Public school system fails when university students fail mid-terms

For some time now I have been saying that elementary and secondary school districts who have dropped, or are considering dropping, the fall report cards for “progress reports” are taking the easy way out. Why? They are not preparing students for life beyond high school when they give them grades like “Needs improvement.” That is a cop-out because, while it may not offend the student or his or her parents, it doesn’t teach the child a thing. Whereas, a C grade with accompanying comments on how to actually improve to a B or better, would actually mean something.  

I have also been saying that too much emphasis on standardized tests and rote learning can result in cheating or hinder individuals once they come face to face with the real world –i.e., they are not prepared to think independently, abstractly or creatively when faced with essay exams on university mid-terms in October and November of their first year. Funny that. How come universities can have serious mid-term exams in October and November and yet elementary and secondary teachers apparently don’t yet know enough about their students’ progess by then?

Well, its long past time for the political correctness in the school system to stop and for lawmakers, school administrators and teachers’ unions to recognize and restore the notion of individual differences. Remember the Bell Curve and normal distribution? Yes, in our Western societies, we all have an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, culture, colour or religion. But, and here is the politically incorrect but, we are not all created equal intellectually. 

Which is why there is currently a post-secondary dilemma. Yes, professors are now being pressured to give higher marks than they used to. And, yes, first year mid-terms have a way of getting rid of students who are not going to do well. However, they also tend to get rid of very capable students who simply don’t know how, either to prepare for their exams or how to complete them successfully.

Remember the problem I mentioned above about rote learning. University exams require abstract and creative thinking and you are either right or you are wrong. No fuzziness. No social promotion. Get it or get out. Just like employers. For those in business, time is money. New employees either learn their jobs or they are fired. There are no accommodations. I once saw a sign on a staff room bulletin board that said: “Be good or be gone.” Yes, it’s a cold competitive world out there. But, that is reality!

In any event, when first year university students do badly or fail their mid terms, it is the universities that are having to come up with programs and strategies to stop students from dropping out — essentially doing the work that those in the regular public system have abrogated.

Endnote: Given that the comment full moderation feature is activated at the moment, there may be a short delay in approving them. My thanks for everyone’s patience!

“Progressive education” is not the problem — it’s what’s missing that is!

In following a lively and stimulating discussion at EduChatter this past week, I noted that many parents and educators today are turned off with what they see as “progressive” education. Now, while progressive and traditional terminology was not used on that thread, its implicit assumptions were there in relation to the international test results and other related issues. In my opinion, however, any misunderstanding about current pedagogy is not with the concept of “progressive” per se, it is the way it has been distorted that is the problem. For instance, take a look at this Wikipedia site.

Progressive ideas have been around for over a hundred years and John Dewey, the father of progressive education, while opening his first laboratory school in the late 19th century, wrote his books on education in the 1940’s and 50’s. Yes, they were radical at the time, but in my view, they were never about getting rid of all traditional methods. Rather, my interpretation is that progressive and the most effective traditional methods were meant to be integrated in an eclectic way.

Yet, interestingly, it took until the late 1960’s before progressive ideas would begin to affect teacher education and what went on in the classrooms of all publicly funded North American schools. In fact, in Ontario, the Hall Dennis Report came out in 1968. But, the “awakening” as it were, happened all over North America at almost the same time.

Today, however, “liberal progressivism” has become a political ideology more than simply an educational  philosophy. On the Wikipedia site, for instance, readers will find “ideas” that have nothing to do with teaching and curriculum approaches, such as: civil liberties, ethical conservation, economic progressivism, economic interventionism, efficiency movement, environmental justice, fair trade, feminism, labor rights, anti-racism, positive liberty, social justice, social progressivism, techno-progressivism, social welfare, women’s rights, and women’s suffrage.  Nothing wrong with those concepts. The problem is just that there is an assumption that traditional or conservative views don’t encompass fair trade, anti-racism policies, social justice and women’s rights — which they certainly do.

