This is the time of year for undergrad enrolment. As a graduate student, ‘on the other side of the fence’, as it were, this is the time when the quiet harmony of the campus is suddenly disrupted and filled with hundreds of returning students and first-years. This is also the time of year when many first year students receive a big shock ─ university is certainly not like school. Lecturers will not chase you up about deadlines, attendance at lectures is not checked (at first to the delight which turns into dismay when exams come round for some), and parents are not around to enforce discipline on doing work. There are many tropes around on the freedoms and pitfalls of starting university, from skipping morning lectures to pulling all-nighters in a rush to finish work before the deadline. I remember my first year of university well, which I started, ahem, six years ago now. But I actually like to think of myself as being quiet disciplined so I never skipped lectures or pulled any all-nighters. Graduate school is much better than undergrad in many ways, first and foremost as an opportunity to do independent scholarship rather than the learn-and-churn model of undergrad education.
Which brings us to the point I wanted to make in this article. I recently read a post by one of the blogs I semi-regularly follow (see here) on some undergrads work ethic, namely those who you could potentially say want a piece of paper rather than an education. From my own anecdotal experience, I would say that the majority of undergrads wish to do well on the test, which is not necessarily bad in itself, but is destructive when it comes at the price of personal growth. I call these the bright but “lazy” students. I do not mean that these particular type of students are lazy by not doing much work, they can work incredibly hard ─ at passing the test. But a test is not equivalent to thinking. These students are single-handedly focused on doing well on tests and exams, rather than improving their critical thinking.
Based on our current school education system, is it any wonder that the majority of students are obsessed by test-based performance metrics? In order to get into university, you must have scored well in school leaving exams, which are the bread and butter of our current education system. Testing is a routine and natural part of the education ecosystem, where students are measured and ranked solely on this metric. Fail to do well in the tests, we are told, and you will fail to get into university. And if you fail to get into university, your life is destined to be miserable wage-slavery. At least that is the message I got from my time at school. Then when university comes around, the single most important question a student asks is, “Will it be on the test?” This is all very well in undergrad, but poses serious problems for those who opt to continue onto graduate studies. These students have stellar marks but zero interest in really thinking about problems, which is the bread and butter of graduate school education.
My own experience with these types of students is that they have become ingrained in a mentality which emphasises marks way above actually understanding the problem at hand. They become angry and defensive when you try to get them to stretch their thinking and not to worry about what mark they get on the test. This is why I particularly like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s views on the meaning of tests ─ they are good at finding out what students know, but are not going to be adequate for independent thought.