When an academic decides to write a book, journal paper or article there are many questions that enter the mind: what area to focus on? What evidence to use? What structure to build upon etc.
I can guarantee with some degree of certainty that, when they open up the word processor and begin to write, that there will not be a clock ticking in the background and an absence of notes to guide them. I can also guarantee that they will not have had to rote learn their data or memorise their supporting references. I mean, surely it is logical that a test of memory is far more important than a test of interpretation and critical analysis?
The essays are intended to contribute to the body of knowledge in their field; a piece of work that will be ripped apart by peers which is designed to ultimately show off your academic prowess. But none are expected to be composed from memory, and certainly not to a designated time frame.
The examination of undergraduate students is farcical as a system of assessment. I’ve written at length before about my dismay with the illogical discord between ‘real’ academia and the artificial manufacturing of ‘designer students’ so I won’t dwell on this for too long.
It is counterintuitive to teach our students to be critical thinkers and evaluate sourced evidence to reinforce arguments only to test their aptitude using only the data that they can remember. So I ask a general question: why don’t we, as a sector, work to alter the systems that degrade the quality of the output?
It was with extreme joy that I read in Times Higher Education that by 2012 a Danish university will have taken the risky steps required to allow all students unfettered access to the internet during examinations. As the chief architect rightly says: “What you want to test is problem-solving and analytical skills, and students’ ability to reflect and discuss one particular topic. Internet software would allow lecturers to create tests that were aligned with course content rather than ‘trivia’ quizzes.”
Ms Petersen is absolutely spot on. Academics contractually placed in the role of ‘teacher’ have supplied definitive notes and comprehensive presentation slides to aid the rote learning or information. For too long reading lists have been generated and utilised as essential tools for passing, rather than guides for further experimentation of ideas. The progressive reform of the University of Southern Denmark allows differentiation to easily exhibit itself between those who merely regurgitate standardised responses and those who genuinely grapple and discern the useless from the useful.
For too long the mentality in HE has been that of a production line: x pieces of work at x grade with x number of exam passes = a 2:1 degree certificate. This is part of the rot at the core of the higher education sector. And it must be stopped.
The malaise of hyper-regulated admissions processes not recruiting those genuinely passionate about educational development. The notions of “I’ve paid so I am entitled to get a degree” and “university is for getting a job”. These combined with assessment protocols are choking the ideological power from our collective national intelligence.
The University of Southern Denmark has shown that, although innovative thinking may scare traditionalists, approaches similar to their internet initiatives are crucial to start the mending process and restore the high quality (and now largely mythological) publicly perceived prestige of ‘going to university’.
Can we adapt and improve archaic systems that have been around for hundreds of years? Can we turn our arguably highly educated minds on our own organisations and assess the philosophy behind each of the practices that we use to mark our quality as places of academia?
Schemes with the improvement of critical assessment at their heart should be encouraged and adopted by the global sector at large. The theoretical and ideologically driven desires for a better sector must translate and be applied to real life mechanisms. Otherwise the sector will turn into nothing more than a production line of cloned, identical graduates.