h1

Higher Education?

October 1, 2008

For this entry I have turned my blog over to a friend so he can write about his experience of teaching, in the next level of the education system:

As a friend of Oldandrew for many years I agreed to write a guest entry for his blog. Unlike Oldandrew, I have not become a school teacher but have experience of teaching undergraduates at University. I have been teaching mathematics to students in a computer science department in a University whose computer science department is one of the top ten in the country. Here are a few of the important rules for teaching we were given in how we should handle students:

  1. Answers need to be marked for presence not correctness. These students are not mathematicians and are studying computer science so we can’t expect them to be interested and intelligent enough to be able to answer these questions correctly so as long as they attempt an answer it is fine.
  2. International students cannot fail. International students pay a lot of money for their tuition and if we fail them we may not get anymore and this will reduce our income.
  3. Teachers must teach at the speed of the slowest, one must never stretch the smartest students.

Sadly, the introduction of tuition fees has greatly influenced the attitude of students. It becomes increasingly common for students to demand good grades because they pay for their degree so they deserve to get a first. Similarly, students will refuse to hand in work at given times because they pay the wages of the lecturer.

International students also cause further problems for lecturers in that in some countries there is no concept of plagiarism. This means that even though students are made to sign an agreement not to commit plagiarism and the concept is explained to them in detail, international students regularly do. International students are nearly always caught because the quality of their English is below the standard of that used on Wikipedia and so whenever they cut and paste written extracts from Wikipedia it is stands out like blood in snow. If you point out to students that they are committing plagiarism then they will accuse you of racism because either you do not understand their culture (special sessions are now being put on for staff to help them understand the cultures where plagiarism is acceptable), or that you are expecting them to have too high a level of understanding of English.

A few words are in order about the ability of students from school. As a rule the only students who are actually capable of the work are Germans and Indians. The English students are often completely incapable of doing mathematics at a university level. When I went to university we did not cover anything we had done at A-level but instead starting doing new work but this is very rarely the case except at the very best universities, now the A-level syllabus is recovered in the first year so that all students are at the same level for their second year when they can be taught new material. In fact the ability of English students is so bad that at one point I was trying to prove, by induction, that something was divisible by three and I had shown that it was divisible by six. I then had to explain repeatedly that since six is three times two, anything divisible by six was also divisible by three. I even had a couple of students claiming that six was not three times two. It is at this point that I should point out that these students all have A grades in A-level mathematics.

Even when I was at university various courses were being moved from the second to the third year so the dumbing down of university of degrees has been going on for a number of years. Our education system is failing students and a lot of universities are doing their best to compensate, but this means that a lot of degrees have been dumbed down to the point where they are useless.

About these ads

17 comments

  1. Things appear to have got worse since I finished my Ph.D. I only got accused of racism once by some overseas students who had both handed in identical drawings on a CAD course. I laughed at them. I also experienced some fail grades I handed out changed to passes. GRRR.

    The dumbing down at university is one of the reasons I left HE and became a Secondary teacher. I had become disillusioned by students with A-level maths who could not do maths (although, in fairness, the top students were still very good). It was only when I got down here in the thick of things that I realised it was, to a large extent, the system of getting students qualifications, rather than teaching subjects, that was failing the students and giving students false expectations.

    With regards to tuition fees it needs spelling out to HE students that they buy an opportunity to read for a degree, it doesn’t buy them the degree.

    The sad result of all the dumbing down, of course, is for a degree to now be needed where before A-levels were and a Masters where a Bachelors would have done. For example to become a chartered engineer now requires a MEng or MSc for the fresh graduates, when I graduated, not so long ago, all I needed was my BEng(Hons).

    I’ll stop ranting now.


  2. Perhaps this blog needs to be renamed ‘Grumpy Young Men’?

    I only dip in every now and then, but it seems to get more and more reactionary and opinion has so overwhelmed fact as to render it mostly ficticious.


  3. Duncan,

    I never cease to be amazed at your capacity to believe that when people’s experience does’t match your ideology, then it must be their experience that is mere “opinion”.


