Perception or Performance: Which Measure Should Count in Education Reply

Do we rely on students to tell us when they have had a quality educational experience or do we measure performance and test if students really learned what they think they have?

This question hit home as I read about “flipping” a class in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s recent updates.  Flipping is in effect asking students to discover/learn concepts and models on their own and then solving problems during class when the professor can correct errors.  In effect, flipping puts traditional homework in the classroom, and lecture-style learning at home.  We have “flipped” the traditional model.

Part of what captured my attention was the student resistance to a learning method which shows some promising results.  While some students love a flipped class, others do not.  The active learning process has generated some rather vigorous and vocal student resistance.  While there is no such thing as a perfect learning technique, the following quote from the chair of Harvard’s physics department really struck home.

But her chief critique is based on the intensity of students’ responses. The average score on a student evaluation of a flipped course is about half what the same professor gets when using the traditional lecture, she says. “When the students are feeling really bad about required courses, it doesn’t seem like a good thing.”

When you challenge students to play a more active role in their education, your teaching evaluations can go down (sometimes considerably).  Do we pursue what seems to be in the best long term interest of our students, future employers, and learning? Or, do we pander for the better teaching evaluations from students?  Perhaps I overstate the case and provoke, but let’s not be naive and think that some faculty would not game the system in pursuit of higher teaching evaluations.  I see it every semester and have been coached on how to do it

To this Prof. Mazur has a succinct response.

Liking the class is ultimately beside the point, Mr. Mazur says. He says his results from using peer instruction show that, on the force concept inventory, nonmajors who take his class outperform physics majors who learn in traditional lectures.

“You want students to like class, but that’s not the goal of education,” Mr. Mazur says. “I could give them foot massages and they’d like it.”

But to have success with flipping, or most any other active approach to learning, there must be a surrounding institutional system that says the students’ learning is more important than some number at the end of a class.  I feel this is especially applicable at the undergraduate level.  Peer evaluation of teaching and other forms of teaching and learning evaluation would make better sense.  

Looking at a number or two is a lot easier, without a doubt.

Add to this educational systems which continually seek out students who year on year dislay greater success in the passive educational model.  Suddenly we ask them to take a risk and embrace active education?  Well, in my view, absolutely!  If they have demonstrated their mastery of passive approaches then it is time to move on.  But we have ample evidence (think Argyris and deep learning) to show that increased success breads resistance to risk and change.

The questions are fascinating for Singapore.  With the push for greater productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship and overall better output from educational institutions…I should think the desire to pursue such promising leads would be strong.  Perhaps if only we first figure out how to deal with the fear bred by previous successes (of which we should rightly be proud).

Meanwhile, here is a new resource (call it the alpha version) I am creating.


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