However, the problem, according to the progressives,  was that those traditional methods didn’t encourage problem solving and creative thinking. They also didn’t teach kids how to work with other kids and how to think differently and make connections between subject disciplines. However, the baby was not supposed to have been thrown out with the bath water. Meaning, the best of traditional education was supposed to be integrated with the new progressives ideas. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Today, the political left ideology has taken over education from top to bottom, starting as early as the mid 1970’s when “whole language” was instituted. I had just started teaching in 1972 and was part of that wave. Yet, many of us resisted and kept on teaching phonics. I mean, how was it “whole” when so many important parts were being left out? Now, it is almost entirely discovery and language experience, which is not “whole” either.

For example, on the Wikipedia entry, at the very top of the article, is the quote: “A progressivist teacher desires to provide not just reading and drill, but also real-world experiences and activities that centre on the real life of the students. ” (My emphasis.) In other words, progressive education was supposed to be “reading and drill,” as well as the other experiences. It was not one type of learning over the other.

So, maybe, just maybe, Canada’s drop from 7th in the world to 10th on the OECD international test scores, has something to do with this issue.

Updated & shortened December 24,2010

Brains alone will not get you into McMaster Medical School

Here is a very interesting article from today’s Globe and Mail. Written by James Bradshaw, it states: “In late October, the first 3,548 applicants to McMaster’s program took the Computer-based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics, or CASPer. With its advent, the school is putting less emphasis on students’ grades than ever before in an effort to groom better, more balanced doctors.

To read the whole article, go here. What readers will find is that, although McMaster’s medical training admission criteria will depend less on grades (although it goes without saying that all students will need to be smart) and grade point averages, more  emphasis will be put on an applicant’s problem-solving abilities, communications skills and cultural sensitivity. Not a bad thing when bedside manner is nearly as important as skills.

Prof. Lukacs exposes Univ. Manitoba “no-fail” policy at Ph.D level

Can you believe it?  The University of Manitoba’s Mathematics Department has succumbed to the politically correct policy of promoting a student who was not ready to graduate. Only, this time we are talking about a student who has already had their Ph.D conferred — even though they did not pass one of their required comprehensive exams.

No big deal you say? Sorry, but it “is” a big deal because it is the comprehensive exams that decide whether or not a Ph.D candidate is ready to be identified as a scholar and a professor.

Been there and done that. Tough? Stressful? You bet it is.  Did I suffer from test anxiety? Absolutely. The thing is, there were only four of us in a large room. At the doctoral level, there are not hundreds of students, or even dozens. Likely, the student involved wrote their exam alone. But, because they are usually timed (anywhere from three hours to eight hours), you have to think fast and you have to know your research paradigms. My guess is that this student still doesn’t understand the purpose for the exam.

In any event, good on Professor Gabor Lukacs! Suspended without pay for three months, you sure have to hand it to him for exposing all this! I have taught in two universities. I know only too well the fortitude it would require to take on the administration and the politically correct “let’s lower our academic standards in this case” attitude, particularly since the student had a medical letter.

While this matter may be happening in Manitoba, it is also alive and well in Ontario. The McGuinty government call their lowering of academic standards at the high school level, their  “success” initiative — which I call their “no-fail” policy.

Odd isn’t it that the person who exposes this travesty is suspended but the person who failed the comprehensive test is out there somewhere pretending to have successfully completed all of their doctoral program. For full details, read yesterday’s special to the National Post. Written by Joseph Brean, it just has to be a wake-up call to everyone.

Obviously, what started out as well-meaning accommodations for students with average to above average ability, who also had learning or other disabilities (including severe math or test anxiety), has now become a crutch and a detriment to academic accomplishment.

And, unfortunately, nearly twenty years ago, I had a hand in that process when I wrote a text-book about accommodations and compensations — used world-wide in university special needs departments. I also worked with dozens of college and university students in my private practice who needed help learning essay-writing techniques, study and test-taking strategies. However, I never would have suggested waiving an exam, most especially a failed comprehensive exam. Nor, would I have suggested accommodations at the doctoral level.


