Why is bad teaching attached to uni certification?

When most things are certified, like coffee or wood or insanity, the stuff is produced by one party, then someone else judges it. University is meant to be a certification of something or another, so a nagging question for all those who can think of a zillion better ways to learn things than by moving their morning sleep to a lecture theater  is ‘why can’t university work like those other things?’

If the learning bit were done with a different party from the certification bit, everyone could buy their preferred manner of education, rather than being constrained by the need for it to be attached to the most prestigious certification they could get hold of. This would drastically increase efficiency for those people who learn better by reading, talking, or listening to pausable, speedupable, recordings of good lecturers elsewhere than they do by listening to someone gradually mumble tangents at them for hour-long stints, or listening to the medical autobiographies of their fellow tutorial-goers.

This is an old and seemingly good idea, assuming university is for learning stuff, so probably I should assume something else.

Many other things university could be for face the same argument – if you are meant to learn to be a ‘capable and cultivated human being’ or just show you can put your head down and do work, these could be achieved in various ways and tested later.

One explanation for binding the ‘learning’ to the certification is that the drudgery is part of the test. The point is to demonstrate something like the ability to  be bored and pointlessly inconvenienced for years on end, without giving up and doing something interesting instead, purely on the vague understanding that it’s what you’re meant to do. That might be a good employee characteristic.

That good though? Surely there is far more employment related usefulness you could equip a person with in several years than just checking they have basic stamina and normal deference to social norms. Presumably just having them work cheaply for that long would tell you the same and produce more. And aren’t there plenty of jobs where the opposite characteristics, such as initiative and responding fast to suboptimal situations, are useful? Why would everyone want signals of placid obedience?

Bryan Caplan argued that university must be long because it is to show conformity and conscientiousness, and anyone can pretend at that for a short while. But why isn’t university more like the army then? People figure out that they don’t have the conformity and conscientiousness for that much faster than they do university from what I hear. University is often successfully done concurrently with spending a year or five drunk, so it’s a pretty weak test for work ethic related behaviours.

Another possible explanation is that the system made more sense at some earlier time, and is slow to change because people want to go to prestigious places and not do unusual things. While there’s no obvious reason the current setup allows more prestige, it’s been around a long time, so its institutions are way ahead prestige-wise.

What do you think?

18 responses to “Why is bad teaching attached to uni certification?

  1. mitchell porter

    The more intelligent a person is, the more boring, inconvenient and inefficient the university system appears. You are an exceptionally intelligent person and so its deficiencies in this regard appear overwhelming to you. But although other people may make similar complaints, it’s just not that big an issue for them. In particular, they do not have as much to gain as you would have from a system which allows fast learners to learn fast and then take tests proving that they have learned.

    Most university degrees are about certifying intellectual competency in some white-collar career. To have the people who do the instructing also do the certifying is the simplest arrangement. Both teaching and testing for competency require people who know the field, and there is a limited supply of people willing to take time out from their careers to be instructors and examiners.

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  3. Uni serves a function of a place for men and women to meet, and for that it needs to be acceptable to both men and women and to allow a substantial amount of free time. Army boot camp seems a poor choice for women, and for studious bookworm types. Uni also serves the function of letting folks affiliate directly with high status folks, which boot camp would also do poorly.

    • Presumably for the right men and women to meet. A social club with university admission requirements would seem to sort people just as well (if work didn’t do the trick) and allow more free time. As would the learning part of the separated system I suggested first.

      Uni could be much more like army boot camp before women and bookworms had problems.

      Why couldn’t you affiliate with high status folks in something more boot camp like? Seems to me few people outside top unis get this affiliating with high status people bonus anyway – most people at my uni (Australian National Uni) don’t seem to talk to or take an interest in their lecturers, or even know who they are at times.

  4. At least my uni education worked a lot like your suggestion: attending lectures was almost entirely voluntarily.
    The result was that from 160 people starting with me about 80 actually managed to finish…

    All the rest didn’t manage to change their learning style from school-learning (as little as possible to pass the exam) to uni-learning (as least as much as needed for the exam, preferable more, since otherwise you’ll have not enough foundation to build upon during the next year)
    So probably your current system with forced attendance aims at minimizing drop outs with the cost of major boredom to a very few.
    Besides, the goal mostly isn’t about teaching facts, but about teaching work methods and world view. How amazingly well that works becomes rather obvious if you compare the world views from 2 high school students before they start uni and after they finish different educations, for example engineering and law… Mostly they are hardly able to understand each other anymore. And achieving such a thorough change takes at least 3-5 years imho.
    The world view tends to stay with people for their entire lifes after that, while most facts from lectures are forgotten within 3 years of graduation I’d say…

  5. someone i know (don’t remember who) referred to a degree as “the license to live a comfortable life.”
    In many ways the process is as arbitrary as the ancient chinese literature exams; it proves that you aren’t a complete dunce, and that you are willing to follow orders to get where you want to be.

