Improving Learning at Universities

Why is the educational system ineffective in teaching people to apply their knowledge? It is because we have designed a system that convinces most students that they are not responsible for their own learning. Surprisingly, the problem starts as soon as people are placed in groups. Zajonc’s (1965) review of social facilitation research, done on rats and students, found that when subjects observe the critical responses of others, their learning is inhibited. This led Zajonc to conclude, “students should study alone” (He did not provide advice for rats). The presence of a teacher compounds the problem (Browne et. al. 1991; Tough 1982). Grading saps responsibility and thus inhibits learning (Condry 1977; Levine and Fasnacht 1974). Student evaluations of teachers lead to a further erosion of their responsibility because the students place the responsibility on the professor (Armstrong 1998; 2004b). I summarize some of the findings in order to develop action steps that schools could take. Those who are familiar with the research might regard these suggestions as old-hat. Those who are not familiar might be incredulous. A few programs within the University of Pennsylvania as well as other schools already contain some of these design aspects. For example, many Ph.D. programs are successful in getting students to take responsibility. While my concern is primarily with skill training, these suggestions also apply to education focused on changes in attitudes and content.

Ask students to develop a learning plan. A team of coaches, who might or might not be faculty members, would assist in revising and improving plans. Students would evaluate their progress against their plan.

Organize learning activities around skills rather than content. Students could use classes, discussions, videos, books, teaching machines, self-directed exercises, papers, and experiential learning exercises such as role-playing. Faculty members would develop learning materials for students that would be suitable for self-study. Students would be encouraged to do independent work. They would be free to choose whatever methods, including courses, they and their adviser think would work best for them.

Provide guides that identify faculty members who are available to help students. The guides would also list useful readings and websites.

Encourage the development and communication of useful research by faculty. Learning could be aided by summarizing all useful knowledge in an area so that students can use it. Many of these learning materials could be placed on the internet so that they are available to our alumni and others.

Rather than have faculty grade students, use independent assessment centers. The assessment center tests would require students to demonstrate mastery of the techniques and principles in given areas. Examples would include preparing and delivering a persuasive five-minute talk and describing the persuasion tactics that were used, or conducting a ten-minute interview to find out why someone is upset about an issue. Students and coaches would share a common goal in having the students do well on these independently administered assessments. Additionally, this would eliminate the need for grading by faculty. Administrators could track the extent to which individual faculty members develop materials that are helpful in mastering the techniques/principles/concepts.

Require detailed monthly assessments in which students would describe how they were progressing on their learning plan. This would replace student evaluations of teachers and would put responsibility on the student.

Evaluations of the teachers and coaches could be done by looking at the success of their students on assessment center tests. These tests would be designed to assess the student’s ability to use various techniques, principles, and knowledge for such skills as noted above. The schools would certify that a student received a degree. When employers request grades, students would be permitted to have their assessment center scores sent to prospective employers.

Judging from prior research, these suggestions would increase learning by students. They would also establish the university as an innovator in learning, even if the programs remain small in scale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *