Academia: Can We Save Ourselves from Ourselves?

Academia: Can We Save Ourselves from Ourselves?

Jesse Martin 11/06/2018 4

When did education stop being about learning and turn into a performance art? I was reading over some of my students’ work from a couple of years ago, and one of the things that jumped out at me was their collective observation that education was about grades, degrees, and getting ahead and not about learning (they weren’t happy about it – often pointing out that this is wrong - education should be about learning).

I wrote a few years ago about how Bjork talks about the conditioning cycle that moves both students and teachers into a self-reinforcing cycle of performance and reward. Students are rewarded for doing what the teacher wants (high grades) and teachers are rewarded for keeping the students happy (promotion opportunities (maybe) or institutional acclaim). This becomes a virtuous (vicious) cycle of mutual rewards as students learn to perform (who said passing a test had anything to do with learning), teachers recognizing the performance with academic currency (grades) and institutions rewarding “good” teaching with recognition and praise. Who is fooling who?

Jack Rogerson (one of my students) wrote about student cheating and why. He noted work by Dweck & Vandewalle who identified performance goal oriented students as:

  • Maladaptive Students – Quickly become disillusioned with tasks and tend to discourage themselves from developing their academic abilities/skills. They instead focus their attention on the opinions of others – they are mindful of negative judgment and are therefore more likely to resort to cheating as means of maintaining a positive image of capability amongst their peers.

It is all about appearances.

I believe that there are many students who start their studies actually excited about learning, but eventually, most find themselves caught up in the performance and reward cycle.

Speaking about performance, students are not the only ones caught up in the fear of looking bad or the lift that comes with looking good. When it comes to lecturing, teachers perform as well. One of the reasons that professors insist on lecturing is that there is a certain satisfaction that comes with being on stage and controlling the attention of hundreds or more students at a time. There is nothing unnatural about this. This is one of the draws actors feel when they go on stage. A particularly good performance can be invigorating. I have been told on a number of occasions that lecturers don’t want to stop lecturing because they like to be center stage. I know lecturers who work hard at doing well enough to have the students applaud them at the end of particularly good performances. Performing on stage is great fun and can be very fulfilling, but to insist on continuing the practice in light of the evidence that says that the learning that comes from lecturing is empty, is pure self-indulgence. I have been told by lecturers on a number of occasions that they won’t stop lecturing, regardless of the cost to the students, because they love to do it.

The other aspect of performance that effects teachers is the recent study by Herkis. She found that the resistance to adopting different teaching methods is the fear of looking stupid in front of their students. No actor wants to flub up their lines while in the spotlight. It is bad enough to occasionally stumble over the content you are trying to get across. To fundamentally change what you are doing and risk looking bad – regardless of the cost to the students - just isn't going to happen. The performance is too important.

I wonder what Socrates would think of our civilized approach to learning today?

For the students, it doesn’t have to be that way. Present something both interesting and useful, care about the students’ success, empower them to direct their own learning experience, and help them believe that they can succeed. Provide learning tasks that allow students to match their ability with your expectations, and then reward real success, not a momentary performance (read exam) on their part. Do that, and the risk of academic misconduct all but disappears.

For us, as teachers, we have the know-how and the tools to liberate the learning experience for the students. We can really have student centered learning – for which lecturing is the antithesis – at every learning opportunity. The fear of looking bad or the unwillingness to give up the spotlight are purely selfish reasons for not moving forward. We need to decide that the performance is over and get ready for a new show.

Using The Science of Learning principles to underpin learning design, I have scaled student centered learning up to 60+ students at a time. My model is just one of many that we could devise to help them learn to think, memorize, engage and a whole list of other desirables we want from our teaching and for their learning. We don’t need to have seminars and discussions with >10 students for them to have real learning experiences (although I have seen faculty who prepare hour long PowerPoint presentations for small seminars as well); it can be available now for significantly large numbers of students with reasonable resources (time and effort) on the part of the teacher.

Given what we have available and what we can do now, I despair at the price of inertia.

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  • Stuart McKinney

    I totally agree!

  • Emma Atkinson

    So good! So eloquently delivered.

  • Jennie Best

    You gave me hope for a better academia, thank you.

  • Margaret Ryan

    Brilliant post. That really resonated with me.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.

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