This post is based on a discussion with a student about (what else?) unhappiness with marks.
What is the point of an education? Is it to score marks? Or to score a job? Or to better oneself? Or all of the above? And if it is all of the above, is it 33.333% weightage to each? Or are some objectives more important than others?
Now, if it isn’t clear already to long-time readers of this blog, my own personal answers to the questions I listed above have scoring a job and bettering oneself at about 99% weightage, with marks getting – maybe – 1%. There are many reasons for I thinking so, and maybe next Friday’s post could be all about that. But if you, for the moment, accept that the point of an education ought not to be marks maximization, it still begs the question: well then, what instead?
My answer would be: do the work.
Does a course on HTML teach you more, or does building and maintaining a website teach you more?
Does a course on business communication teach you more, or does running a podcast teach you more?
Does a course on statistics teach you more, or does building out a simple Google Sheet about distributions teach you more?
Much more importantly, what is the proof that you have learnt? Marks you score in an exam, or tangible proof of work done that is out for consumption in the public domain? What do you have more fun doing? What teaches you to work better in a team? What teaches you to lead people, and therefore learn perhaps the important life-skill of all?
More people in academia ought to know about project based learning, and when I say know, I mean implement.
Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project-based_learning
No system, anywhere, ever, is perfect. So also with PBL. I’m sure it has its flaws, and having worked on the projects I have linked to above in this past year, I am going to speak about some of these flaws in this post. But I remain convinced that it is a better way to learn. And my conviction is multiplied many times over when it comes to the question of certification: projects over marks, every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
There are many reasons for this, and again, perhaps that is worthy of another post, but the most important one is this one: project based learning is a non-zero-sum game. Examinations are a zero-sum-game.
For me to win (or score well, or do well, or whatever ghastly phrase you want to use when it comes to doing well in an examination), you have to lose. But the successful completion of a project requires that everybody wins – in fact, it’s even better. For you to win as a participant in the project, you have to help others win. You have to persuade, cajole, berate and drive your team members to do their jobs well, in addition to doing your own task well – and you win only when everybody wins.
Which, if you ask me, is a better education than having to constantly look at how well others have done in order to feel satisfied with how well you have done. Plus, either a project has shipped, or it hasn’t. You don’t have to depend upon the subjective assessment of a professor to judge whether it is a job well done or not.
Besides, there is the rather important consideration that a podcast, a website, a Twitter account (and everything else up there submitted as evidence m’lud) benefits its viewers. You may sneer and ask for metrics, but so long as it is more than zero, it trumps your submitted answer sheet.
But there are downsides, to be sure. Of course there are.
PBL teaching takes more time to plan, more curriculum and technology resources, more day-to-day problem solving about how to scaffold student growth and success in their project work, more effort to authentically assess student learning, more communication with persons in the community, more support from the administration in terms of suitable scheduling and curriculum alignment, and more opportunities to collaborate with their teaching colleaguesLee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2), 2.
(The word “more” is italicized in the original every single time. WordPress’ formatting italicizes the whole thing. Sorry.)
In other words, it is expensive. There is a part of me that wants to say so what, but hey, I work in a University, and reality means that this must be a consideration. But how to make PBL more efficient in terms of time and money is – to me – a more worthwhile and pressing challenge than explaining to students why x marks out of y (“when that student got z. And his wasn’t even all that good an assignment!”) actually isn’t that bad.
Second, it is very much dependent on the team working on the program. If there is a change in personnel (that is, the faculty members who are running the show), and sooner or later that is inevitable, the PBL system can break down overnight. It is comparatively easy to set up processes for the efficient conduct of examinations by making personnel irrelevant – but all but impossible to do for PBL. Well, impossible is a strong word, but it’s close enough. How to increase the supply of profs who are willing to work in such a system is a major, major challenge.
Third, and this takes me into what I think are very deep waters: culture. Part of the reason the Sharmaji ka beta meme is funny is because it is true. In certain cases that I personally know of, it is devastatingly, distressingly true. We judge our successes, our children’s successes by asking if our performances were better than everybody else’s. And the more I work in this industry, the more convinced I get that until our culture changes, very little else will.
I, of course, have not the faintest idea about how to change culture. Except, perhaps, through running PBL experiments – which is what I try to do.
And until it (culture) changes, I’ll have to do that part of my job that I detest above all: talking to students about how many marks they scored and why it isn’t all that big a deal.