  4. Agreed. I’ve only been here a month and already can see every one of OldAndrew’s posts coming true. Positives (for there are some) and negatives alike.

    The education system is sick and needs help before it gets worse (if worse is even a possibility–after one of my lessons today, I somehow doubt it). And I’m deeply saddened to hear that higher ed is going down, too. Though, with such candidates as the Typical Students mentioned here, I guess there’s really no other option.

    In the US a Bachelors degree is only slightly better than a high school diploma due to the dumbing down of courses. I would hate to think the same is happening here.

    So how do we change the system? Please tell me, in six easy steps, because I can’t take another day like today.


  5. Wow!

    I’m a some-time reader of this blog for a few months now and it scares me.
    I am not a teacher. I am currently doing a Masters and being a Dad to my 2yr old girl. I was considering looking into the PGCE, but, coupled with my experiences in junior and secondary schools (and one 6th form college), this blog is helping me look for an alternative.

    I’ve taught a few workshops and have run a few arts/creative projects in these institutins and it was bloody hard work to get anyone to do anything because of the hurdles described in the above post and others that have gone before.

    During the course of my MA, I’ve seen the antics above every week.

    It is very, very sad. Degrees are becoming worthless almost due to the ubiquity of them, same with A levels. The student’s feelings of entitlement are joy to behold when witnessed first hand. They really are.

    I don’t want to come home and feel like I could write things such as Mimi’s comment (‘I can’t take another day like today’).

    Good luck all of you – you deserve better.

    Bocz


  6. Surely in time the people who employ your graduants will know how to disregard your ‘passes’.
    There must be other effective teaching establishments.
    Is not that what the ‘market’ is all about.
    It is all a bit odd. Many, many years ago when I was at university the lecturers all acted as if they were doing the students a wearisome favour. I’m not sure if this was more effective.


  7. [...] Slip is hosting this week’s Carnival of Education, which includes Old Andrew on dumbed-down degrees at English universities. A computer science professor recounts trying to teach students — all [...]


  8. I have taught in a humanities subject in three British universities, all of which were serious, research-intensive institutions. I have many serious concerns about British education, at both schools and universities, but can safely say the following:

    I have never been told not to mark for correctness, and I have always marked down more seriously for errors of fact than for errors of opinion, and have never heard it suggested that I should do otherwise.

    I have never marked international students differently from others, and have never heard it suggested that I should. In any case, for a lot of the most important marking, I don’t know who the students are because the scripts are anonymised.

    Although I have my own concerns about fees and consumerist approaches to education, I have never heard a student refuse to hand in work “because they pay the wages of the teacher”.

    I have never been involved in a plagiarism case where cultural/ racial differences have become part of the discussion, although I have heard of it anecdotally.


    • “I have taught in a humanities subject in three British universities, all of which were serious, research-intensive institutions.”

      Well I can say the same with one of them being the top in the country for mathematics at the time. Although, to be fair, it was the one that was outside of the top five universities in the country for mathematics that I was particularly referring to in the above blog entry.

      Anecdotally, I have heard from colleagues who teach at Oxford, in humanities, that my criticism is entirely fair. The accuracy has also been acknowledged by a lot of my other colleagues who teach at other universities. Although, since this is a blog post, it is bound to be anecdotal by nature and I, for one, would be fascinating to see a survey done. Although, I am glad to see that this is not the case everywhere, mind you, I am not stupid enough to extrapolate from my own experience and assume it was the case in every university and department. My experience is by no means statistically significant.

      “I have never been told not to mark for correctness, and I have always marked down more seriously for errors of fact than for errors of opinion, and have never heard it suggested that I should do otherwise.”

      This is most likely down to a difference between mathematics and humanities. In maths, a proof is either correct or it is not. While some marks are available for workings, giving full marks for incorrect proofs, was what I was referring to above as the students had tried hard.

      I am extremely grateful to my first year supervisor, who would regularly mark my work as incorrect, when it was and then spend the time explaining why and helping me to not make the same mistakes next time. In fact, I doubt I would have even passed my degree without such help.

      “I have never marked international students differently from others, and have never heard it suggested that I should. In any case, for a lot of the most important marking, I don’t know who the students are because the scripts are anonymised.”

