Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reinventions: Undergraduate Education

Here's a video of my six-point plan for reinventing undergraduate education.

For those who'd rather just read the transcript of the video, it appears below.

Undergraduate Education
by Marty Nemko
(transcript of the above video)

In this video, I present my proposal for how to reinvent higher education. From Time to the New York Times, higher education is finally being called to task for its ever worsening value added. Students and families spend fortunes and so many don't graduate. A major study out of the University of Chicago, Academically Adrift, found that almost half of those who graduate grow so little in writing, reading, critical thinking and so on. So many of those students are able to only find a job they could have gotten without college. But these criticisms of higher ed ar e usually accompanied by only the vaguest or palliative of suggestions for improvement. Here, I present a six-point plan for higher education's reinvention:

1. Colleges should be required to post a Report Card on itself. If each car tire is required to mold its treadline, temperature, and traction rates into its sidewall, should not colleges, one of our largest and most important purchases be required to post their graduation rates and learning growth amounts, broken down by student high school record? Shouldn't colleges be required to report the percentage of graduates within each major who are professionallly employed within a year of graduation? A substantive college report card prominent posted would enable students, counselors and families not only to pick the right college but to decide, if for that student, a wiser path might be a community college, an apprenticeship, a military, or on-the-job training, for example, learning how to run your own business at the elbow of a successful and ethical entrepreneur. After all, according to the U.S. Dept of Education, of the 200,000 students that so-called four year colleges admit each year, fewer than 1 in four graduate even if given 8 1/2 years. And of those who graduate, most do so with a very low GPA in a major unlikely to excite many employers, for example, sociology, physical education, or art rather than computer science, accounting, or engineering. A College Report Card is the least we can do--ensure informed consent for the consumer.

2. There should be two categories of professors: teaching professors and research professors. Universities find it more economical to have their professors do both, but the skills and interests required to teach the typical undergraduate are orthogonal to, the opposite of what's required to do publishable research. Teaching faculty should be selected and promoted on how well they can be transformative, inspirational instructors of undergraduates , not how well they can write a research proposal on the arcana that gets funded, of interest mainly to a few dozen other theoretically oriented PhDs.

3. All existing teaching faculty should be required to successfully complete a teaching bootcamp, consisting in part of master instructors videoing each participant teaching and providing individualized feedback. Any teaching faculty member who subsequently has a year of average student evaluations below a 4 on a 5 point scale should be required to successfully complete a remedial teaching bootcamp.

4 General education courses are the 10 to 15 courses that most colleges require to help ensure a well-rounded education, but which most students view as "courses to get out of the way." While it's true that life should be informed by the wisdom embeddeed in typical general educartion courses such as philosophy and literature, in fact, most young people simply cannot be convinced of that, so poor attendance, cheating, inattention, and minimal learning is more the norm than the exception. Rather than going through the motions, realism dictates that we revise the general education curriculum to focus more on issues of more immediate concern to the vast majority of undergraduates: public speaking, financial literacy, practical problem solving, entrepreneurship, practical ethics, interpersonal communication, career-finding and job-landing, etc.

5. Use Dream-Team-Taught courses. Especially for widely taught and difficult courses such as calculus and organic chemstry, the U.S. Dept of Education should fund development of highly-interactive, immersive courses team-taught on video, disseminated online by a dream team of the nation's finest instructors. The courses would be made available free to all colleges. This would save the colleges money, enabling them, hopefully, to lower tuition, and more important would ensure that all students from the most poorly funded college to Harvard would receive world-class instructor. A university could elect to provide a professor or teaching assistant on site to provide the personal touch or allow students to complete the dream-team-taught courses at home, thereby saving the need for classroom buildings and/or allowing colleges to serve more students with minimal additional expense.

6. the notion of the traditional country-club-like campus is obsolte. Not only does it contribute to enormous cost, it is to the green values espoused on most universities. I believe that most campuses could be shrunk by 80% with little or no loss in quality of experience, perhaps even a gain. In addition to the aforementioned dream-team-taught courses, which students could complete at home, in-person classes could be taught in professors' homes that sit vacant while professors trek to campus, try to find parking spots on campus, etc. Instead of building expensive swimming pools, big, expensive shrub-filled campuses, utlize pools at with local community centers, hotels, and so on. Campuses could be quite compact, consisting of just a streamlined administration building to accommodate a streamlined administration, a student activities building for student club meetings, concerts, and so on, and a reduced number of classroom buildings.

