Sunday, March 07, 2010

Undergraduate Education Thread

Martin's previous post was helpful in outlining many of the issues involved in understanding grade inflation. The expanded transcript used by Indiana University and other institutions is also something that we should look at closely if the issue really is that employers are getting confused as to the value of the qualification that a person brings with them. In terms of other constructive ideas that may help improve the level of education experienced by undergraduates, we have blogged here about the potential for undergraduate research internships to improve outcomes for students. Other colleagues in Geary have been conducting research into the development of access programmes.

Individual departments and schools might also consider some of the options below. In general, such ideas must come from the bottom-up and many departments and schools are actively working on versions of them. This is a short list to put some ideas into the debate. Much of the debate about grade inflation in the last week has actually been a confused debate about educational standards. If this is so important to commenters, perhaps some of them will look at some ideas like the ones below or others that are constructive and give them some time for discussion.

- Accelerated programmes for gifted students. I am currently reading some papers on this and will post later in the week.

- I posted before on the extent to which students with advanced spatial reasoning abilities might be under-appreciated in the current system. Examining ways of countering this would be a constructive step.

- "Mathcamp"programmes taking place before formal semesters for mathematically rigorous courses.

- More targeted advice for students applying to elite institutions, either graduate schools or companies.

- Greater push from the universities to respond to the increasing risk of prolonged unemployment among graduates. To attempt to pin this risk down to educational standards is ridiculous. There has been a major structural change in the Irish labour market that was largely unanticipated. It is necessary for the universities to respond to this. One small suggestion would be for philantrophy to consider funding internship programmes rather than capital programmes for a brief period to ensure that the social return on their earlier investments into Irish higher education is not obliterated by a generation of graduates losing out.

- Greater use of prizes and other incentives for performance. We have blogged here before that this may have particular impact on male students.

- Better use of technology and more lecturers who "hack" unwieldy college technology systems by finding ways of directly engaging their students.


Liam Delaney said...

University of Wisconsin piece on improving undergraduate teaching

Liam Delaney said...

nice article on whether faculty research improves undergraduate teaching

Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev said...

Expanded transcripts are good. Top graduate schools in the US require full listings of courses and materials used in them with course description.

Math camps are also a must. We have had this experience in MSc programme and it has been an improvement not only on skills, but also on students' confidence.

The problem is that these measures do not address the issue of too-rigid, non-creative approach to teaching and examining that is practiced in Ireland. I don't want to over-generalise here, but we have massive emphasis on learning = memorization formulaic approach to teaching. I can see the effect this is having on students. By the time I get to teach them in 3rd-4th years, they are already indoctrinated into the system that provides them with all materials and demands that they learn no more than what is contained in the lecture notes. When you ask them to think creatively, to apply a concept, to provide a critique or support to an idea, or to use learned 'tools' to solve real world problems, etc, 2-5% respond really well (top class), 10-15% respond with a sigh and then get into the task and get immersed, 20-25% do the work grinding their teeth, but a sizable proportion simply refuses to budge and even complains to course administrators and their tutors that the course is too hard or unfairly hard.

And then they let it out in their course evaluations...

This is a real problem. How can it be addressed if we are not given power and freedom (with responsibility to deliver) to actually tell some of these students - 'Listen, university is clearly not for you.'

Keith said...

Great post, Liam. I especially like the idea for advanced courses being opened up to undergrads (even on an auditing basis). I can attest to the benefits of research internships for undergrads.

Martin Ryan said...

This is a step in the right direction - to create a focused debate on the quality of undergraduate education. I won't dwell on grade inflation here - except to say that grade inflation (if and to what extent it exists) is a separate issue.

It is worth reflecting on why a debate about the "quality of undergraduate education" did not emerge initially. One of the main concerns raised by the tech industry with the Minister was a perceived decline in standards among graduates coming out of Irish colleges. The Minister's direct response was to launch investigations into grade inflation.

A complaint about a perceived decline in standards among graduates requires a different response. Firstly, what are the views of IBEC, Milkround Companies, the Top 100 Companies in Ireland, ISEQ-listed companies, the Irish Technology Leadership Group, Civil Service Recruitment etc., about standards among graduates.

Is the technology sector a special case? If so, why so?

Or as a lot of tech companies are multi-national, are the expectations of multi-national employers higher?

Secondly, what is the pre-existing evidence in this area? The World Economic Forum's 2009-2010 Global Competitiveness Report ranked the quality of Ireland's secondary and tertiary educational system, as assessed by the business community, at eight out of 133 economies.

"This is further reinforced by the ratings given to the Irish universities by a broad sample of employers and which have fed into the improved performance of the universities in the Times Higher/QS University rankings," IUA chief executive Ned Costello said.

Are we to disregard the sample of employers that fed into the Times Higher/QS University rankings? Will the Minister be launching a data-driven investigation into employer-evaluation of graduate employees and graduate job applicants? It would be helpful to see representative and rigourous data on the topic; to better inform the undergraduate education thread that you have started Liam.

Thirdly, "dumbing down" featured in the media lexicon over the weekend, which I assume refers to dumbing down of the curricula. This is a different beast again to grade inflation. Grade inflation can happen without dumbing down e.g. if there is increasing student-demand for re-marking grades upwards. "Dumbing down" can contribute to grade inflation - but it is impossible to detect by looking at time-series data on grades alone.

Will the Minister be launching an investigation into the curricula changes over the last couple of decades?

Finally, to shift emphasis back more in line with the thread, and feed into the "quality" and "graduate standards" debate, there was an interesting article in the NYT last week that focused on the burgeoning NYT tech industry.

The article raises the issue of how "industry-orientated" graduates should be. Presumably, the more so they are, the more employers will perceive their "standard" and "quality" to be high. The artcile mentioned that "an early pillar of Silicon Valley innovation was Stanford’s dean of engineering, Frederick Terman, who viewed the university as an incubator for the electronics industry."

A less extreme approach is the emphasis on guest-speakers and an internship program at Columbia Applied Maths:

"Hoping to replicate those kinds of successes, schools in New York are increasingly collaborating with local start-ups. Chris Wiggins, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, regularly brings start-up founders to campus to speak to students about careers in technology and is establishing an internship program at the school."

There may be another debate needed on how industry-orientated higher education in Ireland should be. Which of course should be based on the facts. How industry-orientated is higher education in Ireland?

Martin Ryan said...

NYT article: