This conversation focuses on the common four-year degree while acknowledging exceptions such as the handful of three-year degrees, most of which are structurally and pedagogically unchanged from their four year counterparts save having been stuffed tightly into an aggressive three year calendar.
We Need to Break the Mold
In the United States, degrees that were once delivered in four years are more often delivered in five. While some explanations for these delays are valid, they share a reference point of the four year calendar as if it were an unquestioned standard rather than what it is, which is nothing more than the product of a long past society and economy that possessed very little knowledge, and some of that incorrect, about how to convey knowledge and competence efficiently.
The four-year baccalaureate stabilized around the time the motor car was an intriguing novelty. Since then, we have learned a thing or two about how to teach and how people learn.
Over the past 110 years, the learning and measurement sciences have discovered substantive ways to deliver knowledge with greater precision and efficiency, and in ways that are retained and generalized better. They have also discovered ways to deliver knowledge in ways that produce greater behavioral competence in less time and, therefore, for less money. Yes. . . cheaper, faster, and better. Similarly, the measurement sciences have developed methods to assess learning with better focus on generalizability (the central goal of teaching and learning), and greater efficiency and precision.
Focusing solely on efficiency for a moment, modern learning and evaluation sciences have provided guidance which, if fully exploited in program development and the classroom, can reduce the typical time to proficiency by 50%. However, it is necessary to de-rate that percentage slightly because the rate of knowledge acquisition across a topic is more logarithmic than linear.
In many cases, we can deliver in two and one-half years outcomes that are now achieved to a lesser extent in four years. To do so, we need only make manageable changes in the structure of curriculum and classroom teaching.
This is the point at which most executives will want to understand how the efficient classroom differs from the classroom of 1907. Let's take a look.
Curriculum for the 1907 classroom consisted largely of lecture notes and the chapter headings of the textbook or other sourcebooks which may have been developed into a syllabus consisting of lecture topics. This syllabus may or may not have been shared with students.
The 1907 classroom consisted of five elements: read a chapter, listen to the professor lecture, ask questions (not always permitted), study lecture notes and chapters and, when the time came, take a high stakes examination.
While it was not uncommon for students to form private study groups, such behavior was discouraged as a form of cheating. A culture of individualism that was misaligned with how work got done permeated the 1907 academic structure. Assessments took the form of short or long essay responses to questions (permeated with multiple sources of invalidity) or oral examinations (better assessment dimensions but even more subject to various forms of bias invalidity). Multiple-choice examinations became popular at a later period.
There is no reason to expect that the 1907 classroom would score well from a scientific perspective. After all, that knowledge had yet to be developed. Educators did as well as they could, largely informed by their professors before them. We now see that the 1907 classroom may not have been well designed or efficient for most students but it was good enough for some types of students. Intelligent students who were motivated to master the material were generally able to excel under the 1907 pedagogical structure. On balance, these were students who might also have mastered the content on their own, especially with the aid of lecture notes and a textbook. Students who suffered most were those who needed to be engaged and stimulated, also known as taught. Fortunately, 1907 classrooms were populated with the intelligent and the rich. The intelligent found a way to make the classroom work for them and the rich had other ways of ensuring that they became alumni.
The means by which learning was assessed in 1907 were so badly flawed by modern evaluation standards that they would be considered invalid across the board. Most testing strategies showed very low test/retest correlations and skilled rote memorizers tended to be overrepresented in the high end of the distribution. The one or two sample high-stakes tests produced the results we now know to be an inaccurate reflection of what many students have learned.
While the classroom culture of the modern university has changed considerably, the underlying structure of lecture, read, discuss, review, and test with invalid methods has changed less than one might think in relation to the 1907 classroom, very little in fact.
Curriculum now consists of more detailed course outlines built around objectives which may or may not be sound (i.e., students will understand Roosevelt’s views on employment). Many textbook companies produce syllabi and objectives for ready use by professors.