While no one at the University of Manitoba has asked for my opinion, I intent to give it anyway.

  1. The President of the University of Manitoba and the Math Chair have to stop blaming the whistle-blower, Prof. Lukacs.
  2. While they can’t take away a Ph.D once it has been conferred, they can insist the person involved rewrite the test as many times as it takes for them to pass it — marked by an outside neutral source.

Otherwise, all those who have a part in this fiasco have ruined the University of Manitoba’s reputation, as well as put in question “all” previous Ph.D’s conferred there.

For the rest of society, it is long past time to stop promoting students who are not ready, for whatever reason. If that means, a higher drop out rate, so be it. And, yes, having taught sociology, I know there will be those who say dropping out creates strain and the likelihood of higher crime statistics. Well, young people have choices and those choices have consequences. My point is to stop making excuses for them because  chances are most will return to school once they find out they can’t get meaningful work.

I am just glad that someone said “enough is enough” and exposed the University of Manitoba’s implicit “no-fail” policy.  Thank you Professor Lukacs!

Endnotes: Professor Lukacs was a child prodigy, meaning he was a “gifted” child. The fact that he is willing to buck his university’s administration shows he is made of different stuff and not afraid to rock the boat. Check out Paul Bennett’s blog EduChatter and his latest post on where gifted education should be going. While you’re at it, read the comment thread as well because there is an excellent discussion going on that deals with the “lowered academic standards” we see in this situation.

Ontario university students’ “notewagon” website innovative

The first time I read this London Free Press article by Kate Dubinski, titled “Slacker Students Get Help” (H/T Catherine), I was shocked and appalled. A team of students at the University of Western Ontario, Waterloo and Guelph had started up a website for sharing (buying and selling) lecture notes. Meaning, as the LFP column title implies, it sounded like slacking off, or even worse, cheating.

Yet, on second reading (and therein lies the reason students should be taking their own notes), I came to the conclusion that this was not, in fact, slacking off at all. Rather, it was a very creative and innovative solution to a chronic student issue — having to miss classes for one reason or another.

Look, I manage this blog myself, so I know how time-consuming setting up and maintaining a website can be.  However, bloggers have templates they can use, as do website developers of course. But, clearly, setting up a complex website like must have been incredibly complicated and time-consuming. So, kudos to the developers!

Now, a fair question would be: Why did they not use all that creativity and energy simply to go to class and take their own notes? I don’t know, although I can guess — boredom and not seeing the relevance of lecture content to what they want to do with their future lives. So, perhaps university professors can learn something from this and make their classes so interesting that no one will want to miss anything.

In any event, the note sharing website is not likely to slow down since students from Toronto, McMaster, Waterloo, Guelph, Ryerson and Laurier have now joined in as well. So, here is my point. The developers and managers need to realize that learning anything new is a process that involves attending (concentrating), digging into our long-term memory for what we already know, adding to that pre-requisite knowledge, and then retaining enough of it in long-term memory for later use.

So, while I can appreciate that the “notewagon” site developers are making sure the content of lectures are thorough and complete, they also need to find a way to highlight the main ideas, key points or concepts before they are available for sharing.

Why? Because, as I explained above, the student getting the notes needs to be able to learn what is relevant and important without having been present at the lecture. Students reading this might want to check out what I have written here about organizational strategies because knowing what to do to remember notes is not automatic. They could also check out Chapter Six in my book, which is specifically about notetaking strategies, and likely available in most university libraries. There are also some excellent Internet sources, such as College Board and Alamo’s Notetaking Strategies, as well as a number of links via this Google page. 

So, in summary, note sharing by itself is not necessary slacking off, although it can be for some students. However, in my opinion, the developers and managers of this service are hardly slackers, particularly if their “notes” service includes the necessary highlighting and follow-up summaries. By so doing, they can actually be of some benefit for students who: (1) have to miss a class for some reason, (2) are not good at writing notes, (3) have learning disabilities, or (4) have some kind of a physical challenge whereby they do not have full use of their hands.

