Friday, September 25, 2015

The Credit Hour System in US Universities

In the United States, the credit hour system is used to calculate the academic work done by a student in universities, both at the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Students need to earn a specified number of credit hours in each degree program to be eligible to be awarded the degree. Apart from computing the amount of academic work done by students, credit hours are also used to compute the tuition and fee for students and determine their academic status. For example, at Virginia Tech, the tuition for each credit isUSD 437.25 for in-state undergraduates for the academic year 2015-16. Similarly, there are different fee amounts for each credit at graduate level and out-of-state enrollment. Moreover, full-time enrollment is defined as enrolling for at least 9 credit hours at graduate level and 12 credit hours at the undergraduate level. In order to obtain an undergraduate degree, a student is typically required to earn around 120 credits. In order to earn a graduate degree, the requirements vary starting from 30 to 90 credits depending on the type of degree.

In order to complete an undergraduate degree in four years, one needs to take 15 credits per semester on an average. According to the US Department of Education, to earn 1 credit, a student needs to spend 1-2 hours per week in-class and 2 hours of preparation time out of class. This means that a student who takes 15 credits per semester is required to spend 15-18 hours of time in class and 30 hours of time out of class. This sums up to almost 45-48 hours of academic work each semester. I think this is a very high expectation from students, especially considering the fact that students need to spend time on extra-curricular activities and co-curricular activities in college for which they do not get any credit. And if a student does a part-time job besides attending full-time college, something that a lot of students do, the number of hours which they need to spend on school and work easily add up to around 55-60. This means students have very little personal time in college. In order to meet their job and college requirements, a lot of students neglect their health and social life. This, in turn, leads to heath and psychological issues for them.

The situation gets even worse in graduate school. A lot of graduate students do a 20-hour assistantship besides their full-time graduate level academic work which is 9-12 credit hours per semester. At Virginia Tech, a graduate student on any assistantship is required to take 12 credit hours per semester. Although the in-class hours for graduate students is less than those of undergraduate students, due to the nature of graduate courses, the out-of-class hours per credit are greatly increased. Even if we assume that each credit in the Graduate School at Virginia Tech requires a total of 4 hours of academic work (this is only 1 hour per credit more than the undergraduate credit requirement), this would mean that each graduate student with a 20-hour assistantship needs to spend 68 hours on academic work and assistantship. Needless to say, this is impractical considering this is required of them each week of a semester.

However, this is not to say that students actually spend the same number of hours per week as discussed above to obtain their degrees. Studies have shown that students, especially undergraduates, spend a lot less than 3 hours per week to earn a credit. I myself have earned a graduate level degree at Virginia Tech but do not think I spent 4 hours per credit for all the credits I earned for the degree. But whatever number of hours students actually spend to earn their degrees, in theory, the requirements seem too difficult and taxing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Yesterday, I watched the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment at The Lyric and I was mesmerized and hence today I watched it again. The movie absorbed me not only because it was a nicely made movie which captures the essence of the experiment which was conducted 34 years ago but also because it teaches so much about human nature, how our behaviors impact others, and what kind of responsibilities we have in order to ensure that our behavior does not harm others’ well-being. Given that I myself am an educator, and teach the first year engineering classes at Virginia Tech, it made me think of my position as an authority and how my comments, remarks, and attitude toward them in and outside the class might affect my students.

Given the fact that students see the instructors as an authority figure in class, especially in the undergraduate classes, I think I carry with me an immense amount of power when I enter a classroom to teach. I have the power to not only shape their learning but also direct how they see the world and see themselves in it. I can provide a learning environment which increases their confidence in their own self by validating their capacities to learn and by situating learning in their experiences. Such a learning environment will lead to a development of intellectual power, reflective judgement, self-confidence and integrity in my students. At the same time, by portraying learning as shared among their peers, I can teach them to value others’ cultures and viewpoints.

I do not only have the responsibility to ensure that the students develop self-confidence and respect for others through my teaching but also have the duty to ensure that I do not do anything which psychologically hurts them and hinders their development as a citizen who is capable of taking ethical actions for the common good. This becomes even more important while teaching the first year college students. The first year is the initial step for the college students to understand the world. This is the first time when they are away from their parents and actually live their lives on their own. They start to interact with the world without an immediate safeguard from their parents. At the same time, it is a time when they start thinking about their majors and career paths. This is the period when they beginning their journeys to find an identity of their own. With all of this happening to them at the same time, it leaves them in a very delicate and psychologically fragile state of mind. In such a case, any insensitive or inappropriate comment from an instructor about their abilities to succeed might have a huge impact on the students. This in turn can adversely impact their development as effective citizens.

While I realize that I carry a huge responsibility on my shoulders while teaching and interacting with the first year students, I believe that the responsibility which educators carry while interacting with students at any grade level is equally huge. I just hope that we, the educators, keep on doing our work with utmost honesty and student interest in mind.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Do and I Understand

Curiosity is an inherent human nature. We want to learn about the world around us. And we have been doing so since the day we were born. When we are curious, we actively engage with the world around us and in that process learn about it. Unfortunately, our education system undermines this basic instinct of human beings. It treats students as passive learners or empty vessels. And the job of the instructors is to “fill students’ minds” with knowledge. Classrooms are treated as places to transfer information where the instructors act as the “sea of knowledge” who aim to transfer their knowledge to the students.

