Thirty-six years of university biology teaching in a large state university has led me to an unsettling conclusion— professors and students are laboring under very different educational metaphors, and neither is particularly conscious of this fact. Ask either about the activity they are engaged in, and each would probably tell you, “Why, education of course!” the one educating and the other being educated. Closer inspection however reveals that “education” means something very different to the two actors in this play.
Let me illustrate my point with a story. I often try to make all my students aware that metaphors are commonly used to aid in understanding the unfamiliar, but can also limit or misguide that understanding. In this vein, I was discussing metaphors for education, and asking my class whether they thought each example was apt. The “empty vessel into which the teacher pours knowledge” metaphor was rejected almost unanimously. Eventually came the “edifice of knowledge” metaphor, that is, that an education is like constructing a building, first laying the foundations, and then building upon it with brick by brick of fact and concept. In this way, a wonderful edifice of understanding arises in one’s mind, each element connected to others
“Is that a good metaphor for education,” I asked. General agreement, yes. “Those of you who believe that you labor under this metaphor,” I said, please raise your hand. Of 19 students, 19 raised their hands.
“Now this is very interesting,” I said, smiling. “You do understand that to build an edifice, every brick you add must remain in place? That is, in your education, you have to remember what you learned before, so that you can build on it in the next phase of education. But we have repeatedly experienced in this very class that you remember little from your previous classes, or for that matter, from the previous test, or even from last week. Your behavior violates the basic requirement of this metaphor.” Some students nodded understanding, others looked pole-axed.
“My observations suggest that there is another metaphor that describes your mode of operation more closely,” I said, “and that is ‘sport.’ In sport, your preparation reaches a crescendo just before the match (exam). If you win the match (exam), you get points (grade points) in proportion to your placement. You keep track of these points, strategizing about how to get more next time. The match (exam) leaves no residue other than the points. At the end of the season (semester), you walk away with your standing (grade points), and little more, and at the end of college, you shuffle into the working world with your overall standing (GPA), and little more. Your approach is certainly effective in getting the points that get you through college, but it is poor when it comes to getting an actual education.” None of the students argued back.
So there you have it. Professor and student are operating under vastly different metaphors, neither fully aware of this fact. Admittedly, the sport metaphor is not perfect, but it explains why students transfer so little learning from one course to the next. The vast majority of students who have learned about levers in middle school, high school and college physics cannot recall how they work in Insect Biology. The same goes for energy metabolism, or why the earth experiences seasons, or what chemical reaction type is involved in digestion or protein synthesis, or for that matter, what is a protein, carbohydrate or fat? The list goes on and mind-numbingly on. And it isn’t just that they don’t want to speak up in class. Give them a quiz with plenty of time, and you will discover the same pattern. Oh, they will remember individual factoids, which they usually mangle, but they can almost never give you a coherent story, correct in the relationships of its parts to each other, or in the identity of its players.
The metaphor holds for students collectively as well. Student government at many universities has control of millions of dollars, and can spend this money in any way they wish. What do they do with it? They build sport facilities or places to watch mindless TV. Rarely do they spend on anything associated with learning. In other words, given money, they still act as though education were a sport, or possibly a form of entertainment (but let’s not go there).
We faculty love to bemoan our students’ lack of understanding, and it is tempting to place all the blame on them. Yet in light of how we professors teach and test, the sport approach may actually be an intelligent and effective strategy. Each of us focuses on a restricted subject, assuming that the foundations have been firmly emplaced in the students’ minds through previous coursework and needs neither to be tested nor reinforced. We rarely demand or even encourage long-term memory. Many of us don’t even give comprehensive finals. We focus on the latest, red-hot science because that is what interests us, but we are blind to the fact that most students don’t even have a firm grip on the bare basics— at best, they possess a jumbled pile of bricks. Broader understanding across disciplines isn’t even on most of our radar screens. We dispatch our teaching duties with a deep faith that all the players, students and professors alike, operate under the edifice metaphor (we could even ask whether all professors do so, but that is a subject for another essay).
Just as in sport, students game the system. That is why they hound professors with the question, “Is this going to be on the test?” In other words, will it possibly add any points to my tally? When they come to us to discuss their exams, the focus is almost always on the points, and almost never on “understanding.” Their goal is not increased understanding.
The aptness of the match (test) metaphor is also apparent when I give students low-value quizzes that are worth only a tiny proportion of the total points in the course. I have tested this pervasive phenomenon twice in an introductory biology course with 250 students each, and twice in Insect Biology. I discovered this phenomenon when I noticed that most students did not know the meaning of some important concept, say, homology (a very basic idea in biology), so I defined and explained it, as a good teacher should. In the next lecture, I gave an unannounced quiz that asked them to define “homology.” All but 25 to 30% of the students were clueless. I gave them the answers again, emphasizing their importance. In the next class meeting, I gave them the identical quiz again— the clue meter went up to about 35-40%. Then I gave it a third time, and about 50-60% managed to answer more or less correctly. Finally, the question showed up on the final exam, and still only about 50-60% got it right. In my Insect Biology course, everybody in the class finally learned the material for the 4th, yes the 4th iteration of the quiz.
This behavior is surely more compatible with the sport metaphor (low value match, like playing the Cub Scout league) than the edifice metaphor. However one interprets it, this behavior defeats the system’s purpose (education), but perhaps moves the student closer to some perceived personal goal (which is a mystery to me).
