Exams In the Summer Term: The Optimal Option?

Most universities in the United Kingdom apply what is called the “trimester-structure”: the division of the academic year into a Michaelmas, Lent and Summer Term. In general, although this differs per program and per university, it is the case that by far most of the examinations are due in the Summer Term. The question is: is this the optimal educational structure? There are, I think, at least two main problems with the structure as it is currently being applied: one regarding its didactic implications, and one regarding its (in)efficiency.

Let’s start with the didactics. As numerous scientific studies have shown, feedback – and especially immediate feedback – are of great importance in the learning of new material. This is because, when mastering new material, it is important to be made aware in an early stage of errors that – if not resolved – might turn into significant problems. And although immediate feedback is part of most lectures and seminars, there’s one crucial area in which this aspect seems to be ignored: examinations. As mentioned before, an intrinsic part of the trimester-structure is that by far most of the examination takes place in the last term (i.e., the Summer Term). This implies that material studied in the first term (Michaelmas Term) gets tested in the third term (Summer Term). It seems reasonable to assume that, in this case, the feedback period between absorbing the material and the material being tested is very long (a couple of months), and therefore lacks the impact it could have upon correcting students’ knowledge.

Besides a didactic argument, one could employ what might be called an “economical” view on studying. Scientific research – from Psychology Today – shows that students have the tendency to study more when the exams get nearer. One could say that the “marginal knowledge-output of learning” is higher when the examination period gets nearer. For now it is irrelevant whether this is due to procrastination on the side of the students, or due to an intrinsic part of human motivation. The fact of the matter is that, when applied to the trimester-structure, this tendency implies that most of students’ studying will take place in the (short) period before the Summer Term. But isn’t this an inefficient usage of both the Michaelmas and Lent Term?

There seems to be an easy way in which the current system could be improved upon (in the light of the aforementioned two arguments). One way would be by moving away from 100% examinations in the Summer Term to – let’s say – 33% exams per term. Another option might be to keep the 100% examination structure in place, but simply create more courses that take up one term only, and test these after the respective term. Besides being optimal from an economic perspective, since students will be studying “at full capacity” all the time, these options would drastically shorten the feedback-period between the absorption of new material and the testing of it, therefore being beneficial from a didactic point of view as well.

In conclusion, it might be worthwhile to take a look at these, and likewise options, to improve upon the educational structure currently applied by many universities in the United Kingdom.

So Little to Say in So Many Words

I just returned from a lecture in Philosophy of Language, which is a course I attend at my university. It’s a course in which the ideas of the “big thinkers” of 20th century analytical philosophy of language are dealt with. And although I find the topic very interesting, I couldn’t help but become annoyed by the overdose of irrelevant digressions of the lecturer. It made my thoughts wander off to a more fascinating – and less annoying – place.

Let me ask you: why do people use so many words while saying so damn little? Why do people seem to think that the most important “thing” in communication is for them to convey their message, and that they should do so regardless of how long their “elucidation” would become? Don’t people see that using more words, especially when saying the same thing in multiple ways, deflates the value of each of the words said? How can we – the listeners – know what’s relevant and what’s not if relevant and irrelevant words are mixed into one act of communication? Don’t people see that the use of more words increases the risk for the totality of words to convey a contradictory message? That more words implies more meanings, and that more meanings implies more opportunity for confusion to arise?

Being succinct in communicating your thoughts is harder than being elaborate. It is as Einstein once put it, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler”. Only by making things simple you can convey the core of what you mean to say. But it is often the fear of the second part of Einstein’s claim (of making things “too simple“) that makes us digress about – what could have been – a very simple idea. We believe that by showing the broadness of our vocabulary, we are able to show our true intelligence. But, to use another quote of Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And that’s completely true. Only in the realms of academia, in which nuance and exceptions should be praised, is the use of “complex” terminology or digressions required – and therefore legitimized. But even then one should try to keep the number of words used at an absolute minimum.

That’s why I decide to end this article at this point. I could have written another 200 words but I don’t think the increase in the value of my message would weigh up against the extra words you’d have to read.

But what do you think?

