[Editor’s Note: This post is about the current problems I’ve experienced with college courses, and what my ideal course would look like. An idol of mine, Seth Godin, published the ultimate manifesto on college education which is a must read. Please read Stop Stealing Dreams after my post if you have not already.]

Last week I sat through my final “syllabus week” at college. A week where professors go over the class syllabus and let students out early. For the amount of money a college education cost, this should be a week of excitement. Students should be motivated by the challenge that’s in front of them, and excited for the experience they are about to gain. Professors should grab the students attention with the exciting course they’ve planned over the next 15 weeks. Instead something different happens, the first class discourages every student. You begin to hear murmurs as the class ends, “This class is going to suck”. Friends talk to each other about their first day of classes and almost always you will hear “The professor seems so boring and it’s too much work”.

I reached my breaking point about 10 minutes into my first class this semester. My professor announced she is experimenting with a “No electronics policy”. The reasoning behind this switch is because “I can’t compete with Facebook, I simply can’t do it”. Imagine that, a tenured professor at a top business school admitted she can’t design a class more interesting than 30 second chef videos students watch in class. A capstone marketing class that was supposed to bring together all the knowledge we’ve learned over the years could not compete with my Facebook feed. I feel lucky enough to have supportive parents who have empowered me to take control of my education. I refused to waste the money on this section of the class, and did everything possible to get force added into another section that focuses on current events.

Unfortunately that was only one of the four classes I’m taking this semester. There are others that have also managed to discourage my classmates before the learning even begins. It would be easy to tell myself I won’t go through this again and that I’ll be done in a few months. However, I want to show you that there is a solution to the current system. Nothing will change if we sit back and waste our money, don’t let the textbook companies and colleges win. In this post I will be outlining everything that is wrong with the current college system, and what my ideal course would look like.

How College Courses are Failing Students

University Wide Curriculum

The main problem with the current college education system, is that schools don’t allow professors to innovate. They are forcing their curriculum upon all the professors, telling them how they have to design their class. This was an issue I wasn’t aware existed before last week when I had a professor tell me that the department wanted him to design his class the same way as the others, but he wouldn’t do it. Colleges want every section of a class to have the same design, all students HAVE to learn the same way, and all professors HAVE to teach the same way. After hearing this, it made sense why my professors kept telling the class, “I didn’t want to include this in your grade, but the department made me put it in”.

Currently Virginia Tech is pushing case studies in the curriculum, now all of my classes this semester require me to buy a “case pack”. Schools aren’t hiring great professors and letting them innovate, they are micromanaging their courses. As a 3rd grade teacher, my mom has been troubled by this issue in K-12, and now we know it’s affecting our colleges as well.

Our professors are only as good as the school is letting them be. I previously thought all professors didn’t dare to deviate from the “normal” college course, but now I know they aren’t allowed to. Without solving this issue, the other issues cannot be changed.

Expensive Books/Software

Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent — or more than four times the rate of inflation — according to Covering the Cost, a new report from the non-profit Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). It’s not uncommon for an individual book to cost more than $200, and some have price tags that go as high as $400, the report said.

If college is not currently the biggest rip off, school textbooks certainly are. The college textbook industry is like the cruise industry, they would charge you to breathe their air if they could. My school often requires students to buy the “Virginia Tech Edition” of books, so that we can’t use outside sources to find a reasonable price. Then they’ll add a chapter to the book, make your copy obsolete, and charge double for the new edition. In addition to the book, classes require you to have the online homework software, so good luck with the used textbook that doesn’t come with the access code. You’ll have to buy the code online which you can only purchase with the E-Book. After that strenuous process you’ll be lucky if you don’t have any other purchases. Some classes also require you to buy an “iClicker” so that they can poll you in class, or purchase some sort of polling software on your phone.

Repeat that process 5 times and you’ll have your semesters worth of books. With the already high price of an education, charging students for readily available information seems like a bubble waiting to be burst. Modern textbooks are filled with definitions and lazy concepts that fail to go in-depth. All the information I’m paying for in my marketing textbooks is one google search away. The only thing we are paying for is the information organized into chapters, so that the professors can quiz/test us on “chapters”. Digging deeper into students pockets for the profit of the textbook industry needs to stop.

Lecturing All Class

College courses are designed backwards. This is a concept first introduced to me in the e-book Stop Stealing Dreams. Seth argues that we should do homework in class, and lectures at home. The unique part of college education is that we have a professor at the front of the classroom who wants to teach, and students in the seats who want to learn. It doesn’t make much sense to have the professor talk the entire class, or to show a video. Couldn’t he email the students his lecture or video he’s going to show? Class is one of the only times students get face to face interaction with the professor, we should be working on interesting problems so that we can ask the professor for help with or share our findings with our classmates. Doing the assigned reading and catching up on the lecture before coming to class, then interacting with the professor and our classmates during the assigned lecture time. Instead, we have students scanning their social media accounts for an hour and a half while the professor reads of a PowerPoint that is going to be posted online anyway. Professors are failing students if they don’t use their lecture time to interact with students.

Making the Goal of a Class an “A”

“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn explains. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading.- Neatoday.org

What goal is ingrained in every students mind on the first day of class? You should strive to get an A in the class. The schooling system has used fear tactics our entire life to lead us to believe an A should be what we get out of a class. If you don’t do what you’re told you won’t get an A, if you don’t get good grades, you won’t get a job. This is why we see students cheating in classes. The goal isn’t to maximize your learning, or solve interesting problems, it’s to get the grade. There are test banks that float around fraternities, so instead of learning the information, they can memorize the test answers. Students use memorization techniques, writing formulas on their hand, and an infinite more amount of ways to get the A they desire. Students take easy courses to boost their GPA and get an easy A, instead of challenging themselves with a course that will teach them a useful skill.

This isn’t necessarily a problem with students, rather the system they are put into. If recruiters found productive ways to judge a student instead of just based off their GPA, the need to cheat and boost your GPA would be removed. I remember my Freshman year when transferring into the business school my adviser didn’t know if my GPA would be high enough to get in. My calculus grade (math I haven’t used since) was almost low enough to keep me from majoring in Marketing. Going through that process didn’t encourage me to challenge myself with upper level classes, instead taking the easy electives so I could get where I want.

The goal of a class should be to leave the last day, better than you were the first day. More knowledgeable, more experienced, better public speaker, whatever it may be. Whether you received a C+ for your efforts, or an A, you should be a better person.

Multiple Choice Exams

In 1914, a professor in Kansas invented the multiple-choice test. Yes, it’s less than a hundred years old.

There was an emergency on. World War I was ramping up, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants needed to be processed and educated, and factories were hungry for workers. The government had just made two years of high school mandatory, and we needed a temporary, high-efficiency way to sort students and quickly assign them to appropriate slots.

A few years later, as President of the University of Idaho, Kelly disowned the idea, pointing out that it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned. The industrialists and the mass educators revolted and he was fired.

You read that correctly, the inventor of the multiple-choice test, later said that it should be abandoned. He needed a way to quickly sort students, judging them all off the same test. However, instead of abandoning the test, some of the biggest decisions in our life are still affected by multiple choice (the SAT, college exams, placement tests, etc…). Why exactly are we still using this test? Simply put, it’s an easy method to grade every student the same way. The problem is that all students don’t learn and perform the same way. A multiple choice exam is grading you based on how well you can memorize definitions and guess between two answers. There’s no critical thinking involved, no skills related to the material are needed. I had an advertising course where multiple-choice exams were the biggest portion of our grade. A class on an industry that thrives on creativity and gaining consumer’s attention was based on our ability to recall definitions. Abandoning the multiple-choice exam will be a time consuming process for the professor, but it will be for the greater good. One professor I took last semester let the class know on the first day, the test will be free response, if you want to show how well you can fill our scan-trons, take another section.

The Ideal Course

With all of the current problems in college education, there needs to be a course that would show there is another way. This would be a course students would be motivated to take, gain real world experience, and leave the classroom better than when they entered it. I’ve designed a realistic example of what this would look like.

Pass/Fail

The ideal course will not have letter grades, no more fighting for that extra point, or worrying about your GPA. You either pass the class, or you fail the class. If you pass the class you will receive a certification. For example, if you are a marketing major and you take a class on AdWords, you will take the Google AdWords certification at the end of the class as your final. With the amount of experience and knowledge gained on the subject, everyone will pass the class.

With the certification based class, every student who passes the class will have something to show recruiters. Instead of “I took a class on AdWords and we did some textbook examples”, it’s “I am Google AdWords certified and have significant experience with the website”.

The fear tactic of getting a bad grade is gone. If a student chooses to slack off in class, they won’t get a bad grade, they simply won’t have a completed project to show recruiters or clients.

Project Based

Students will complete projects throughout the semester based around the subject at hand. For the AdWords class, students won’t just be completing the certification, but doing real projects with Google AdWords throughout the semester. The group work will be done in class, so that all students are present and they don’t have to worry about finding a meeting time. Any reading or videos the students need to watch, they can do on their own time. Because how often does that happen? You go to class with your entire group and the professor throws on a YouTube video, and then your group can’t match up your schedules outside of class for the project. Why wouldn’t we flip the script and whenever you’re free before class you prepare for the next day, and the class-time will be used to work on your group projects. Not only will your group be present to work on your project, but the professor as well. No more trying to find a time to meet the professor or going to office hours to get a question answered.

Free Class Materials

All class materials will be free, there is no assigned textbook. Any information for the course will be collected and organized by the professor, and then given for free to the students. There could be podcast, YouTube videos, free e-books, that are required for the students to use, but it’s up to the professor to find them and distribute. Going back to the AdWords example, Google offers free resources to study for the exam, any additional study guides will be made by the professor and given to the students.

Electronics Are Encouraged

Professors won’t be forced to “compete” with Facebook during class, because students are encouraged to use any online resource to help them with the project they please. If the student chooses to spend the whole class on Facebook then he/she will not perform well on the project, fail the certification, and not have the needed reference. If the professor is helping another group, students can always google their question and see if it’s available online. The workplace doesn’t ban electronics, so neither will this class.

Summary

  • No more letter grades, you either pass or fail the class
  • No multiple choice exams, or homework software, the only assignments are group projects
  • Group projects will be completed in class, lectures or videos will be completed in the students own time
  • All class materials will be freely available online
  • Students won’t be forced to turn off their electronics, instead encouraged to use them for any help they need

The only overhaul of the system needed for this course is for universities to allow professors freedom over their classes. Every single step I just listed is within our reach as students, this is the type of education we deserve. It may be too late for me as a graduating senior, but I don’t want to see the system fail anymore of my friends and family. We can make a change, share this post, write your own post. Read Stop Stealing Dreams, share Seth’s work with your professors. Sitting back and complaining isn’t going to force a change at the university level, let’s take action.

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