To summarize, the six points in my plan to reinvent higher education are: 1. Require all colleges to prominently post a College Report Card. 2. Have separate faculty for teaching and for research. 3. Require all faculty to successfully complete a teaching bootcamp. 4. Revise general education courses to reflect the content that most undergraduates are open to learning. 5. Use Dream-team-taught courses: Courses taught on interactive video, disseminated online by a dream-team of the nation's finest instructors, with an in-person teaching assistant locally to provide the human touch. 5. Streamline the enormously costly country-club campuses, which would enable colleges to cut student costs of attending dramatically. That's my reinvention of higher education. Thanks for watching. I'm Marty Nemko.


Anonymous said...

My two (or 6) cents:
Point 1 - great idea
Point 2 - good idea, possibly. As an MD/PhD student myself who has worked in several labs, I have actually come to the conclusion that, rather than selecting teachers for teaching and researchers for research, we should by trying to teach researchers more about teaching as a discipline, and selecting researchers who are naturally good at it. Personal expertise and teaching are sometimes 'orthogonal' to one another, as you suggest. However, running a successful research group (and more and more of today’s research requires collaboration within and even between GROUPS) requires MANY of the same skills as teaching. It actually has relatively little to do with the subject itself. Poor teachers often run dysfunctional research groups for the same reasons they do not teach well. A major problem is the narrow-mindedness you discuss, the focus on arcana and detachment from the ‘real world.’ Are these the brilliant minds who make important connections between diverse fields where others would not have seen them? Usually not. They are the ones who slowly grind out the next piece of minutiae in another molecular pathway only 100 people have heard of. The best researchers are usually exceptionally good at putting their own work in a broader context, and understanding what skills and knowledge are most important for those entering the field in its current form. These people are exactly the folks who should be teaching our undergrads, and most of them will enjoy doing it. I am not against the idea of full time teaching faculty, but the best solution to the problem is simply to get better teachers in research positions (and to train researchers to teach when they are younger)…both fields will benefit.
point 3 – I agree with you overall. However, student evaluations do not always lead to the best outcomes. For example, teachers may choose to make courses easier (i.e. teach to the bottom of the class, a practice you have often lamented) in order to get higher evaluation from happy students. If their jobs depend on this, you can hardly blame them. While student evals are important, I would place at least as much weight on peer review and student *performance*.

Anonymous said...

To finish up:
Point 4- these are things people’s parents should be teaching them. I had these skills as a young teenager, and would have found it incredibly boring to sit through what would inevitably be a patronizing class on ‘life’. If students are really so lacking in intellectual curiosity that they see no benefit in learning anything that is not directly tied to how much cash they can rake in when they graduate, then something is terribly wrong in this country (and it probably needs to be addressed earlier in education that college). Either that, or too many people are going to college. Let me make clear that I believe there is an absolute TON of useless material taught in college (e.g. memorizing facts that can be looked up faster than one can recall them). However, the benefits of a broad education are not necessarily immediately ‘tangible’, but they have far-reaching consequences nonetheless. If you create a culture in which curiosity is secondary to immediate gain, you will end up with very unimaginative, unadventurous, and close-minded young adults. To be blunt, let’s not give in to one of the least admirable average qualities of the college-aged generation in this country. We already had one president who seemed proud of himself simply for having read ‘a Shakespeare.’ We should be doing everything we can to avoid making that the status quo. As a general comment on the idea that students are not ‘open’ to certain idea, I believe this is due to bad teaching. I cannot tell you the number of times a good teacher convinced me that something I ‘hated’ previously was actually really cool and worth learning. A good teacher can make almost anything interesting if he can show students how it relates to their lives. We should not base our curriculum on the prejudices of people who have been on this earth less than 20 years.
Point 5- Great idea…but I am sure that universities will fight it to the death. It messes up their whole business model ;) There is also the issue of valuable interactions that take place in classrooms (this holds for science/math courses as well). I don’t actually think this outweighs the benefits of your ideas, but it is something to consider, especially with the facebook generation.
Point 6 – point taken, but if students study as hard as they should be, having a bit of the ‘country club’ amenities available is a well-deserved and therapeutic respite which I am happy I had available during my studies.

