Sunday, September 21, 2014

The role of the student in superior education

My third post about superior education deals with its leading actor: the student. I have the honor and opportunity to work with the best applicants to an exact sciences carrier in Brazil: the "Politécnico". Nevertheless I need to exercise some critic.
First of all, there is a universe of distance between the student in the junior years and the same student in the late years of the course. Some years ago I attributed this to a lack of satisfaction with the chosen carrier, but nowadays I believe the students are also to blame. In my opinion the student, submitted for years to the evaluation system I described in my last post, give up learning, concentrating instead in obtaining the necessary grades for approval. I am being, probably, too severe. I have also good students in the classroom (I teach in the 7th and 8th semesters), but I just feel they are not as interested as in the first years.
One possible explanation for this, which was pointed out many times before, is that, paradoxically, our student is too good. Frequently he (or she) was the best student, the most intelligent, in his (her) class in the secondary school (the Brazilian equivalent to the American highschool, or the German Gymnasium). This student usually got good grades without the need to study hard (I know this because I was one of these students), the result is that he (or she) didn't learn how to study properly. When he (she) enters the Escola Politecnica, suddenly, there are others who are, as much or even more intelligent than him (her). Not every student can cope with this renewed situation. In addition, this student didn't learn how to study and the lectures in the first years of the Escola Politecnica (mostly Mathematics and Physics) are not as simple as the ones he attended before. This, added to the poorly prepared written tests, leads to the recipe of a tragedy.
I had the privilege to work with a brilliant student, Dr. Bruno Geoffroy Scuracchio. Today he is the responsible engineer for innovation in an autopart supplier industry. Our first contact was just after I got hired in the Escola Politecnica. I supervised him in a junior research project, the final course dissertation, a master dissertation and finally, the PhD thesis. I knew he had some trouble to finish his course, in particular, I knew he had to attend the "Integral and differential calculus III" discipline in the last year (this is originally a third semester discipline). Once, in an informal chat, I asked him how difficult it was and his answer surprised me: not difficult at all. He told me he attended the lectures to know what was the subject, solved the exercises corresponding to that subject, solved doubts with the professor, and used about two hours a week for studying, after doing all this he got the grade for approval already in the second test (out of three). Further, he said that if he did that the first time he attended that discipline, he would not be reproved. I thought that if we are not teaching our junior students this, we are doing a clumsy job.
This lack of discipline in studying is easier to show with an example. I am an enthusiast of network learning, as my good (virtual) friend, Prof. Ewout ter Haar defines (also known in my country as distance learning). Once, some years ago, I was responsible for coordinating a discipline with a large number of students (820). I decided to substitute  a written test by one applied online using the moodle system administered by Prof. ter Haar. I didn't know, but this was the first attempt to do this with such a large discipline. I gave five days per week as a deadline for the tests and monitored the number of students who solved them. One day Prof. ter Haar sent me the figure below, showing the bandwidth charges of the servers.
As one sees, there are some plateaus in the charge, this is not that difficult to understand, the student probably used the evenings to solve the test. The problems are the levels of these plateaus. Only about 220 students (out of 820) solved the first test within three days, about 530 students did it until the fourth day. The charge growth in the last day was faster than exponential. It was a hell of a crash test to the servers (and they survived). The interesting is to see that the plateau levels decrease with time, meaning more and more students left the test to solve in, literally, the last minutes of the deadline.
This last example is a characteristics of our students (in fact, of the Brazilians), to leave everything to do in the last minute, We should do a better job in teaching our students, especially in the first years of the course, to avoid this.

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