End of year review – was it a waste of time?

In the ideal college environment, all the students pass with flying colours, learning and achieving copious amounts of knowledge and skills as well as the ability to apply and use these skills.  Lecturers proceed with ease through the year and end it with a sense of much satisfaction concerning the achievements of their charge.

But the world is not ideal.

There is plenty of research to indicate that teaching and learning needs to change. The annual Horizon report reminds us that learners want to be active in their own learning and offer a range of tools to assist in this. Put more bluntly, is college a waste of time?  The arguments put forward by Mixerergy are as follows, with my commentary in italics:

  • It creates corporate drones

Students lose their independence and become pawns of whatever company pays them enough to help make payments on their debt.  In the light of increased debate about university fees in Ireland, this is a controversial one. Nonetheless, sweeping statement like don’t help anyone, least of all the graduates who want to and are able to contribute in a constructive and effective way to their new employers.

  • What it teaches is out of date by the time students graduate

This is very much dependent on the subject domain. Some domains (e.g. accountancy, perhaps?) change very little year on year. Others (internet marketing, perhaps?) change a lot. Taking another perspective, isn’t it important that students obtain an appropriate grounding so that they can then go with the flow and thereby are capable of adapting to change as change happens in their domain. In my opinion, this is arguably more important than knowing every little (or even large) fact in that domain.

  • It doesn’t teach the way people learn

People learn by doing, not by sitting in a class and being lectured to.  This implies that college is all passive learning and students have no opportunity to practice what they learn. I’m not a fan of the large group lecture (I’ve blogged about this previously) but fortunately I also have opportunities to facilitate and scaffold student construction and development of their own ideas through project work and small-group tutorial classes.

  • Four years of information is too much to retain

Students end up cramming as much information about a class as they need for to do well on a test and they forget almost all of it after they finish a semester. Unfortunately, the grades-based education system as it is now encourages such learn-it-all off-and-write-it-all-down-in-the-exam modes of study. Nonetheless, such study techniques won’t get a student high grades. Yet, it continues to happen. We need to ask why students persist in such study modes when they know they are satisfying only one goal (getting that passing grade) but not another (true learning). Perhaps, the students’ preferred goal is not the lectuers’ preferred goal?

  • The truth is that college is one big party

The under-graduate college years are pivotal for a student. It’s their transition from parent dependency to personal independency. Personal development, growth of self awareness, experimentation with social structures and events that might have been out of bounds previously are critical here. We need to encourage students to strike a balance between the study part and the social part of their college life.  An excess of partying means a student is unlikely to get beyond first year. A college year spent in the library results in an unfortunately one-dimensional students.


So, what’s the answer

Mixenergy suggests letting students work on real projects, and give them experienced mentors that they can turn to for answers and advice.

In reality, what organisation might let amateurs with little experience and even fewer skills loose on any project of theirs?  Employers may be willing to take a chance on this on a small scale but that’s likely to be it. Any more and they risk spending far too long and too much training up the students in the skills and know-how required for the job.

How many mentors might there be per student? Ideally this should be small. But such a structure has resource and cost implications. One of the reasons large size classes are still with us is simply because because they are cost-effective.

Mixenergy raises some interesting issues. Students are different now then in a pre-net generation. They grow up in a technological world that provides different mental models, ways of processing information, shorter attention spans (for more traditional media types) and personal interests that are far removed from those of their pre-decessors. As a result, engaging students with traditional ways of teaching and learning is limited.

The problem is that such ways and methods are so embedded in our institutions that they are very difficult to break out of. We have a wealth of technologies with potential to reach and engage students (see the Horizon report again). Unfortunately, lecturers with an interest in deploying these tools are faced with many obstacles such as the over-emphasis on grades and traditional exams, not to mention institutional policies and procedures that dominate most educational institutions today that (sometimes, inadvertently) work against novel and innovative ways of active student engagement.


Yet, we persevere!  Giving up is simply not an option.


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Posted on July 6, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very detailed response. Thanks for considering it so carefully.

    Still, I have to say that college was a waste of time for me. And I know there are others out there with the same experience. We would have learned more by creating something of our own than learning in the current environment.

    By the way, small typo. My site is called “Mixergy.”

    Thanks again for the well-developed ideas.

  2. Oops, apologies for the typo Mixergy.

    Hope college wasn’t totally wasteful for you. There are as many ways of learning as there are learners. Unfortunately, formal education is constrained into being able to accomodate only some of them. I’m agreed that the passive approach doesn’t work for me either.

  3. Thanks. I agree with you fully on that.

    Seems naive, but when I was 18, I thought there was just 1 responsible option: go to a traditional college.

    After graduating, i realized it’s not the only option, and it’s not always the most responsible option.

    Glad you’re growing the conversation around this subject.

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