Future of the University – Back to Teaching

One thing the university should change is its approach to teaching. Specifically, we need to stop separating teaching from learning. The goal for professors should not be to teach, but that the students learn. The goal for students should not be to pass the class and check a box but to acquire valuable skills and knowledge that they will need in their future careers. There are many things that make this not be the case currently, but if universities want to stay relevant and true to their missions this has to improve.

I feel there is an attitude with many professors that their job is to simply deliver the material, not to necessarily to ensure that learning is happening. Delivering a dry lecture while standing in front of a disinterested class should not be the standard for teaching. To change this, professors could, for instance, change the classroom style, making it more interactive and encouraging discussions and exploration. There are many ways to do this and I will not go into examples here, but it needs to start with shifting the way we think about teaching. The professor’s job is for the students to learn the subject, not for him to simply “teach” it.

Of course it does not all fall on the individual professors. The format and culture of undergraduate programs is such that it decreases students interest in learning and makes a professors job much more difficult. Students’ goals are to graduate in order to get a diploma that will allow them to get a job in an industry they are interested in. They are not necessarily interested in learning the materials in the specific, required, courses. All they need is to pass, preferably with a good grade, so that they can check a box on a form. Hence the focus is on getting the grade rather than learning the material. For example, students might just memorize the steps to solving certain problems without really learning the concepts. This focus on doing the minimum to check a box and move on is made worse by the large number of courses students take, combined with possibly holding a part-time job and having other personal responsibilities.

A huge underlying cause of student’s disinterest in a class, and professor’s inability to really teach the material, is that there is a problem of a shaky foundation which only gets worst with every new class. I will use engineering as an example. If you pass Calculus I with an 80% you can move to Calculus II. If the metric is accurate you only know 80% of one of the most foundational materials in the rest of your career. When you get to higher level courses, say in your junior year, this gap of knowledge will have compounded and you won’t be able to understand or follow what the professor is teaching. Instead you will be forced to memorize how to solve problems, e.g. by looking at homework solutions, enough to just pass. At the end of the day you are probably working harder than if you had the right foundation and were acing the class. Moving along with incomplete knowledge of foundational topics has the effect of making every subsequent class more difficult to follow, to the point where you lose all motivation to actually learn and go into survival mode, where you are playing the system and trying to make it through.

I believe the university needs to focus on improving the quality of teaching, uhm I mean learning. I discussed several ways it currently creates a culture of indifference/disinterest from both students and professors. These include professors attitude that if they present the material teaching has occurred (regardless of learning happening), the pressure students are under and their attitude of just surviving and moving along checking boxes, and the problem of compounding knowledge gap. I am not offering any solutions just my thought that this is something I would like to see changed. This would require large changes in both the system (rules, curricula, etc) and culture of the university and its departments. This is not an easy task, but I believe the current state of learning at the undergraduate level is in real crisis and should be unacceptable.

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