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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Delink Teaching and Learning

This is a topic on which I have been thinking of writing for some time. And then I read a few days ago an article by Bibek Debroy in Indian Express. The title is "Like advanced nations, India must delink classroom teaching from student learning."

There is far too much focus on teaching in Indian institutions, whether schools or colleges. In this context, I recall a curriculum workshop that we had organized at IIT Kanpur almost two decades ago. A well known Professor from MIT was also an invited participant. During the tea break, I asked him one question. How would MIT or any other US university would evaluate an application of a student from a college from where they have not admitted students in the past. If the student has a 9.5/10.0 CGPA and claims to be a topper, how would they compare him/her with candidates from other good institutions.

He replied that he would look at two things. First, how many courses do they do in a typical semester. Second, whether those courses are teaching skills and technologies or are they doing basic stuff (hopefully followed by projects, but pedagogy is difficult to ascertain from the transcript).

He asked me to find out the number of courses (in terms of equivalent of standard 40-lecture a semester courses) in IITs, NITs, other good institutes, and then in the affiliated colleges (where the Technical University dictates the curriculum). And sure enough, we found at that time that IITs were teaching 40-42 courses, NITs and other good institutions were generally teaching 45-50 courses, and most technical universities were requiring more than 50 courses (there are semesters when you do 7 courses).

The implication was that if you are forcing the students to learn 7 courses in a semester, there is no way an average student will learn anything. To really learn a course well, you must do some self study, revise the lectures, do home assignments, carry out some projects, etc. All this must mean that you are investing about 10 hours a week in the course. Would an average student spend 70 hours a week in studying. No way. Today, in most of the colleges, students complain if they have to do anything more than 40 hours a week. (During the admission season, one of the common question asked was how many hours would one have to study in that college. Or why one should join IIIT-Delhi which insists that you spend 40-50 hours a week on academics, when in other colleges, you don't even need to attend lectures.) So, if they have more than 5 courses, their focus will immediately be on how to get good marks and not on learning.

When we have such a serious shortage of faculty resource, and when higher teaching results in lower quality of learning, isn't it obvious that a university should teach less - this will improve learning as well as reduce costs.

The curriculum is decided on the basis that if we teach many things, the student is likely to retain some. Since a large number of our faculty in such poor colleges has come from similar programs, they are very reluctant to experiment with teaching less and hoping that student will learn most of it. And one gets absolutely hilarious arguments - our students are not like IIT students, they are not as smart. Well, if your students are not as smart, and we at IITs believe that students are only capable of learning 5 courses a semester, you should probably be teaching your students only 4 courses a semester. If they are not as smart, how come they will be able to learn 7 courses which even the so-called smarter kids at IITs can not do.

Besides the quantum of teaching, which Mr. Debroy focuses on in his lecture, there is another important issue. Even if we are teaching 4-5 courses in a semester, do we focus on learning. Unfortunately, not. A lot of even good faculty (good in the sense of their strong knowledge of the subject being taught) would focus only on having a great lecture - the transparencies should cover the material well, the diction should be clear, should be well prepared to answer all questions, and so on. Is this good enough for learning? Unfortunately not. It is now well understood that even adults can concentrate on a task for only about 10 minutes. That is why you find many MOOC lectures of that duration, The Khan Academy videos are of similar duration, etc. It is important that in a classroom environment, you reboot the class every 10 minutes. May be ask a question, ask them to think or whatever. But you talk to faculty members and they will tell you that they can't afford to "waste" time in the lecture. The syllabus is so vast and everything has to be covered. As long as the focus is on covering the syllabus and not uncovering the syllabus, the quality of learning will remain poor.

Also, if the focus is on learning, immediately, an instructor would consider having assignments and projects. But, if the focus is on teaching, why bother about projects which do not enhance the status of an instructor as a great teacher. And you can see in most places where you have 7 courses a semester, there are no labs, projects, assignments, etc. They really don't care about learning.

Besides teaching, the only other focus is on job. Let students get some job somewhere somehow. That is a parameter the colleges will use to attract the next batch. That these students will have no career without learning is completely ignored by every stakeholder - teachers, students and parents. And hence the focus on skills and technologies that one may get asked about in the job interview. The curriculum is decided on the basis of what industry HR folks tell colleges. And since every HR guy gives a different technology name, the colleges just take a union of these and teach them (and of course, teach them without projects).

Our regulatory bodies also encourage teaching since learning is more difficult to measure by them. It is easy to measure the inputs - teacher-student ratio, teaching load, average class size, and so on. Of course, there is some realization in accreditation bodies and they are now asking for evidence that learning is taking place.

Is there any center on teaching and learning at the higher education level (not school level education). Hardly, any. While any good university abroad would have such a center. We all know how to teach, and we don't care whether they learn. So why do we need to invest in teaching and learning centers.

Fortunately, I am currently at an institute where the focus on learning is tremendous. We have for each course, a well defined course outcomes. What is it that a student be able to do at the end of the semester. At the beginning of the semester, a faculty member discusses his/her plan with a couple of colleagues and explain how the instructor would ensure that learning outcomes will be met. What kind of assignments and projects will be there. What kind of in-class interventions are being thought of. How extra help will be provided to students who may be slow learners in that particular course. The entire discussion takes no more than half an hour, but that 30 minutes investment really provides a lot of useful feedback to the instructor. We then take a feedback from the students of the course 3 weeks into the semester. The usual end-of-semester feedback may not be very useful since the instructor may change next time. But an early feedback which the instructor can use to make changes to the course/pedagogy really makes a big difference. And the feedback is quite simple: Write what is going right with the course, and write what can be improved. No more questions. Anonymous. And finally, in the end-of-semester feedback, we write down the learning outcomes, and for each learning outcome, ask the student to comment on whether s/he feels confident of having learned that. So we have a decent idea of whether in any course offered in the Institute some expected learning outcomes were not met. Every semester, in one of the faculty meeting, we ask those faculty members who have got great reviews to say in few minutes what innovations they did in their course so that others can learn from their experiments.

If you notice, all that have stated above does not take too much time away from research. Most of the things take very little time. The total time spent on teaching without thinking of learning outcomes is really not much different than the total time spent on teaching when you are always conscious of learning outcomes.

Great teachers somehow intuitively know what is right for learning. But the challenge is to have average teachers and make sure that their students learn. And for this, the focus will have to shift from teaching to learning.

Wishing each one of you a very happy and safe Diwali. Darkness is nothing but ignorance, and the way to remove darkness is not by lighting a lamp, but by ensuring that our youth learns.