Renovation of High School Education

What have you actually learned at high school? I mean: not while you were attending high school, but while you were literally physically present at high school? Not that much, right? For the most part, you were just sitting there from 9 AM tot 5 PM, waiting until you could go home and finally start doing something useful with your time: like learning something for instance. But isn’t that a little weird? That you actually want to go home so that you can start studying and really learn something? And what can we do to turn this ineffective high school-picture around?

First of all: we have got to realize why children are learning so little while they are at high school. Maybe it is because children of the high school appropriate age are, besides developing themselves intellectually, learning how to behave themselves in social surroundings. This is a perfectly normal for high school children. It is even required for them to develop themselves socially. However, as you can imagine, it doesn’t necessarily create the right atmosphere for a child to be able to develop themselves on an intellectual level. The distractions are killing them.

Furthermore, the things being done in the classroom are – most of the time – not time or space dependent. Hence they can in principle be done at home. By that I mean that a child doing the algebra assignments from the algebra textbook is not doing something that necessarily has to be done in class. These are individual tasks for which being located in a classroom is in no sense conducive to learning to do the task at hand. That is not to say that children might not have questions they would like to ask a teacher or their fellow class members about. However, the act of questioning in itself is in no way dependent upon the children sitting in a classroom-like configuration for most of their time. There are many other ways – think about e-mailing, Skyping and office hours – by which mandatory presence can be avoided while still giving children the opportunity to ask questions.

As you know, governments worldwide have to cut back on expenses, including educational expenses. So – and you might see where this is going – what about significantly restricting the amount of time children need to sit in class? This could reduce housing costs by having different classes at different times making use of the same classroom. Also, it would mitigate the need for high school teachers, which would neutralize the problem of there being a shortage of them. And – most importantly – it would improve the intellectual environment for children so that they can focus on studying instead of being distracted by their allegedly funny classmates. A win-win-win situation.

Surely, we should not do away with classroom teaching completely. There are cases in which being together in a classroom-setting would be the only – or at least the best – option for children to learn something. Examples would be the development of socials kills through presentations, and lectures that are explicitly intended to convey information to the children. For the remainder of the cases, teaching via the internet might very well be more beneficial for the children’s development. I would like to make you aware of the Khan Academy, which is a free online learning platform to which entire classes can subscribe. By doing so the teachers are able to obtain very detailed information about the performance of each student individually and – consequently – help the ones who need it most. Also, there are plenty of tests and other assignment available in order for children to maximize their learning potential.

So, what do you say? Shall we make the jump?

Teaching Anti-Bully Classes at School

How to prevent bullying?

How to prevent bullying?

Bullying: an ever repeating and all destructing phenomenon. Every year, millions and millions of lives are irreversible damaged. And it is not like bullying is just a temporary problem; a problem that will resolve itself as time goes by. It is structural, in the sense that it seems to be deeply ingrained in human nature. So the question is: what can – and what should – we do about it? Should parents teach their children about the negative consequences of bullying? And what about schools; should they too make a (more profound) effort to stop bullying?

But before we start, let me ask you something. When you look back at your time at school, what are the first memories that come to mind? Is it the Latin vocabulary you were forced to remember in the first year of high school? Is it the utterly useless, but sometimes amusing, gym classes you had to take? Is it the list of historical facts that you had to recall? I can only speak for myself, but I would respond with a firm ‘No’ to each of these questions.

Looking back at my years in school, I can only remember the social bonding we, the children, had. I remember us kids playing together, trading collector-cards and chasing girls. Those are the experiences that – I believe – anyone is likely to remember about his childhood. Those are the experiences that have made you into the person you are today. It is because of these experiences that you have learned that it is not okay to steal someone’s football, and that it is no fun to kick your little brother. It is because of these experiences that you came to know that you were accepted by society. These are the experiences that proved to be truly important later on in your life.

But what if you would not have learned these lessons? What if you would not have learned what it is like to play with friends, trade cards, play hide and seek, or be in any other way involved in the social interactions that are of such great importance in the formation of any child’s identity? These are the lessons that get down to the core of what it means to be a human being. Of what it means to be wandering around on this earth of ours with your fellow species members. And let’s be honest: if you would have missed these lessons in your childhood, do you truly think that your life would have been any better if you would be able to remember the exact year Columbus reached America? I do not think so.

