professor I had in Seminary was during the Inter-term January session. This old pastor from Washington, DC was friends with Peter Marshall and actually did his eulogy not the Senator as portrayed in the movie of Peter Marshal’s life. He simply shared his life and experiences for that month. I have never been in a class with more engaged people. Every moment was a pearl of great price. And, you really couldn’t take notes and there was no text but the Bible. And, when it came to the final exam, he said you all get an A and then asked if there was any more questions. Wow. That was great teaching.

      • “What do you think, Ian? I don’t see how we could eliminate grading altogether. Do you? Is there any alternative to having assessments that focus primarily on higher order comprehension?”

        From my experience (I worked in graduate recruitment for a number of years), big employers will always want some kind of grade at the end of an academic course, since it gives a rough and ready way to sift out a big chunk of applications.

        On the whole “well rounded” thing – If your course develops the kind of skills that employers want, they should be able to show these in the interview stages of the recruitment, which are designed to assess these, so it doesn’t really matter if they don’t show up on a degree transcript. A few of the big employers I worked for even screened CVs partly on the basis of these wider experiences, and assigned points to them – e.g. if you’d competed in a sport up to elite level while at Uni, that gained you lots of points.