Jason C said...

Those are all great ideas, Marty.

Perhaps with that extra money saved, schools could actually provide counselors that make a difference in student lives. When I went to a CA state college, I was never assigned a counselor, nor was I ever made aware if any were available to me. Counselors need to tell students the straight truth they may not want to hear. Students need to hear their choice of a theater arts major will probably never be worth the money they paid for it. Theater arts has a place in this world but students deserve to be informed about the risks of their choices. All too often student have been told things like, "Psychology majors are in demand in a diverse number of fields" or "The fact that you have a degree will distinguish you in the workforce". Phrases like these placate, they don't inform. I truly believe schools are afraid of telling students the truth about their choices in coursework. Who would ever choose a theater arts major if your report card stated something like:
"Percentage getting a job related to field of study: 1%"
"Average earnings of students with this major a year after graduation: $15,000"

Information like that could kill a whole department very quickly.

Marty Nemko said...

I actually think that, taught well, theatre is one of the more useful majors. Of course, your chances of making a decent living IN theatre is very poor but the chances of gaining SKILLS useful in a wide range of careers is greater than in most majors. You learn public speaking, life's universals from studying again and again a single script, teamwork, etc., etc., etc., And it's fun.

Dave said...

Colleges and universities don't do justice to Shakespeare and other classic works from 'dead white men'. Left-of-Lenin academics focus on literary criticism and only literary criticism. I read Shakespeare in college. Now, fifteen years later, I am reading Shakespeare again; only this time, the dead white man is speaking to me on a whole other level. Take 'Othello' and 'Merchant of Venice': Shakespeare's Venetian plays are chock full of his views on inter-faith and inter-racial societies. Shakespeare did not believe in the idea of a cosmopolitan man. And Venice, though sophisticated and a great economic powerhouse, was not seen through Shakespeare's eyes as a nice place. Maybe academics are afraid their students will think about it and begin to question multiculturalism and other liberal orthodoxies of our own times. Dr. Nemko's "Less Pluribus, More Unum" blog post comes to mind.

Dave said...

QUOTING -- "As an MD/PhD student myself who has worked in several labs, I have actually come to the conclusion that, rather than selecting teachers for teaching and researchers for research, we should by trying to teach researchers more about teaching as a discipline, and selecting researchers who are naturally good at it."



They would never accept it. Undergraduate teaching is seen as a necessary evil.

Marty Nemko said...

First Anonymous,

I think it is much more difficult to try to convert a researcher into a good teacher than to establish a separate track of teaching faculty.

And with regard to your contention that my relevancy-based general education, you argue that students should have learned these at home or in earlier school years as you did, but fact is, especially if we continue to dig ever deeper into the barrel of high school graduates whom we admit to college, we must meet students where they are, not where we wish they would be. In addition, unlike Ph.D students such as yourself, even relatively good students in college are mainly interested in career and having fun. No matter how much you urge them to focus on stochastic processes, hermeneutics, deconstruction of Shakespeare, the opportunity costs are too great.

Anonymous said...

I was not suggesting to "convert" researchers to teachers...I was suggesting making teaching proficiency a requirement for being a professor (i.e. to pick a different set of people), and to offer resources to those who are interested in teaching to learn how to do so better. Like you, I am suggesting to change the current culture, which no doubt will be met with resistance. I am a researcher. I work with researchers all day. The best ones are good teachers already, and usually enjoy teaching (it is false that all professors view teaching as a necessary evil) and sharing knowledge with others (therefore, they also write papers that other people can actually understand). Many people who would be good researchers and good teachers choose other fields specifically because of the current atmosphere in academia, which is often self-centered, isolating, and competitive. One thing that could significantly change this balance is to put more emphasis on teaching in performance evaluations and tenure decisions. Professors teach poorly because they get no rewards for teaching well, and people who do not like teaching go into research because the current system puts no emphasis on doing it well. Change the system, and you would change people's behavior within it.