However, this system of knowledge transfer does not lead to students’ learning. Yes, the students do get some information in this process but they do not necessarily understand it. And they forget it after some time. Students are not empty vessels which can be filled with knowledge. They have a mind of their own. They think and construct knowledge out of what they hear, see and experience. And they learn in this process of knowledge construction.

If we want students to construct their own understanding, the only way to do that is to engage them in the process of learning instead of delivering content to them. And the way we can engage students in the learning process is by involving them in activities which lead to their learning. When students are engaged, they can learn the most difficult and intricate topics. This is because while they are engaged, they try to connect the new information to their long-term memory. This, in turn, leads to their understanding of the topic they are trying to learn. As the author James Paul Gee notes in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, kids tend to learn even the most complicated of video games because they are deeply engaged in the process of learning it. There are multiple instructional strategies which can be used to involve students in the learning process. These include, but are not limited to, project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based teaching, discovery learning, collaborative learning, co-operative learning and peer-teaching.

An old proverb suggests, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” If we want students to understand the content, we need to engage them in doing activities instead of making them hear lectures from the instructors.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Are Grades Credible?

Grades are used in the education system to assess the level to which students have achieved the learning objectives of a course or an assignment. Grades also act as feedback to students to indicate what they have learned and the deficiencies in their understating. While this system of giving feedback to students using grades has adverse impacts on students’ motivation and learning, I argue that grades do not necessarily say much about students’ learning and their ability to apply learning to real life problems. This is because the problems which students are required to solve on assignments or tests to obtain a grade are different from real life problems. This diminishes the credibility of grades to assess students’ learning.

Real life problem solving requires collaboration. I cannot think of any profession which does not require one to work with others. An engineering product is an outcome of the collaborative effort of all the people working on the product development team. A researcher is required to collaborate with other researchers to conduct their study. An airplane pilot needs to collaborate with other members of the flight crew and the ground staff to fly the plane. A surgeon needs to collaborate with other members of the medical team to perform a surgery. However, a majority of assignments which students submit for grade and almost all the tests which they take for grades are based on individual efforts. There is a possibility that a student works better when put in team as compared to when the same student is asked to do a task individually. Similarly, a student who does well on individual tests might not perform as well while working on a team. As a result, the grades which a student gets on individual work does not say much about their ability to apply their learning in the real world setting which is based on collaborative work.

Real life problems require the use of tools such as computing tools, drawing tools, design tools to solve problems. A lot of problems asked in the tests and assignments require students to do mental work. A good grade on a test may indicate proficiency with mental work but does not say much about whether one has learned the required skills to solve problems using tools in real life situations.

Real life problems are context-dependent. On the other hand, the questions which students are required to do for assignments are mostly abstract and devoid of context. For example, while writing an essay or an article, the writer needs to consider who the intended readers are, the kind of knowledge the readers will have about the topic and other such contextual details. However, such contextual details are usually missing when students write something for an assignment or a test. As a result, one cannot conclude whether the student has acquired the skills to write in a given context and for a given set of readers even if the student gets a perfect grade on an essay assignment.

There are a lot of skills required to solve real life problems. A lot of times, these skills are a part of course learning outcomes. However, all of these skills are difficult to measure. For example, it is difficult to measure students’ learning of teamwork and ethical issues in problem solving. As a result, the grade which a student gets in a course at the end of the term might not be based on the evaluation of all the skills which the students are required to learn from the course.

To answer the question I asked in the title of this blogpost, I would say that the grades which a student gets on a test or an assignment are not credible; and we need to stop valuing grades as much as we do and treating them as a measure of student’ learning. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mindless Learning Through Standardization

Standardization is the buzz word in the current education system. The curriculum which is taught to the students is standardized, the way that curriculum is taught to them is standardized, the tests given to the students are standardized, and the remedial actions taken when the students do not do well on the standardized tests are standardized. While this standardization is clearly visible in K-12 where students are required to take a standardized test at the end of each grade level, the higher education is also not untouched by standardization. College courses are designed around learning outcomes which the students are expected to achieve by end of the semester. These learning outcomes are then measured through tests and assignments through the semester. These tests and assignments are standardized in that they are the same for all the students in the class.

Any kind of standardization ignores the fact that each student in a classroom is unique and different from another student. Each of the students has different aspirations and comes from a different social and cultural background. Each student has a different way of leaning and a unique way of demonstrating their learning. A standardized way of teaching and evaluating students’ learning might not be relevant to each student. As a result, some students might not find what they are learning in class to be useful. This, in turn, kills their curiosity to learn by engaging with the course material. They instead become passive receivers of knowledge and find the process of learning boring and disengaging.

As a result of this, the only motivating factor which students see in a course is the grade which they get at the end of the semester. Hence, they turn all their attention to getting a better grade instead of critically engaging with the learning material. This is where they start mindlessly engaging in the process of learning. Mindless learning is characterized by low attention to the context of learning, lack of alertness to distinctions, and ignorance of multiple perspectives. Paying low attention to learning contexts might lead to a non-understanding of the context, which in turn hinders the process of transfer of learning from classroom to the real world. A lack of alertness to nuances might lead to misconceptions in the minds of the learner. Misconceptions further hinder students’ learning. Ignorance of multiple perspective prevents a well-rounded development of a student.

To realize the full potential of education, standardized learning environments should be replaced with customized ones which cater to the needs of each student and help them engage in mindful learning.