      I was never claiming that I did mark international students scripts differently from others nor, I hope, does the entry above suggest otherwise. Most of my marking was anonymous but when you get two identical pieces of work in front of you, with the same errors, then one tends to think they have copied each other. It is only when the students complain that they have got zero for plagiarism and attempt to appeal that it comes out that they are international students.

      Incidentally, it was matter of course to compare all essays, yes they do some in mathematics too, to wikipedia and other leading websites to check for plagiarism. The comment was actually based on the fact that you could tell a section was plagiarized by the standard of English it contained. It could then be googled to see where it had come from, and the answer was usually wikipedia. This was of course true for some English students as well, but was more noticeable for international students.

      “Although I have my own concerns about fees and consumerist approaches to education, I have never heard a student refuse to hand in work “because they pay the wages of the teacher”.”

      Neither have I, they just wanted to hand in at a convenient time for them, usually after other students had been given there work back or the answer scheme has been made available.


      • Augustine of Hippo:

        I’m sure that you are right that some of what I observed could have to do with the difference between humanities and other subjects. And of course I entirely agree with your comments about the educative value of pointing out errors and using them as the basis for correction and explanation.

        I’m glad to hear that you have not been marking or been asked to mark international students differently from others. Where you write “International students cannot fail. International students pay a lot of money for their tuition and if we fail them we may not get any more and this will reduce our income” it is certainly easy for the reader to get that impression, especially since you go on to talk about plagiarism as if that were a separate problem: “*also* cause *further* problems”. Indeed, I think that a reader would almost inevitably get the impression that you are suggesting that marking procedures are somehow rigged in favour of international students, even independently of questions to do with plagiarism. I’m glad that you can confirm that this isn’t in fact your experience, especially since loose talk about such matters serves to devalue the good aspects of British university education (it’s a shame for lecturers to risk the value of their own students’ degrees by insinuating that unfairness definitely exists where all that can really be substantiated is the existence of a risk or a suspicion, if that).

        I agree with you that the concept of student as paying customer is a dangerous one. All the same, I find it hard to believe that students wanting to hand in work at their own convenience rather than that of the lecturer is a new phenomenon since fees were introduced (or that it would disappear if fees were removed). I imagine that it also happens in state-funded schools, where fees are not charged…

        Still, saying that it happens “because they pay the wages of the teacher” enhances the “everything-going-to-hell-on-a-handcart” feeling, which was doubtless the point. By the way, has it actually happened to you that the students demanded good grades by actually citing the fact that they had paid for them, or is that also merely an interpretation of the fact that (strangely enough) the students would prefer that we give good grades rather than bad ones?


        • “Where you write “International students cannot fail. International students pay a lot of money for their tuition and if we fail them we may not get any more and this will reduce our income” it is certainly easy for the reader to get that impression, especially since you go on to talk about plagiarism as if that were a separate problem: “*also* cause *further* problems”.”

          Yes it was the case that international students could not fail. This was not done through rigging the marking, which was what I was addressing from your post previously.

          As a serious example, it was often the case that some international students would book flights home before they sat exams and would not return. They would get a passing grade even though they never turned up to the exam.

          The other trick was group work, where they would pair incredibly weak, sadly the majority were international students, with the strongest students in the year. The group work would be enough of their degree so that unless the group got a first, even the strongest students would get a 2:1 in the majority of cases. This then meant that the best students did all the work ensuring they got their grades and pushing the international students up as the work was marked as a group.

          Also, lecturers were told directly that international students could not be allowed to fail because of the money they bring in. Thankfully, the majority of staff just ignored this.

          “By the way, has it actually happened to you that the students demanded good grades by actually citing the fact that they had paid for them, or is that also merely an interpretation of the fact that (strangely enough) the students would prefer that we give good grades rather than bad ones?”

          I have had students come up to me after receiving their work back and say I paid for my degree and you *have* to give me a first on this assignment.

          There are positive points to having students pay tuition fees. For one it forces them to push the university departments for better teaching and more student contact time. This is very likely to have a positive effect on the teaching given to undergraduates which can only be a good thing.