Regarding the "meet them where they are" argument, this is fine, just not for college. First, if you agree that people are not learning the set of expected skills prior to college, the place to focus attention is beforehand. By the logic that we should just meet people where they are, everyone should be getting graduate degrees to make up for the fact that their college educations were poor. It would never end. Second, as I mentioned previously, this may simply indicate that too many people go to college, as I think you've said repeatedly. I agree. Education exclusively in 'practical' skills, trades, etc. has traditionally been the purpose of community colleges and vocational schools, and I see no reason why it should not continue to be.

Marty Nemko said...

Most recent Anonymous,

I am utterly convinced that VERY few PhDs are very good teaching. I don't think they KNOW what excellent teaching really is. It's transformational, inspiring, resulting in permanent change in the way students experience the world. Researchers VERY rarely have the temperament, ability, and interest in doing that. As I said, those attributes are pretty orthogonal to those of the researcher. And of course, most universities reward research far more than teaching. And ironically, the more prestigious the university, the more likely that is to be true.

I do agree that we send MANY too many students to college. BUT, even most of those with good high school grades and test scores are far less interested in the ill-founded theories of social science, the difficult but real-world irrelevancies of so much of academic perspectives on the humanities, and the useless, easy-to-forget arcana taught in college-level science and math courses. Universities are recklessly indifferent to student learning desired, hence the obscenely poor freshman-to-senior growth reported in Academically Adrift, and previously, summarized by the Spellings Commission.

Dave said...

QUOTING -- "I am a researcher. I work with researchers all day. The best ones are good teachers already, and usually enjoy teaching (it is false that all professors view teaching as a necessary evil) and sharing knowledge with others (therefore, they also write papers that other people can actually understand)."



I respectfully disagree.

1. I never met a professor that knew how to run a seminar.

2. The courses they "enjoy" teaching are simply components of their own research specialties and nothing more. These courses are a waste of time and money.

They have brainwashed you, my friend.

Dave said...

Dr. Nemko,

There is one thing that students of all stripes have in common when they are ready to leave college: they all look to popular journalism and the works of ephemeral authors for wisdom and knowledge. Four years of the college/university "experience" leaves students bereft of anything that is truly meaningful to take with them. I am sure this was not the case a century ago.

Harrison Grace said...

I just recently graduated from a large public university, and I am acutely aware of many of the shortcomings of higher education. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit I was probably not the average student, I graduated in 4 years with a degree in Biochemistry, and was a part of the university's honors program. Sorry in advance for the incoming wall of text, I hope I can bring some valid points to the discussion.

Before addressing your points, I'd like to agree with the fact that you and other have already brought up: too many people go to college. The bubble is brought about by cultural trends(ie "you have to get a college degree to do anything") pushing more people strait from high school into college and this increased demand is generating many new "universities" catering to people who otherwise wouldn't have gotten into the more established and "prestigious" universities. Like the housing bubble, it now seems that a requisite part of the American Dream requires going to college. Realistically, not everyone is ready strait out of high school, or even ought to be going to college in the first place. College has become a social right of passage and a 4-year party for many. The university legacy of broadening the minds of motivated young-ADULTS(emphasis added) is slowly turning into an extension of public high school: a nanny to watch over you till you get your piece of paper called a degree--all along the way slipping you the bill. Fixing the system has just as much to do with modernizing the academic environment as it does changing the public's attitude and knowledge of what undergraduate education is really for.

1. Good idea, and my own personal research into these factors was one part of my decision. The university I attended is one of the top in the nation in regards to 1st year retention and overall graduation. My initial interest was in psychology, but upon realizing that this was by far the university's(and nationwide as well) most common major, I elected to turn to a more rigorous path. Unfortunately it seems, most other incoming students nationwide don't do the same research and end up buying into majors that will never pay them back at schools that probably don't care about educating them.

