Understanding and Time


Your post is getting at exactly what I was thinking.

There are two underlying concepts that you allude to in your reply. The first has to do with how we measure understanding. We are brilliant at measuring recall or recognition. We also have great, evidence based methods of maximising recall and recognition performance. Behaviourist and cognitive principles can show us how we can get excellent recall or recognition. This type of learning, and memory does play a central role in learning, can be measured by MCQs, T/F, short answer, and a range of other methods that can be easily automated. Excellent for use in learning that has memorisation and recall at the core. With those kind of tools, we can expect mastery, and get is, in a fairly simple manner.

However, how do we measure understanding, critical analysis or synthesis? This is the problem that has been at the core of educational research, and lies at the heart of mass education (or learning) today. How do we effectively measure understanding?

We recognise and know understanding when we see (or hear) it. However, it is not amenable to automation or quick measurement. It is not very responsive to quality assurance, and is difficult to accomplish in a heavily regulated environment. Vivas, in depth essays, well written blogs, long running projects, these can all measure understanding. However, these types of assessment take time, the second of the underlying concepts. The evaluation of real understanding takes time, and this is unacceptable in todays world. The evaluation of understanding also takes talent – as opposed to labor, which can be automated and reduced to clever algorithms.

As academics, this is what we should bring to education. As professionals in higher education, this is the real value added that we bring to the education system. Politicians and private enterprise are pushing an agenda (and winning the battle for hearts and minds) that would have all learning reduced to memorisation and regurgitation. This is the kind of learning that our students, parents, and administers are demanding – efficient, clean and measurable. Not the kind of learning that is of high value. Assessing understanding is messy, subjective, and not prone to measurement. But the most grievous of all sins that the measurement of understanding is guilty of is that it takes time. And time is money.

If I had the time, and the administrative systems allowed, I would have talked to my 52 students about what synthesis is all about, how you do it, and what it should look like, and then send them out to try again… and again… and again… until they either figured it out (with my support), or decided that this was something that they really couldn’t do, and found something more suited to their abilities (also with my support).

Unfortunately, in our system of education, this isn’t an option. As a result, I award a “C” grade and move on to the next batch of students and try again.


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