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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Three Myths of The Higher Education

This is one of the two post on higher education,  click on this link for the second one: “A Convenient Lie” or “What Research University Faculty Tell Themselves About Their Teaching”

"Labs are usually very helpful to reinforce concepts". 
That is the quote from one of my student’s feedbacks on one of my courses (more at 
This quote immediately came to my mind when I started to read a piece on introductory physics labs, published in the January 2018 issue of “Physics Today” by Dr. Natasha Holmes and Dr. Carl Wieman. 
The main point of the first half of the paper is that introductory physics labs make, quote: “no difference and measurable benefit” for “enhancing student understanding of lecture content”.
 In other words, students who took labs spent all that time for virtually nothing, because if they would not be taking the labs, they still would end up having the same final learning outcome.
The problem with many labs designed by physics faculty (or, for that matter, by any science faculty) is very "simple" - the majority of the designers, a.k.a. science faculty, do not have theoretical resources related to specific learning sequences and progressions required for mastering fundamental and secondary physics concept (many would not be fully aware of what specific concepts students would need to master; what of those concepts are fundamental, and what are secondary; this post: A Convenient Lie” or “What Research University Faculty Tell Themselves About Their Teaching” stirs a general discussion on teaching at a college and a university level).
As the quote at the beginning of this piece demonstrates, the situation described by Dr. Holms and Dr. Wieman is not applied to students taking my classes. The reason for that is that I have designed my labs specifically to use the labs as a learning instrument which would help students to reinforce the knowledge presented in lectures.
To my advantage, I combine an expert knowledge in physics (M.S. in theoretical physics) and in education (PhD in teacher professional development). This, plus many years of teaching (as described here) helped me to develop laboratory exercises which do help students to get better understanding of the concepts learned in lectures - according to at least some of my students.
I keep all my materials openly available, including lab manuals, so anyone who is interested, please, feel free to check this link: (just scroll down to the lab links).
The more important – and probably a controversial point – is that even when physics labs help students to get better understanding of the theoretical material, it almost does NOT affect their chances to become professionally successful.
It is because a professional success very weekly correlates with the subject knowledge BS or BA graduates take with them when leaving a higher-ed institution. The real professional learning begins after the graduation (at the first job, internship, graduate school).
That is why the actual goal of higher education is NOT equipping undergraduate students with specific knowledge in physics, or, for that matter, in any subject they learn.
The mission of any higher-ed institution is helping people to obtain knowledge and skills required for becoming a highly regarded professional.
But no institution promises that it will help anyone who attends it. 
Higher-ed institutions use their teaching not just help students learn, but also to separates students who can learn from students who cannot.
The function of every higher-ed institution is to be a filter.
This differs greatly higher education from K-12 education (
And this negates the first myth of the higher education, which is the sole goal of the undergraduate higher education is equipping students with specific professional knowledge”.
No doubt, college and university graduates do possess some specific professional knowledge, but that knowledge is the result (a “collateral development”) of the fact that education is being used as a filtering instrument (like a centrifuge is an instrument for separating blood cells from plasma cells - all those cells get spun, but spinning is not the goal of placing them in the centrifuge).
The simplest approximation of this "filter" is "be like I am; do what I say". 
In order to get through the “filter” students need to demonstrate such abilities as:
1.            Following instruction,
2.            Effective time management,
3.            Overcoming monotonous activities,
4.            Overcoming grade-related frustration (i.e. the frustration coming from being judged),
5.            Sufficient memory capacity and attention span,
6.            Sufficient communication skills,
7.            Basic erudition and mental skills,
and some other which should have been developed during the years of K-12 education (but not critical thinking!).
Being able to get through the “filter” and to graduate does not automatically guarantee the future success in life (numerous examples).
Being filtered out does not automatically make a person a failure (also numerous examples, e.g. Steve Jobs).
Let’s repeat one more time: “a professional success very weekly correlates with the subject knowledge graduates take with them when leaving a higher-ed institution”.
Consciously or subconsciously the majority of higher-ed faculty and officials know that.
That is why no institution pays attention to improving faculty teaching approaches more than it is required to demonstrate that the institution pays attention to improving faculty teaching approaches.
Have to say upfront – there is NOTHING wrong with that (
And, of course, that was a hyperbolic statement.
Every administration always demonstrates its support to initiatives targeting learning experience of students, shifting that experience to the better. Every administration also always lets faculty know that intentionally sloppy teaching is not welcome. But that’s usually that.
Theoretically, every institution could have gone far beyond just collecting faculty student evaluations, or could have used the existing evaluations in a much more informative way. But why deflect resources from the primary goal (scientific research) to the goal which essentially make no big difference in students’ future life?
There goes the second myth of the higher education, which is higher-ed institutions do everything they can to improve faculty teaching approaches”.
 Naturally, every institution may have enthusiasts who find the meaning (and time) in trying different teaching strategies, but at the institutional level one can rarely find something more than a sequence of motivational events (“Our guest today will tell us how to …”, or “We welcome faculty to share their experience about …”, or “We welcome faculty to apply for … award”).
This brings us to the third myth of the higher education, which is: higher-ed institutions need significant funds to conduct research on educational practices”.
Research in the field of education as a whole needs to be reassessed and reformatted in accordance with the General Theory of Human Activity
But when we talk specifically about higher education, 96 % of the issues with it (or within it) is the result of the deficiencies or insufficiencies of the pre-higher education level, i.e. the K-12 level.
This is a quote from "decades of reading scores on the NAEP continue to prove that a significant percentage of US students are not reading on grade level. Statistics show that it doesn’t get better for older students; many high school graduates do not possess the literacy skills necessary to obtain post-secondary education or gainful employment."
Clearly, the focus of the research and the funding should be on preparing student to a college.
Circling back to the Dr. Holmes’ and Dr. Wieman’s paper, I would like to present one more quote from it: for laboratory exercises “goals range over the reinforcing content, learning about measurement and uncertainty, practicing communication skills, developing teamwork skills, and, more broadly, learning that physics is an experimental science. Some labs try unrealistically to hit all those targets”.
The word that caught my eye is “unrealistically”.
During a lab, or a lecture, or a discussion section, or any other learning activity, the content knowledge, experimental experience, communication and teamwork skills are being affected whether or not a teacher sets the development of those skills as a specific goal. An educator has to see how his or her actions may affect the development of those skills.
What unrealistic is to set all possible learning goals as equally important.
An educator needs to know that, and be able to develop his or her personal hierarchy of his or her teaching goals (more at
BTW: Good universities attract brilliant faculty.
But only few can find a "raw diamond" and cut it into a "brilliant"

Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals

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