The failure rate in my most effective first year course was the highest in ten years. There’s something going on in our education system, before students get to UWI, which has led them to check out of an investment in their own learning. I don’t think this deterioration is slowing down.
In 2006, students were assigned four readings per week, and mostly completed them in time for class. By this year, we were down to two readings per week, and even then, by mid-semester, the majority had stopped reading both or even one in entirety.
The course explicitly includes multiple learning opportunities, levels and styles. It asks students to do their own internet research and to present what they have learned about concepts and definitions to their peers to compare what I teach with their own findings. Assignments also require students to read newspapers or scan on-line media, and to present gendered analyses of its content based on articles or images they choose. These are also presented as a basis for peer learning, and tutors both facilitate discussion and provide feedback.
In addition to encouraging self-directed on-line research, analysis of media and peer-teaching, the course also provides students with an opportunity to undertake original historical research using sources in their midst. We teach them how to logically organize a short essay, define and apply key concepts, conduct an interview, and analyze their data. And, the end of term project is a group assignment that requires them to engage others on the campus in well-researched, creative and interactive ways in order to raise awareness about an issue of their choice. For six weeks, we lead students through the process of putting together this final project which is especially good for those who are better at discussion than essay writing.
Over the years, we have provided more and more detailed guidance. This year, I gave the students as close an approximation to the exam questions as ethical, along with rubric that identified how each question should be answered, and the list of three readings that provided core parts of the answer. There were four compulsory questions and no surprises or tricks. A depressing number of students failed, not just 19 out of 40 fail, but with marks ranging from 4 to 14 out of 40. We reviewed these exams three times and were unable to salvage any extra marks on students’ behalf.
I know this is a trend. Many other lecturers, and possibly also secondary school teachers and parents, will attest to this. In my own experience in university twenty years ago, I read books. In my second year Political Science class alone, I read Plato, Bentham, Rousseau, Mill and Marx. Whole books. There is no chance that could happen here today. Learning specialists suggest using more audio-visual materials and tech tools, but reading remains fundamental, and we see the limitations of students’ inability to deal with reading material when they enter both workplaces and graduate school.
Folks like Minister Imbert and others with more opinion than understanding resort to quick explanations for such failure, which often rely on blaming lecturers. Yet, we get students whose writing skills are far below the starting point we need, who read superficially, haphazardly or not at all, and who seem not too bothered about the idea of being responsible for your own education. Against uninformed stereotypes, many of us at UWI are passionate teachers who aim for that place that encourages students to question everything, to think about their contribution to our society, and to grow intellectually and professionally, rather than being a certification mill.
My course was designed specifically to connect classroom learning to the outside world and to make sure that learning is relevant, passionate, personal and collective. Yet, increasingly, that is hard to accomplish. My high expectations of students, that they will aim to be the best in the world, that they will read what we assign and perhaps more, seem less and less shared.
As I plan for a semester of teaching that begins next week, I hope to both understand this trend and be able to better address it in the mere twelve weeks of undergraduate life that lie ahead.