Differences inside the classroom include more classroom discussion, including beneficial horizontal discussions among students, and the use of multiple-choice tests, largely to the exclusion of the written evaluations.
Most 2017 classrooms still favor the intelligent and disfavor those who need to be taught, albeit less so than in the past.
The validity of assessments has changed as well. Changed, but not improved. I have conducted several studies on multiple-choice examinations in universities and find from 40 to 70% of the test items to be scientifically invalid (send me an email for detail).
The Efficient Classroom of Tomorrow
In this discussion, I use "efficient" in the economic sense that subsumes effectiveness.
Beginning with content development, the typical course is deconstructed into a dozen or so self-contained learning objects (chunks of learning) which, together, reflect the span of content set out for the course. The size (and number) of the chunks varies with the nature of the content, including its underlying learning objective, the activities required to create competence in relation to the objective, and the assessment metrics and rubrics required to evaluate that competence.
A typical course based on learning sciences consists of 10 to 20 chunks (containers), sized according to content properties, wherein each container houses everything needed to achieve a single performance-centered learning objective via a suite of individual and group (vertical and horizontal) activities, and congruent assessments that focus on the integration of a balance of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills determined by the nature of the learning object. The container is also permeated with properties that specify particulars about the learning context and the relation of the container to other containers specific to each student's degree path.
The classroom that delivers these learning objects looks different as well. The most obvious difference is that it is much more complex, dynamic, and interactive with multiple parallel lines of activity and accountability running throughout. Horizontal learning teams are created and are responsible for engagements to produce specified outcomes as a group. Parallel vertical activities create lines of instructor/student engagement and accountability as well. Each horizontal learning team produces a suite of outcomes which they then teach to the instructor and the other horizontal teams.
Mid-term and final high-stakes assessments, still prevalent in 2017, are replaced with a large number of real-time evaluation points that assess both form and content from the perspective of each stakeholder.
An example of assessment centered on form is the logical structure, clarity, and concision of an oral or written communication whereas a content assessment might assess fidelity to topic, comprehensiveness, accuracy and depth of comprehension, and associated performance skills. Low validity multiple-choice assessment instruments have been replaced with multi-trait, multi-method instruments and observation metrics that involve all stakeholders according to relevance. Students might be evaluating how well other horizontal learning teams deliver their findings in a clear and engaging way while the instructor is assessing the theoretical and empirical adequacy of the presentation. These are only two of more than a dozen common assessment dimensions. A typical course will produce several hundred evaluation points per student, mostly taken in real time.
Throughout the progression of the course, advancement through the learning objects is transparent to students. At any time, students know where they stand in the course and what grade they have earned to date.
Why Not Exploit What Science Offers the Classroom?
Within this year, I visited a classroom that was structured precisely on the 1907 model. I saw only readings, lectures, and a multiple-choice final examination that tested at the lowest level of learning (rote memory). The classroom's lost opportunity acquired a sense of irony because it was a graduate course in learning science.
Not that much work is involved in transforming inefficient 2017 classrooms to efficient classrooms that deliver better outcomes in little more than half the time. Content developers have to be trained to build learning objects appropriate to the content. Instructors need to be taught how to deliver the content and participate in the structured assessment of learning outcomes. Not much more is needed.
Old habits die hard, perhaps hardest in the university classroom. Higher education's well known conservatism will have to be pushed aside, perhaps aggressively, by market forces seeking the reduced costs that accrue to increases in efficiency. Once initiated, the path to efficient learning, shorter and less costly degrees, and better learning outcomes becomes clear and uncomplicated.
You have no doubt seen, participated in, or created curriculum and a classroom based on learning and measurement science. If so, chances are it is a one-off endeavor that represents the creativity and knowledge of an individual. One reason why science-based curriculum is not more prevalent is that its champions face a structural and cultural uphill battle in convincing others to bring science into their classrooms. We could begin by changing the elements of university life that fail to reward innovation in teaching.