I was sitting in my communication skills class when I first really thought about what we were learning in school. The majority of first and second year classes are textbook based- with lectures sometimes not covering everything in the textbook. Slightly better-designed courses have lecture content separate from textbook content, and use the lecture to cover real-life application concepts. Yet, it was only in third year that I really started getting exposure to a more hands-on approach to education. Some students never get that opportunity.
Here’s a question to really think about - how do you really learn things? You don’t learn to tie your shoes just solely through reading about it in a book, right? Yet, in most academic institutions, that really is how stuff is learned - rote memorization through the textbook. This is the problem with the school system teaching to the test. The most successful students aren’t necessarily the best chemists or anthropologists, but rather they’re the best test-takers. A common strategy used by students to take advantage of the knowledge regurgitation evaluation system is cramming. By memorizing and going over concepts right before a test, the knowledge stays for a short while - just enough to write the test, before it disappears into the dark realms of the hippocampus. Sure, other strategies exist that may help with knowledge retention, but cramming is much more efficient, which especially caters to the busy schedules of most university students. As a result, because there is a heavy emphasis on test-taking, students learn at a suboptimal level by employing strategies such as cramming. After all, getting good grades is proof to society of your intelligence, right?
This isn’t to say that we should petition for the complete elimination of the multiple-choice test and the grading system - there are many practical functions that this system really helps with. For one, handing everyone a number allows companies and graduate schools to select which students they should accept - though it’d be dangerous to select based on the number alone. It also provides a reward incentive for students to work hard and do well - promoting the ‘hard work pays off’ ideal similar to the American dream. Furthermore, rote memorization is an important skill too - there are instances where rote memorization is all you need to do. People should also be able to learn from a textbook, especially since the internet is such a salient source of information today. Hands-on experience is not always possible. To radically revolutionize the whole system is beyond my ingenuity - I’m only pointing out the imbalance in skills taught in school.
But going back to tying your shoes - you don’t really learn it until you practice tying it. Research shows that learning a new skill goes through similar stages (seriously, there is actual research on this--google it). There will be a stage where you do the new skill for the first time. Then when you try to practice the skill, it will feel very awkward - as if you have to consciously force it. Then it will feel less and less awkward until you successfully master the skill. Yet with all the knowledge learned from textbooks, and very little opportunity to practice it, it’s no wonder that many university students forget a lot of what they learned.
Those students that actively seek out opportunities to practice what they learned are onto something. They end up retaining more information from their experiences in the laboratory, or doing creative writing, or trying to create something as a side project. But how do we take what we know, and try to apply it to the system? There’s only a certain amount of lab positions available, and institutions can’t possibly provide an opportunity to every single student. This is true, and different universities are tackling this in innovative ways. Waterloo University for example, has a culture around co-op. Many students take what they learn and begin applying their knowledge in actual jobs, starting in undergrad as early as in first year for some students! Another approach is the new ‘inquiry’ style learning that different medical schools have started to use. In inquiry, the learning is more student directed, and they decide what and how they want to learn, with the end goal of solving different challenges. Both these methods incorporates a hands-on component where the student must actively use the knowledge rather than just memorizing it.
Now going back to you - well, are you learning? Think about it.
Written By: Osmond Jian