Teaching at a University

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ June 22nd, 2012. Filed under: Teaching.


 The beginning of every semester brings to my mind, yet again, the dilemma of teaching at a university in the 21st century. Along with all my notes, readings, and online preparations, I find myself revisiting this troubling question like some sort of ghost of Christmas past, present, and future.

The End of Traditional Education

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My quandary surfaces in the exams that I am required to administer. “Assessments” as they are now called, exist to ostensibly measure the amount and quality of learning that has occurred in each student’s mind. Students take these evaluations (i.e., final marks) to their undergraduate advisors, scholarship committees and ultimately their future employers, as proof of their competency. But exams can also be trials by fire, dominated by stressful rote learning and crisis management techniques. Granted, some people thrive on competition, but “some” is not “all” and those who loath the race to superiority are sometimes brilliant in their own quiet way.

The most extreme example of the inherent malice of the exam process is found in Japan. The trains always run on time. When one is late during national university entrance exam time, it is almost always because a student has jumped on the tracks in front of one. Far less extreme, but equally troubling is the after-school programs of supplementary education, called Juku (Cram Schools). In the world of music, the after-school band programs are famous for their sky-high standards. A closer look at the programs reveals that the students practice 2 to 3 hours a day after school, and 5-6 hours on each day of the week-ends. Euroamerican educators and sociologists wonder out loud if a deep price is being paid for such obsessive behaviour. In the realm of the national entrance exams, the cost becomes obvious.

The New Examination

“What would an exam look like if it was devoid of fear and loathing?” is the question I ask myself every year.

My path to the answer of this troubling question has been the evolution of my exam procedure, which has moved inexorably from in-class misery to online freedom. I began by playing ambient music, and then the sound of crickets in the night, during the writing of the exams. The music was not to everybody’s liking, but the quiet sound of evening crickets was surprisingly successful. I then went on to allow students to write the exams anywhere in the music building, even outside in the sunshine, on the day of the exam. Finally, I gave everybody permission to access their notes and books, commonly called open book exams.

Now I have arrived at the final stage – online exams. And here I find an amazing intersection of two worlds. I have, almost by accident, created a blend of online instruction and traditional lecture-hall education. One could even say that my classes are a form of distance education, given my use of Connect online course materials and online exams, but without the distance from the teacher. A quick search of the internet reveals that university distance education online is  over-taking traditional instruction, much to the consternation of traditional universities and colleges.

The Future is Now

My introduction to this radical new style of examination was co-incidental. Some years ago I decided to upgrade my computer skills by enrolling in some courses at the Academy of Learning, just up the street from where I lived. Classes were drop-in, not scheduled. When you arrived, you found a free PC and monitor, rather like a study cubicle in a library, and worked from a teaching manual. The educator was referred to as a facilitator who was there to assist students if there was one or another detail in the manual that they couldn’t understand. There was no time limit on enrollment. And the exams could be taken anywhere, any time. And they could be repeated as many times as necessary until you achieved your 100 per cent mark.

Music students who have participated in the exam system of the Royal Conservatory of Music have somewhat the same experience. Each student prepares for an exam for as long as they want. The RCM sends out examiners at certain times of the year to evaluate your efforts. You don’t go to the RCM and enroll for several years, you take the exams in your home town.You can fail the exams, and take them again. You can skip exam levels (but not at the highest levels). You can take as long as you want to acquire your “degree”. You can start and end at any age. I’ve personally examined wind players in the 60s and 70s.

The New Education

The new style of examination stands up well to the early warning signs of the demise of traditional instruction.  For example, the National Training Centre’s hierarchy of average learning retention states that listening to lectures is the poorest form of education. Another pyramid is Benjamin Bloom’s hierarchy of meaningful education, reflecting the same urgency of reformation.

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And then there is David Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory of Education, which some label “the flight from rote learning”. The goal today appears to be a blend of rote/memorisation and “meaningful” learning, with far greater emphasis on the latter because it can motivate the learner to willingly do the former, without threat of failure. In-class exams based on rote memorisation do not to fulfill this mandate, at least in the social sciences and humanities.

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Perhaps even the hard sciences, if you believe Thomas Kuhn.

In addition to the radical re-assessment of the act of teaching, this current age of digital information and social media results in the alarming fact that everything I say in lectures is available online, sometimes with brilliant illustrations. How can teachers like me compete with the internet? Not by being more erudite – that is impossible. We do our job by organizing the information in a meaningful way, while continually being reflexive, so students can see how experience combines with information.


So I will lecture, but I will try not to pontificate. I hope. Some students may mistake my casual manner for talking down, as if they had travelled back in time to a grade 11 classroom. Others are grateful for my style of passing on knowledge and experience, as if it were peer-to-peer, rather than knowledge from on high.

With all this in mind, I have placed my exams online. You can write them in a coffee shop, a bedroom, a park bench, wherever there is a wifi connection.  The exams require you to apply the information you received in class, and supplement with online resources like Wikipedia, and apply them to unique situations, not found on the internet.

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