Endnote: Although I have turned the comment feature off for awhile, I would be interested in receiving feedback from university students involved in this project or using it.  To do so, please use the Contact Form on the header bar.

Update: Here, then, are examples of messages received:

  1. From fh: “Sandy, I think the students are very creative we all remember trying to get notes for missed lectures notes are guarded like a pot of gold. I remember my friend getting his notes back and they looked like they had been in a hurricane and he was in a fraternity where notes were more easily obtained. Kudos to the students it is about time. I just hope that they keep up the quality of the notes. (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 12:47pm)”
  2. From Janalee: “I think another benefit is getting a second set of notes. I remember sharing notes in my university days with other students in the class and noticing that they emphasised things in thier notes that I missed in mine. Particularly in history courses where the lectures consisted of a professor talking for the entire class it was easy to miss something as you were attempting to keep up. (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 6:57 pm)”
  3. From Saif Altimimi: “Hey Sandy, I’m Saif, the Co-Founder of Notewagon. I read your article about us, just wanted to say thank you very much for the positive input. I want to assure you that we are indeed not incentively students to slack off but in fact we are working hard to provide a learning management system for students by students. A Peer-2-Peer network of sharing knowledge specific per classroom. We have other product launches that will make this vision come true! (Time: Thursday November 25, 2010 at 5:58 pm)
  4. Saif also clarified the following: “One of our co-founders goes to western, but the core team is actually in Waterloo&Guelph Ontario.” (Time: Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 8:05pm)

McGuinty Liberals to subsidize foreign students on our money!

Memo to the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government. It is not your money!!!! Tax dollars that were contributed by the people of Ontario are for the people of Ontario. Yet, the Dalton McGuinty Liberals are about to spend $30 million Ontario tax dollars to lure and subsidize foreign doctoral students to Ontario universities. Think about that for a minute. What kind of message does that send to Ontario families who are racking up debt to send their kids to college and university?

Well, Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak is right, the message and the policy are just plain wrong.

H/T Simeon (Sam) Drakich.

Why are so many university students unprepared?

I came across this post yesterday at one of my favourite blogs — Ivory Tower Blues (ITB)  — by two Ontario professors. They and I have been complaining for some time now that far too many of today’s post-secondary students are completely unprepared for college or university.

In their most recent post, however, I was surprised to find out there is someone — who actually represents university teachers — who is denying the problem is any worse than it was in the past. The name discussed at ITB was that of  James Turk, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.  

That said, I have no doubt that the unreadiness sentiment is held by more professors throughout Canada and the U.S., than not. In fact, not long ago, I published an article here at Crux of the Matter titled “How to write a college/university essay” — in response to similar complaints in the media. 

So, what exactly are the problems? Are high school students being granted credits for little or no work based on the Ontario government’s “no-fail,” policy? Are high school students being allowed to complete independent study and/or make up courses with little or no supervision? Are university teachers expecting more from their students now than in the past? Or, is it some of all of the above? 

Whatever the case, before anyone is tempted to blame everything on high school teachers, I would ask visitors to first check out this link to the high school curriculum chart  for English — up to page 26 of 221 pages. It clearly shows the kinds of reading, research and writing skills that are supposed to be taught in Ontario’s high schools — no doubt similar to what is expected elsewhere. But, are those skills actually being taught to all students who will attend college or university?

Then, there is the “attitude” problem which may appear as though students are unready. For instance, as far back as the mid 1990’s (when I was still teaching undergraduate students), I began to notice a new pattern of behaviour. I referred to it at the time as “the chip on the shoulder problem.” Students would miss 50% or more of their classes and then seem surprised when they did badly on an exam or paper — often saying they had expected an “A.”

The crux of the matter is then, apart from the few who dismiss the charge of student unreadiness, why are so many college and university professors today finding that students are not prepared for the rigors of post secondary study?