What private colleges can do

April 10, 2018 01:30 AM Shyam Sharma


Without greater advancement and integration of research, academic and professional development support, and innovation in teaching, private colleges can no longer justify their cost or define their social contribution

In an earlier essay here, I argued that private colleges can and should start taking on deeper challenges than just irregular classes and low marks in the public sector for attracting students. Also building on the idea that the private sector can do best if it embraces the idea of education as a social cause, let me discuss three particular approaches for justifying the cost of private education. 

Behind irregular classes and general disinterest in how many students succeed, the public sector has much to fix that has deeper, cultural roots: Concentration of authority and insidious effects of hierarchy everywhere, complacency among most scholars about producing research, politicization of leadership and professoriate and student organizations. Private colleges can implement changes because they have a relative advantage of having none or much less of those challenges. Especially with the increasing weight of internal assessment (often 40 percent of total grades), they are able to practically redefine quality education. They can reward grades to their students for prepared and active participation in class, research and presentation, field work and experimentation, design and invention, experiential learning within college, internship and assistantship outside college, and much more. They can also allocate incentives to grow a new generation of teacher-scholars who don’t just lecture but broaden their teaching and especially integrate research into education. It is not to say that public colleges cannot do the above, but they seem to relatively lack enough willpower and incentive to do so.  

Go beyond exams

The first and most important change private colleges can make is to stop considering end-of-term written exams as the end goal of education, or even as the primary mode of assessment. As long as colleges keep measuring success with transcripts alone—rather than placement rates, well-rounded academic and professional development of students, mentoring, professional success stories, diversity of ideas and skills especially by diversifying faculty, as well—they will keep misaligning the goals of education and the rewards of pursuing it. Exams miserably fail to measure any of the above, and if none of the above are measured, recognized, or rewarded, there is no reason students or teachers will pay attention to them. The society must (and will) begin to demand more than an impressive mark sheet from costly private education. 

Colleges must re-distribute the weight of written exams to other kinds of achievements and performance, such as research and presentation, participation and collaboration, leadership and service, experimentation and innovation, entrepreneurship and invention. Imagine that a business ethics professor has just taught about the abuse of customer data by businesses. Why would she want to give students an exam? Just to see if the students have understood what they studied? But why would she want to know that? To decide whether or how to clarify anything, what to teach next, which student to provide additional support, right? How about just asking students who understood the theory to raise a hand? Letting one or two students elaborate? Aren’t these testing tools as well? 

Why so?

The problem with relying too heavily on “written” exam is that it renders non-written skills and experiences and performances invisible. It doesn’t prompt/require teachers to create activities, assignments, and opportunities where students can apply knowledge, hone skills, engage others. Exams are depressingly ineffective teaching tools because they also hurt the richness and diversity of learning. 

Somehow, we have taken the need to “certify” and convinced ourselves that that’s the goal itself. To foster experience and skills, opportunity and motivation, we must use many other assessment/certification methods. Let me share just a few from my own classroom.

I teach reading and writing, research and communication, rhetoric and new media. I never give an exam. For example, to ensure that students read the text carefully, I don’t give them a “comprehension exam”: I ask them to write a paragraph, starting with a summary and ending by addressing various other objectives of the reading (responding, analyzing, applying, synthesizing, annotating, etc). In small classes, reading responses can be collected regularly; in larger ones, they can be collected and graded on a few random days during the semester. Similarly, to make students take the time to write and revise and edit longer papers, I ask them to save and attach each draft (now made easy by cloud technology) when submitting the assignment for grading. To help students practice the research skills I teach, I help them with the following research-based paper and ask them to briefly present it in class, focusing on the process, method, and tools used. When teaching complex theories in rhetoric or scholarship about new media, I ask them to come ready for participating in class discussion. For those who are shy during full-class discussion, I add small-group problem-solving exercises. I used to believe until recently that exams cannot be completely eliminated, but evidently, they can be. 

Private colleges should limit exams to five or 10 out of the 40 percentage for internal assessment. At least half of the teachers in our colleges in Nepal can do without exams, without losing anything and instead gaining a lot. 

Add academic support

The second most impactful change that private colleges can make is by creating rich educational environments for supplementing classroom learning. They can do so with academic support and professional development services. They can start by requiring professors to maintain at least one hour per week of “office hour” when students can consult them as teachers, mentors, and disciplinary experts. Professors should be allowed to cancel a class, if they want, to help students individually. They can then create an Academic Support Center—including a writing center, a career center, an advising and counseling center, a library, a technology support center, a cultural center, and so on. 

Senior students can be trained to tutor junior peers at the Writing Center (benefiting both parties). Even a single expert can help prepare many students for the job markets at the Career Center. Stress and other personal, academic, or social challenges can be addressed with counseling. The Library can use subject experts or general research guides, as well as technological support staff, to teach students research skills. Colleges must be more than classrooms.  

Helping students with their academic skills outside of class saves a lot of time for professors, say of Physics or Economics, who can focus on disciplinary knowledge and skills. Even though it is best to teach academic skills within the disciplines, not many professors across the disciplines have the expertise or time to do so. 

Integrate research

Private colleges can integrate research into teaching and curricula and in their mission, even within the current system. Research as a tool for learning is essential for today’s students not only because textbook knowledge becomes outdated quickly (so students must learn how to learn as and when needed). It is also important because it will promote research among faculty, who can improve teaching as well as faculty research and knowledge production. 

A culture of research among faculty members can be promoted by creating a point system and reward through promotion, tenure, pay raise, bonus, or awards. It can also be promoted by hiring new faculties who have published and by providing support and resources. Accrediting agencies or the government should stop providing accreditation especially to graduate-level programs that do not meet a certain standard of research and publication (with variations in some cases, such as trade schools and certain disciplines). The society must demand research and scholarship as evidence of their being continually innovative, educationally effective, and socially productive. 

But scholarship doesn’t just mean publishing, nor research-based writing. Teachers can produce and share knowledge through conferences (at the institutional, national, regional, and global levels). We see this practice in a few disciplines like English Education in TU. But we need many new journals, including on new platforms of publication. Our scholars need access to journal databases, funding for scholarly pursuits, and course release for conducting research and publishing it. And, most importantly, colleges must reward and support their teacher-scholars who integrate their research and scholarship with their teaching and professional development. 

With innovation in teaching, academic and professional development support for students, and integration of research with teaching and the advancement of professors’ own research and scholarship, private colleges can once again compete with their public counterparts. If their marketing pitch remains regular classes and high marks, students will find enough reasons to return to public colleges. If there’s not enough to justify the cost, they should. 

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