I believe that schools should, next to the regular classes, include a course about social dynamics, in which children are taught how they could – not should – interact with others. A class that teaches children the pros and cons of treating people in a certain way. A class that teaches children what the consequences of being bullied might be in what might very well be the most important years in a person’s self-development. A class that might make use of acting and little role-playing games in which the bully and the person being bullied repeatedly switch roles. Make it realistic. Make it tangible. Make it painful.

Because let me ask you the following: is it fair to put the blame on those that are being being bullied? To urge them to stand up for themselves and promise them that, if they don’t do so, things will only get worse? Is that how you truly help a child? And, on the other hand, can you blame the bullies for bullying if they have never been taught why it is wrong to bully? If they think they are just fooling around and that their behavior is simply the way you should behave among classmates?

Shouldn’t the responsibility lay with the adults? The ones who are supposed to know how to behave? And with the schools, the place at which children are present most of their time? And sure: schools might say that is not their responsibility to teach children how to behave. That it is the parents’s duty. But note that I am not saying that schools should teach children how to behave. I am only saying that schools might teach children what it feels like to be bullied, and what the consequences of this behavior might be. After taking these classes, children are totally free to decide for themselves how they want to behave. And if that doesn’t stop them from bullying, maybe more drastic measures, as in lowering bullies’s grades, might be necessary.

But what do you think? Should schools be more proactive in preventing bullying from happening? Or is it fully the parents’s responsibility to do so? And why?

Are the Exact Sciences being Taught Poorly?

I was relieved when I heard that I passed my final examination for mathematics on high school. Finally…no more need to memorize those nonsensical rules. No more need to study this weird language that, just like French and German, just seemed to make no sense at all. No more frustration. What a relief. That was how I have felt about mathematics, and about the exact sciences in  general, for my entire high school period. But in the last couple of years, I slowly became aware of the beauty of each of these “nonsensical” disciplines. I have read about Einstein’s theory of general relativity and other world-changing ideas that have catapulted our society into the 21st century. And this made me think: are the exact sciences being taught in the wrong manner? Is that maybe why I – and possible many others – couldn’t appreciate their beauty?

The (Dutch) labor market is short of beta-educated people. Why is that? Well, maybe it is because of the manner in which mathematics and physics are being taught at high school. Maybe children are being scared to death in the few years they are at attending high school, so that they promise themselves never ever to study mathematics or physics later on in their lives. That could be an explanation for the fact that the majority of children finishing their high school education start studying law or business, two subjects that aren’t being taught at high school and – therefore – could not have scared away any child (yet).

But there might be many opportunities for making the exact sciences more attractive to children. There are websites like BetterExplained, Khan Academy, Ted-Ed and MinutePhysics that are capable of teaching seemingly dry and formal concepts in a playful and interesting manner. These people have taught me the ideas behind mathematical formulas and the laws of physics governing our everyday reality. I believe that it is a lack of idea-oriented teaching, as being applied by the aforementioned websites, and an overdose of rule-based teaching, as currently being applied at high school, that is what is discouraging many youngsters from choosing to continue their education in the exact sciences.

Another reason why teaching according to the idea-oriented approach might better suit the needs of children, and thus of society, is that the parts of children’s brains required for being able to process abstract information are frequently not fully developed yet in the period they are attending high school. Therefore, even if they wanted to, they might simply be unable to understand what is being taught to them. Concepts like atoms or differentiation are not similar to any everyday experience a child knows of. These abstract concepts might ask a little too much of children’s underdeveloped little brains. And it is this “asking a little too much” that might result in children not understanding the topics and, what seems to be an even bigger problem, not enjoying to learn about them.

But it is not only at high school that rule-based teaching seems to dominate idea-oriented teaching; many university courses also seem to stick to the procedure of “just follow the steps” in teaching students about – for example – mathematics. But what if you go wrong by following these steps? What if you ask your teacher for advice and he says, “Of course you went wrong, you skipped step 6”. How would that contribute to your understanding of mathematics? Not much, right? Is that truly how we want to teach mathematics to students? Given that there seems to be no creativity required for performing these types of calculations, can’t we just let computers do it for us? Then we will at least be sure that no steps will be forgotten, right?

My question to you is: do you also think that the manner in which the exact sciences are being taught today might prevent children from studying them later on in their lives? And do you believe that the manner in which the exact sciences are being taught, whether it is in high school or at university, is wrong from a didactic point of view? I am curious to know what you believe.