Culture //

Pens down, brains down

Zeb Holmes doesn’t want to study, he wants to learn.

It seemed like only yesterday that I was stumbling through O-week as a fresh-faced first year with a comically oversized campus map in my hands and a sense of awe-inspired fear in my heart. It was a simpler time, a time before The Wolverine and slightly after X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But now, years removed from these naive bright-eyed beginnings, I trudge through campus echoing the call of the uni student: “Will this be on the test?”

While this may seem like a cynical approach to education, it is a mindset that is well and truly taught. From our NAPLAN-like beginnings to the repeated regurgitation of pre-prepared answers known as the HSC, our learning is stilted. So when we walk through those Hogwarts gates, your typical working, time-poor, student will realise the effort-reward equations of their study pretty quickly, and learn to exclusively focus on readings directly related to their assignments.

We know that we can force people to study, but we also know we cannot force them to learn. A ranking system that rewards study cheapens the effort of learning, diminishing the value we place on the information or the educational systems that disgorge it.

To this end, many activist professors have begun to implement non-graded courses. Although recent research is unavailable, Barbara Pavan’s review of 64 studies between 1968 and 1991 showed 91 per cent of the time, non-graded groups perform better or as well as graded groups in academic achievement.

While non-grading has been consigned to ‘radical’ teachers, it is merely the logical extension of the current slide towards the pass/fail format, now offered in a majority of courses within competitive Ivy League schools as well as important degrees at USyd with clear vocational pathways, such as the Masters of Teaching. The common criticism of non-grading- the inability of employers to differentiate between applicants- would similarly apply to judging the vast field of passing students.

However, if these processes were flipped and the onus placed on the employer to weed out the best and brightest, students would theoretically be coming to them with a resonate knowledge base, rather than one which disappears on the call of “pens down”.  Future employers could take on the task of implementing a standardised test within the interview process, and for the university, final exams could still test a student’s grasp of course material to calculate the quality of the course without bearing on the individual student’s record.

Nobel Prize winner Carl Weiman has also questioned the passivity of students in traditional science classes. Weiman cites three separate studies which demonstrate that most students only recall lectures in vague generalities immediately afterwards. When quizzed on a specific non-obvious fact, only 10 per cent of the graduate audience remembered the fact just 15 minutes after the lecture. Throughout an entire introductory physics course, students will generally master no more than 30 per cent of the key concepts.

We are passively force-fed much more information than our short term memory can retain, and without active engagement, we never process these ideas at a deeper level. In contrast, students in an interactive class achieve higher complex comprehension – 74 per cent compared to 41 per cent in a non-interactive class – and have a 20 per cent higher attendance rate. The university sector rightly emphasises the importance of tutorials in encouraging learning, but the existing system of grading bastardises their usefulness, as few students engage with non-assessed material.

As to why these passive systems continue to exist at all, it may be wise to latch on to the wisdom of Howard Zinn and Jeff Schmidt. They see the professional educator as someone tasked with reproducing an “endlessly pliable” worker, able to conform to any ideology with which they are presented.

Unfortunately, the answers to the catastrophic problems of the near-future won’t be found at the bottom of a reading list by a begrudging, but admirably pliable, third year. Although non-grading is dismissed as radical, to borrow an adage from Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.”