    The system is tedious to people of above average intelligence; but those with below average and average IQ’s can benefit from people’s bias towards thinking that everyone who attends university is brilliant, so most people wouldn’t want to change anything.

  6. sounds like you are a student and you still have some expectation that things in general and those which affect you in particular should make logical sense. I think in one of your other posts you said something about a bunch of monkeys. Consider life from that point of view to increase acceptance or not. Maybe you will introduce a measure of logic into the current situation.

  7. I’d guess its a combination of:

    1) Your last explanation, historical inertia preserving a somewhat outmoded institution.

    2) Michell’s point about the concentration of expertise of both instructors and certifiers. Note education (until recently to tie into point one) is necessarily heavily localised, and also highly heterogeneous. Its not practical for me to fly to another city for exams at the end of each semester, and an algebraic topolgist isn’t competent to certify the job readiness of a differential geometer. Given these constraints its not surprising I learn and am examined in the same place by the same person.

    3) University in general isn’t as bad as your experiences would suggest – both because you are more intelligent than average (systems deal poorly with outliers) and also because you got unlucky with your course or cohort or campus or whatever. In my first year I had no dull courses, learned a lot, met many cool smart people (yes, social club effect), etc.

    4) Because education is complex, having certification thats independent of instruction is (more) prone to people gaming the system. If I struggle to answer questions in class but then do brilliantly in the exam, my tutors might smell a rat – even if the “rat” is only that their exam isn’t accurately measuring the abilities they are trying to instill.

    5) There are certification processes that can be largely or wholly separate from instruction for various kinds of expertise (Bar Exams, Microsoft certified Engineers), and they fill the market demand.

    6) Assorted other reasons.

  8. On the high school level, matriculation exams such as those in Israel, the UK, and elsewhere allow you to just show up and take them. (This option is usually for adult students trying to catch up, but there is no rule that only they can do it.)

    An interesting point is that in the more elite part of the software industry, certifications such as Microsoft’s and the like are looked down on. I guess there is a belief that the best people should countersignaling.

  9. It may be a good thing to make all university examinations public, in part so that the possible failures of student selection at prestigious universities might be rectified by non-admitted students returning to prove themselves worthy after the fact at Finals examinations.

    However, if those examinations are designed to assess either the ‘tip of the iceberg’ or a representative sample of the course, strong performance by an external candidate may over-rate their skill set and knowledge base comparative to an internal candidate.

    This is not to mention that university education, done well, might serve to instil qualities that cannot be assessed well by terminal examination: habits of mind, perseverance, intellectual interaction, creativity…

    There may also be potential for embarrassment, as precocious secondary students turn up to nail Finals papers at less prestigious institutions.

  10. French and Italian universities are said to be like that: Many students never come to lectures, and the grade is determined only by the final exam.

    Many of these unis have low admission standards, so that the opportunity to take the exams is effectively open.

    And… such universities have a very bad academic reputation.

  11. I went to Brandeis University, which combines research and small class size, and had several years of wonderful intellectual exploration in a variety of academic fields.

  12. I went to Oxford, where one’s grade is typically wholly determined by results in Finals examinations.

    However, employers respect the name on the certificate not just because Oxford’s Finals examinations might be more difficult those than at other institutions but also because the course demands more work and direct intellectual interaction of the student than any other course in the UK – and one must have demonstrated an ability to cope in this environment in order to make it to Finals in the first place.

    External candidates may have followed a comparably exacting route pre-exam, but it is harder for them to prove it. There would be a real chance that they would not have acquired a similarly broad set of skills.

    Lectures are optional (the advantage being that high attenders showing high personal motivation, low attenders with strong final results raw intellectual power – both desirable traits) but if one takes the course seriously, one can end up having very little free time.

    The drop-out rate is <2%.

  13. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/04/15/lsu
    Interesting story of a teacher at LSU who tried “brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading”. This threw the majority of the students in the beginning as they were not used to rigor. “at mid-term, more than 90 percent of the students in Dr. Homberger’s class were failing or had dropped the class.” “LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class.” Given LSU is not a superior institute of learning what do you think of this method which should have rewarded effort and diligence to the required reading.

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  16. If the signal also depends on paying a financial cost, which could include full tuition and board, honors can’t be handed out without something to justify that expense, and an extensive education does work well for this while many other proposals would not. This could happen if e.g. financial returns to education depended strongly on intellectual caliber (so that it is a good investment only for the bright), which seems plausible (though the theory itself, alas, does not).

  17. I got my BS in physics from the University of Washington, and lecture attendance there was normally voluntary.


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