Oh, but you may exclaim, it is well-documented that the qualifications of students entering state universities have improved greatly over the years. The SATs and ACT scores have been increasing steadily among entering freshmen. Well sure they have. Before each these high stakes tests, they prepare intensely, paying real money for prep courses. We have bred a large population of students who begin playing the sport of education at an early age, and become quite proficient. They game the system from elementary school on, preparing for each match, playing it and then leaving it behind, taking with them only their points. You may argue that athletes get better through practice, but like students, their improvement is quite modest when compared to what they started with.
The proof of the sport metaphor is that every once in a while, I meet a student who operates under the “edifice” metaphor, who remembers and can apply stuff he/she learned in previous courses. It is a stunning difference, and such students stand out like a flame in a sea of dark rocks. They take away something more from the course than a grade. They become educated. The vast majority of Americans (including our government officials) probably equate grades with learning, believing that students with higher grades took away more knowledge from a course; yet because most students operate under the sport metaphor, that belief is a profound illusion, except perhaps for the period immediately before and after each exam.
Why do students and professors differ in their approach to “learning”? Why do professors persist in believing they are building an edifice when they teach according to the rules of sport? Why do students labor under a metaphor that assures that college will be a waste of time, at least educationally? I cannot answer that question, though I have pondered it long and hard. Perhaps it is our educational system in general, with its unrelenting reward of performance on tests, perhaps it is the emphasis on competition in our society, perhaps it is the dominance of the sport metaphor in so much of American life, perhaps it is simply the response of an unintellectual population uninterested in the world around them but forced by generally held beliefs to seek a college education, and therefore just intent to “get through it.” Perhaps the ease of checking the internet devalues long-term learning because “I can always look it up.” Perhaps it is a combination of such factors.
It really doesn’t matter much why students are as they are. The consequence is that the educational value (as contrasted with the job-getting value) of a college education is a myth, that educationally, college is a waste of time for most students and teaching is a waste of effort for professors. For society in general, it is a waste of national treasure on a colossal and increasing scale. The students flooding into most state universities are increasingly being subsidized by tax revenues. In Florida, the great majority of students get a free ride through the Bright Futures Scholarships (they have to pay for room and board, of course, but they would do that whether they were in college or not). All they have to do to keep that free ride going is to win enough matches (exams) to place (receive a sufficient grade) at the end of the season (semester).
So what is to be done? To begin with, don’t expect me, a hard-working professor in the trenches, to be able to work miracles. I belabor my students heavily, requiring more long-term learning and more integration across subjects than most of the other courses they take. But I am only one person fighting a social phenomenon that is national in scope and many years in the making. Still, there are many small ways universities could begin to change students’ learning metaphors. We need to recognize that the lecture format evolved to serve students who are highly motivated to learn, and for such students, it is excellent. But for most of our students, it is like watching TV, and they get little out of lectures. Therefore, we professors are only going through the motions of teaching, and the students through the motions of learning. What is to be substituted for lectures on the scale of a large state university is a big problem, but whatever it is, it needs to engage the student as an active participant, not a TV viewer.
We need to do away with the almost universal use of multiple-choice exams and replace them with essays. Sure, it’s a lot more work to grade essays (or much more important, to give constructive feedback on essays), but it’s one of the few ways to find out what a student really knows, to show how to do it better, and to plant it more firmly in long-term memory (by the way, the ability of most students to explain things in writing is truly pitiful).
We need to design curricula to be much more integrated. Courses should not assume that students remember the foundations they were expected to lay in previous courses. Each course needs to reinforce and test that foundation again, at a higher level, and needs to demonstrate again and again how the stuff from previous courses is relevant in this course. As the Romans used to say, repetition is the mother of learning (only they said it in Latin). Even seniors in biology can’t explain how meiosis or natural selection work, or how cellular metabolism produces a usable form of energy, how elements move through trophic webs, or what is meant by correlation. Most don’t even know the approximate composition of the atmosphere, let alone the issues involved in global climate change. Students also need a lot more practice in explaining things verbally, preferably in front of their classmates. Again, their capacity to do this, even for things that should be very familiar, is pitiful. Only when students become truly competent at explaining their chosen subjects in speech and in writing can we consider that we have succeeded in educating them.
My recent attempts to change the educational metaphor of my students have given me hope that it can be done, but it is not easy. It requires constant and intensive feedback on both the topic and the background. There can be no dozing, no lapsed attention. Every student gets called on more than once in every lecture, and I ask them to speak to the class, to speak up and to speak in complete sentences. If they don’t know the background, I explain it, and explain how it fits into the current topic. The atmosphere is friendly, the students like it, but of course I cover less material than I would in a traditional lecture. I give a short quiz at the beginning of every class. Absences have been almost zero. It is really more like teaching high school than like teaching college, but that is what large state universities have become, and denial does no one any good.
I recently gave my students an unannounced re-test, and was gratified that all but one student improved, and a few improved greatly. They are beginning to see what “educated” means and they know what they need to do to attain it. They are now aware that the sport metaphor may get them a degree, but it won’t get them an education. And they now know there is another way, and that they have a choice.
Can universities attain the goal of truly educating students? Maybe, maybe not. It will require serious reforms, and a great deal of coherent effort by a lot of people. But in the interests of duty and self-respect, we had better start trying.