Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Issue of the Day: Educational Quality

Out of all the ongoing races, arguably the academic portfolio (Senate, and part of VP Academic) has received the least amount of attention in debates and media sources. While we constantly discuss issues surrounding access to postsecondary education we rarely take time to consider the quality of the education which we struggle to receive in first place.

Jeff Friedrich has repeatedly pointed out that students find their educational experience unsatisfactory. He's right. Quantitative and qualitative surveys both back him up. Consider the 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement results (link) which say that UBC students are 3-4 times more likely to say this than at other Canadian schools.

There are lots of reasons, including our own personal backgrounds, programs, and personalities. But some issues are more frequent than others; from our time at UBC, on the BoG and Senate, here's what we've seen:

1. Exam schedules suck
Two 3-hour exams on one day, one the next morning. Three exams in two days. The current definition of academic exam hardship is 3 exams within 24 hours, but most students would agree that having 3 exams even within 30 hours or 48 hours leaves very little room for sleeping, eating, and even commuting (especially on weekends.)

Student senators have made some changes in the way exams have been scheduled, but the effect has not been substantial. We still see the clustering of exams and it hurts student performance.

2. Grading curves
Consider psych: averages are set at 65% with a standard deviation of 3%. There are pros, to curves, which can help when an exam is particularly hard, and to compare students against each other. But it makes things hard when students one year, may be smarter, work harder, or just perform more strongly. There are also informal curves, where instructors have a rough idea of what they want the class average to look like.

3. 24 Hour study spaces (or the lack thereof)
In many universities, there is at least one official facility which is open 24 hours to people who wish to study outside of their crowded residence room or their loud or otherwise distracting home. Sometimes students need a place to work - nights are no exception.

There are some "unofficial" buildings where students are not kicked out past closing time of facilities (Woodward, Forestry though only for forestry students), but these buildings are not safe because there is no security. We deserve a safe, well lit study space on campus open to all students, and it's not the SUB (which is poorly lit and has no academic work space.)

4. Poor communication around teaching evaluations.
There's a colossal gap in the feedback loop. There is no response, no follow-up to teaching evaluations. They have no perceived teeth. As a result, there's little incentive to fill out a thoughtful, thorough, and constructive form, which would benefit the instructor (and future students). The instructor isn't held accountable, and mediocrity is allowed to perpetuate itself.

The VP Academic and student Senators have continued to lobby the University to publish the teaching evaluation results online, with a pilot project in the Faculty of Arts on its way (link). But this isn't good enough. We need more accountability at the departmental level with the help of resource centres like TAG (link) to encourage instructors to improve on their teaching skills.

5. Teaching skills
The criteria on which tenure is granted places an unduly emphasis on research over teaching; naturally, teaching suffers. While teaching evaluations play an important role on the tenure track of a professor in some departments (such as the Department of Family Practice), in most department this role is minimal at best. (Now is also the time to act. UBC is hiring a new VP Academic, and students need to seize this opportunity to put this on the agenda.)

Moreover, VP Academic candidate Brendon Goodmurphy raises a good point: there should be financial incentive for Teaching Assistants to participate in workshops to be trained in instructional skills. (Currently TAG offers these for faculty and grad students on a space-restricted basis. Link) This will develop grad students' careers if they hope to go on teach, while compensating them for their time. Obviously, it would also benefit the students. Teaching can be difficult; the more training opportunities, the better.

6. Classroom Size
This is probably the hardest to tackle in terms of institutional structure. The prototypical first year chemistry class has 250 students enrolled, classroom is over-crowded, and the professor literally lectures. Two-way communication is impossible. The learning experience diminishes as there is little room for dialogue between instructor and student. In fact, the learning experience diminishes in reverse proportion to class size.

So these are six major issues in the educational experience. But we want to know more... what are the major issues you have with your learning experience?

Also, where the candidates stand is behind the jump:

Brendon Goodmurphy: Supports mandatory, paid TA training, publish teaching evaluations, promote/expand LEAP
Bruce Krayenhoff: Allow borrowing textbooks from the library
Tariq Ahmed: Diversity of curriculum
Jaspreet Khangura: Driver of the pass/fail system, more student space, earlier exam schedules.
Alfie Lee: More interactive learning environment.
Raymond Pan: Better exam hardship policy, longer library hours
Lawrence Song: More study space, less restrictive exam hardship policy