Let me start this note with a simple assertion: education is about learning by students, where learning includes not only knowledge and understanding of a variety of concepts and phenomenon, but also development of higher order skills and capabilities for applying knowledge for problem solving. (For those who want to go deeper, learning can be classified using Bloom’s taxonomy, revised version of which has these levels: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create; In my statement, I have combined the lower two levels in “knowledge and understanding” and higher order four levels – apply, analyze, evaluate, and create into “skills and capabilities”).
Let me also upfront state my opinion, which I am sure will not go down well with many: our approach to education, even in many of the top places, is mostly geared towards developing knowledge and understanding with little emphasis on developing skills and capabilities. Hence the title of this article.
Our current approach to education in almost all institutions take a teaching oriented view – for a course the “syllabus” is defined as a list of topics to be covered, and during the semester, instructors give lectures to cover the topics, in which the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. Good institutions will ensure that the topics are covered, the not so good ones may not even ensure this. In the better Institutes, there may be labs and assignments, though often the final grades depend largely on exams. This teaching oriented approach to education can at most deliver mediocre education – high quality education is not possible. There are a few reasons why it is so.
First, when a list –of-topics is the course design, then entire thought processes is about “covering the material”, and in the class, at best, the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. It is now well established that students mind is not like a vessel in which information or concepts can be poured through lecturing – learning is a constructive activity and a student learns only by what a student herself does and thinks. In an education style where lecturing is the primary method of teaching, followed by some exams to test the understanding, the focus will mostly be on knowledge and understanding. This approach does not render itself to development of skills and capabilities, for which far more practice (assignments, labs, projects,…) by students under careful supervision and feedback is needed. As exams, by their very nature, can test mostly concepts and understanding (at worst they may just test for factual knowledge), this cycle of lecturing and exams can lead to learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s hierarchy, but does not help develop the higher levels skills and capabilities that are the hallmark of high quality education.
To move towards higher quality education which develops not only deep understanding of acquired knowledge but also development of skills/capabilities of applying the knowledge, it is necessary to move towards learner centric education, as is being done in most developed countries, and as is mandated by the Washington Accord.
The learner centric approach has three key aspects. First, for a course learning outcomes have to be defined, not in terms of list of topics, but in terms of knowledge and skills that the student should have at the completion of the course. Second, the course syllabus and design has to such that it can deliver the learning objective – the lectures on topics have to be supported by suitable exercises and projects with proper and critical feedback to allow practice which can help develop skills, as they cannot be developed in a lecture theatre. Finally, the grade given to a student must be based on an assessment of how well the student has fulfilled the learning outcomes. So, if a learning outcome says that at the end of the course the student will have “the ability to solve problems using x,y, z”, then this must be assessed directly.
Of course, designing the course in this manner in itself does not lead to better learning. This course design has to be delivered by competent faculty – a challenge for many universities and colleges who simply don’t have competent faculty. Those institutions who have good faculty, however, can transform their education from teaching oriented approach to learner centric approach, which can lead to huge improvement in quality of education. It may be added, that this type of approach is what accreditation looks for.
At IIIT-Delhi, we follow a learner centric approach – for each course there are “post conditions” which state what the students knows and can do at the end of the course. The course design includes the assignments/projects that are to be given to deliver the post conditions particularly about skill development, and in final grades, weight is assigned to performance in assignments and projects.
In the end, let me add that this “list of topics” approach has worked reasonably well in the past in some of the top institutions. This was so as these top institutes were very small with low student to faculty ratio and had a very good faculty – this allowed faculty to develop some skills and capabilities through personal mentoring and oversight. This approach cannot work now as the skills and capabilities needed are far more complex and often change, and the scale of education is significantly larger now. These require a systematic approach as the earlier mentorship based approach cannot scale up.