          • Thanks for clarifying. So: not rigging the marking of scripts, but of other exam elements.

            “Also, lecturers were told directly that international students could not be allowed to fail because of the money they bring in. Thankfully, the majority of staff just ignored this.”

            So: could they fail, or not?!

            I’ve read of groupwork problems of this kind before, though I’ve had no such experience myself. Why did your externals allow you to examine in ways which (by your own account) you were incapable of marking fairly? I find this really surprising… How do you explain to a student or external how you are generating marks for individuals out of the groupwork?

            I think we may be running into differences between disciplines again… I haven’t encountered the situations you describe: you make me feel unsure whether I should regard you as exaggerating for shock effect, or myself as more of a naive innocent than I usually perceive myself as being! Surely this system consistently pulls all good students down and all bad students up: i.e., it would be just as unfair if you had no international students? I would expect to run into trouble if more than a small proportion of assessment were un-external-able (e.g., oral presentations): I’m sure we couldn’t get away with the situation you describe, even if we wanted to…


          • ““Also, lecturers were told directly that international students could not be allowed to fail because of the money they bring in. Thankfully, the majority of staff just ignored this.”

            So: could they fail, or not?!”

            The university would not let them fail. The final sentence needs the extra point in my above quote was actually to do with marking international students work in a different way to non-international students. Sorry about that.

            Sadly, the senate would not allow an international student to be ratified with a failed degree, if that is the right terminology.

            “Why did your externals allow you to examine in ways which (by your own account) you were incapable of marking fairly?”

            Something I do not know the answer to.

            “How do you explain to a student or external how you are generating marks for individuals out of the groupwork?”

            Thankfully, I have never been involved in that situation. One student I know complained to his head of department and was told they would not give him a degree for complaining about this if he took it any further.

            “Surely this system consistently pulls all good students down and all bad students up: i.e., it would be just as unfair if you had no international students?”

            Yes. That said it was only introduced, in some courses, when the university got a large percentage of international students in attendance.

            It was mainly a coping mechanism for helping some students who could barely write or speak English.

            “I would expect to run into trouble if more than a small proportion of assessment were un-external-able (e.g., oral presentations)”

            I am quite surprised as I know language students, for example, have a large part of their final year mark being oral presentations.

            I certainly had to give oral presentations as part of dissertations I did as an undergraduate, which counted towards the final mark.


      • I have never been told to pass substandard student work. But then again I don’t need to be told because my superiors have made clear to me that the retention and progression of students is a priority. That usually does the trick.


  9. I believe that in general the educational system is in dire straits – and I’m therefore very happy that Mr Simonides has put some of the misconceptions right. As a practicing teacher, his experiences must be given considerable weight. But there are a whole of ills other than the ones that Mr Simonides reliably informs us may not exist.

    Should we wish to do something truly practical about the educational system’s ills, I want to suggest that this ‘prose mode’ debate will not take us very far, because we tend to simply go ’round and ’round the mulberry bush – see the fate of almost every debate conducted using standard prose mode arguments: I suggest we use something I call ‘prose + structural graphics’ (p+sg), where the ‘structural graphics’ help to clarify important relationships that are left generally ambiguous in conventional prose. I’m NOT claiming that we’ll instantly step into a utopia of sorts using p+sg, but we will do away with much of the fruitless debate that takes us nowhere. P+sg will enable us to develop effective action plans to accomplish our clearly identified Missions, like “creating effective educational to meet the real needs of the 21st century”.

    Elsewhere I have provided more information about these practical tools that could help us deal with the real ills of the educational system more effectively than we have seen to date. Check out a couple of recent contributions of mine to the “Guardian Community” 14 Feb 2010, 2:39AM – link here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/feb/14/anthony-seldon-great-education-debate .

    The process I recommend demands a small amount of learning (and a fair bit of ‘unlearning’) before one can use it on practical issues faced – but it does help clarify complex issues very significantly all round.

    GSC


  10. This might be of interest…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/10/universities-standards-blair-target


  11. Thanks for the above link. I think Alderman isn’t far of the mark in his argument.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,324 other followers

%d bloggers like this: