August 9, 2014

New Zealand agricultural education. 4. Better ways needed for learning

By Dr Clive Dalton

What’s memorable?
I often ask farmers after they’ve been to a talk or lecture how it went.  ‘Good good’ is always their reply.  Then when I ask what they learned or if there was a key message – I can bet that their regular reply will be  - ‘not a lot, or not really, but it was a good meeting’.  That confirms that the main benefit was social, and not educational.

I often suggested that the best way to run a scientific conference would be to wait till everyone had gathered before announcing that no papers would be read, because they were in the pre-published proceedings sent out beforehand.  Then everyone could sit around talking to each other, as most of the benefit of going to scientific gatherings is to chat during meal times and in the evenings.

I used to run sessions to help MAF staff who had to get their messages across to farmers at conferences and field days. We always started off by asking participants to name a memorable speech and a memorable speaker.  It was amazing how hard this was.  Most had to think long and hard, and even back to their school days to remember anyone, which tells you a lot about communication skills and information retention.

One Indian scientist colleague on the course recalled listening to the inspirational Pundit Nehru, while hanging on a tree branch among the millions gathered listening for four hours.  He never felt the pain in his arms till he fell off when Nehru ended.

The clear conclusion for participants was that it was the speaker’s ‘performance’ before the message. It has been well researched that it’s not the information given in a talk which is memorable, but the passion with which it is delivered.  How many hours of other peoples’ lives have passionless speakers wasted?

Stupid tests and exams
As students, we were tested to death, supposedly to see what we had learned (remembered) by regurgitating it to pass exams. We used to ‘cram’ for exams, knowing that as soon as we left the exam room, there would be a mighty emptying of our brains of stuff that we would never need again in our lives, and if we did, we could always look it up again. 

Now we Google it, so what do exams and tests tell you about a person’s learning?  But this question is too revolutionary to be talked about, and there’s little chance of teaching organisations in their current format changing. 

But there may be a faint glow of light since computers have been established in some (sadly not all) primary schools where children have laptops and tablets, and the benefits are now moving through into high schools.

As students, we soon learned that exams were not the place to express our own views or opinions that differed from the lecturer’s.  Lecturers/tutors don’t like students that are brighter than they were as students. I saw a lot of this when marking exams in my University lecturing days.

Failure was our fault
If we failed exams, then it was our fault, and never that of the teacher or their methods. A third year University student recently told me that her class couldn’t understand one seniour tutor’s accented English, but the class dare not complain – it was their problem not his.  So think of how many hours of students’ time (and fees) he wasted over the years that he was employed, with nothing done about it.  The students would all have been better learning on their own via the Internet.

 A University professor recently told me that she was concerned that on-line learning was causing fewer students to come to class – which she said was important for social interaction.  Social interaction is certainly important, but could her problem not be that her students considered they learned more on line than having to listen to lectures, and why was this not blatantly obvious?

The way lecturers/tutors have judged their teaching success is by exam or test results. This is a highly dangerous assumption, as material regurgitated in exams may not be an accurate measure of what people have actually learned and retained, as there are so many well-known tricks to pass exams.  A few of these will easily get you the 50% needed for a pass, and at a 50% pass mark, you may have learned or retained nothing of value, but enough to pass the exam. 

It doesn’t bear thinking about what we’ve crammed into our heads at school and in higher education that was never of any use in our lives. Sadly as we age, some of this stuff is more memorable that what day of the week it is!  I remember our entomology lecturer insisting that we should learn the names of all the veins in a fly’s wings – presumably to pass his stupid exams to preserve his arrogant reputation and ego.

 Fudging exam results
Then there’s the trick of ‘scaling’ test results, which has saved many a lecturer’s reputation – mine included.  The normal policy is that an agreed percentage of students have to fail, but if most of the class fails, then you do a bit of fudging to scale up the marks to get to the accepted level through.  The accuracy of marking can be really worrying– but rarely admitted.  Three of us once marked the same papers at University and gave vastly different marks.  We never did that again, as the shock was too embarrassing!

Formal testing and exams always have a time limit, which is grossly unfair for anyone who has literacy/numeracy problems, as they end up being heavily penalised.  This would not happen if tests were done via the Internet, and where learners were allowed to use any resources needed – because it’s stupid to test learners’ memories.  You need to test understanding and what’s relevant and what’s not for a situation. 

So-called ‘open book tests’ are a stupid idea, with a time limit.  If you know the answer, you don’t need the book, and if you don’t, you haven’t time to find it.

Get rid of Methuselahs
Tutors/lecturers need to be forced to move on after short intervals – and if they won’t, they should be shifted, recycled or retired.  ‘Move on or move out’ should be the policy after a stint of say 10 years at most, with a teaching limit age limit of 55 or less.

Tutors in higher education should only be allowed to stay if they were rigorously checked, and judged as star communicators by their fee-paying clients (students).  Exam results should never be the measure of proficiency.

So many old Universities, including the one I studied at and the one I lectured at, were totally inbred, where their students had stayed on to be appointed as say lab or farm assistants, then lecturers, and then professors and then Heads of schools and Deans.  They knew nothing of agriculture in other areas of Britain or of other countries, and kept new young blood out and were determined never to retire.

We must avoid having what so many school leavers doing Ag courses, considered their tutors to be Methuselahs boring them to death. When you are 16, someone in their 30s is  ancient, and anybody with grey hair is a dinosaur. The older tutor/lecturer who can excite young learners, earn respect and ‘light a fire’ to burn for the rest of their days is very rare bird indeed. 

Thankfully in my UK University days I had a legend – New Zealander Prof Mac Cooper.  He rarely wrote on the board, sat on a table in front of us and just talked (yarned) about the aspects of farming he was covering that day.  He provided knowledge, enthusiasm and a ‘passion’ for farming – and thinking back, those are the keys to what we students remembered.  We spent little time taking notes, and he set challenging exam questions to test our knowledge, and not what we had learned to regurgitate.  We were so lucky and our hearts bled when he died, fortunately after a reasonably long retirement!

Sadly, everybody who has suffered tertiary education can quote examples of lecturing disasters. We lived in hope that we gleaned enough to pass their exams, and by making guesses from the old exam papers of what was likely to recycle this coming year.

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