2. This is a tricky concept. You are absolutely correct that many professors are poor teachers, but at least within my experiences it didn't seem as dire as you suggest. The problem is that due to funding issues, many schools are even replacing faculty tought classes with TA'd classes. The prospect of hiring an entire second set of professors is not going to fly in the current fiscal environment. I agree with Mr.Anonymous that the best realistic solution would be to incorporate more teaching training into PhD education. Northwestern University's PhD department commits a significant part of their curriculum to this. Likewise, a demand from universities in hiring post-docs with teaching experience and skills would help increase the demand and availability of such training programs.

3. Great idea. The previously mention solution would be a long term one. Educational re-training would be nice, but professors are a set-in-their-ways kind of bunch. As far as student evaluations, many students care more about getting grades then they do learning, so tough-love, good teachers may be punished for refusing to grade inflate.

Harrison Grace said...


4. Those "practical" courses should definitely be more widely available, as should improvements in the student counseling system be made. However, just because many students see liberal arts core-curriculum as 'boring'/hard/useless, does not mean that it is obsolete. AS mentioned before, 18-20yo's nowadays have no real idea whats good for them, and left to their own desires would much rather study beer-pong and reality-TV show appreciation. Having a basic grasp of science, math, English, history, philosophy, logic and critical thinking is necessary for any major and should be a requisite of any college graduate. Far too many people in our society already suffer from poor logic, a lack of historical grounding, and a poor understanding of how science and statistics actually work.

5/6. This might work at some smaller, budget minded inner city schools, but the physical presence and environment of the undergraduate experience is, imo, one of the most important aspects. The ability to directly interact with professors, either during/after class or in their office, was one of my most treasured resources. Even in 300 person lecture classes, motivated students have many opportunities for face-face interaction. This is priceless for both learning and networking(another often overlooked purpose of undergrad). Distance learning and commuter schools suffer no matter how good the virtual instruction is. As far as campuses go. The verdant, rolling campus of the University of Georgia, was one of my favorite parts. The numerous libraries, classrooms, student centers, etc provided important and much used study and meeting spaces for the students. The undergrad experience is more than what information is taught, but the physical environment too. Networking with peers and faculty throughout that environment is perhaps the single most important aspect of my college experience.

Long story short, I understand the need for change in higher education, and recognize the the anecdotes of me and my friends from a few universities is not representative of the whole system. Still the source of these problems may lie just as much with the consumer as it does the insitituin. Prospective college students need to be smarter and take these decisions as investments. If you cant get into a school that offers a quality education, you probably should start looking at other career choices. If you cant afford to pay for said school, then either look at other options or take a few years to work, mature, and establish yourself before continuing on your education. Their are alot of myths out there about higher education: the Ivy league "quality education", the idea that if you don't go to college strait out of HS you're a failure, the profitability of "doing what you love", etc.

Marty Nemko said...

Grace, thank you for your thoughtful comments. A few responses:

1. I am not advocating hiring additional faculty, I am advocating that much of the research done is known, apriori, to almost certainly be not worth the amount of money it costs to fund it. So those positions should be converted to positions in which the ability to be a transformational teacher is primary.

2. I agree that, in theory, that which can be learned from a liberal arts education is invaluable. Alas, too many liberal arts instructors focus too much on the arcana within their discipline rather than on helping students become better, more full-dimensioned thinkers, writers, citizens, etc. Exacerbating the problem, even when well taught, most undergraduates blow those courses off as "the GE's I gotta get done with" and thus, don't come to class, download their term papers from the Internet, cheat on tests, etc., thereby gaining way too little from the course to justify the time, money, and opportunity costs--for example, a course in what they're eager to learn about, such as one-on-one communication. Truth is, most people are most eager to get a liberal arts education when they're much older. I myself, who have always loved learning, find myself at age 61, far more eager to take liberal arts courses (which I download from the Teaching Company's superlative collection) than when I was an undergraduate.

You assert that the cost of country-club-like campuses is justified. Of course, they're lovely but the cost-benefit just isn't there--Most students just can't afford them. If they knew how much money they were paying for those ivy-covered buildings and lush lawns, I daresay most of them would prefer to be on a minimal campus and keep the money in their pocket.


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