Learning a New Way

words michael white
images sean murphy

If you grew up in North America, like most children you probably started going to school around age 5. This likely became your day-to-day norm up until you graduated from high school. According to a 2015 study in the United States, before you arrived at BCIT you sat for an average of 112.3 mandatory standardized tests — multiple choice, short answer, and essay form1. On top of that, many students take additional non-mandatory tests. Then you enrolled in your program here, and if you’re like me, are likely still being evaluated largely on your ability to pass tests. For most people, this system is the norm, it’s all we know, and we never stop to question if the system is working well, or if there may be better alternatives available. I believe there are.

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My education experience was a little different than most. I was homeschooled. For the bulk of childhood, my days were filled with playing, climbing trees, and experiencing all the things that interested me. My parents provided me with access to information (resources, texts, and hands-on experiences), fielded my numerous questions, and encouraged me to explore and examine the world around me – something that I did joyfully. Rarely was I tested in the same way as children in the public school system, and I was certainly never tested in isolation, under a time constraint. Instead, I learned by completing tasks, receiving guidance, and demonstrating my ability. I learned in a way that felt as natural to me as living.

When I was seventeen, I chose to go to a public school for the first time. For one semester, I took several courses at the grade 11/12 level at the local high school. Ultimately, I discovered that I did not enjoy or excel in that learning environment. The next semester, I took a Level 1 Apprenticeship Carpentry course at the local college and found it tremendously fun. I enjoyed the learning model much more than my other classes that used rote learning and standardized testing to evaluate my abilities. Instead, here we learned theory related to carpentry in the morning, and then in the afternoon we built things, just as you might hope an aspiring carpenter would be doing. It was through this way that I also learned algebra and trigonometry, because both are required in the calculations involved in carpentry, where working with angles, volumes, and areas is just part of life.

At 18, I enrolled in a self-paced, self-directed learning program at the community college in my hometown and took the prerequisite courses for admittance into University. In that learning environment, I was given space in which to work (if I chose to spend time there), instructors and books to draw information from, and then the rest was up to me. I chose how much time I wanted to dedicate to the course, and how focused I would be in accomplishing the learning objectives. I was given a deadline to work towards, and I passed my courses there within months.

After that, I enrolled at BCIT in the Mechatronics and Robotics program and spent two years in the formal education system here. The classes were interesting, and I was applying what I learned right away. The downside: I seldom had any downtime to think about anything except the next test. This learning environment contributed in no small way to the intense stress I felt under this learning paradigm. Despite that, Mechatronics and Robotics proved an incredibly valuable portion of my education. I graduated and went to work for four years in industrial automation, but I’m back at BCIT now for a degree in Electrical Engineering.

“I am motivated to see changes to the education model here, and to see changes that that could prove more effective and have longer lasting effects on its graduates.”

I tell you all this to illustrate my experience with a vast array of different educational methods, because while each has their own advantages and disadvantages, I believe the one deployed here at BCIT is not ideal and I believe it can be improved. I feel that my unique experiences have afforded me an opportunity to better understand the system in which BCIT operates, and because of that, I am motivated to see changes to the education model here, and to see changes that that could prove more effective and have longer lasting effects on its graduates.

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Like most universities, BCIT compartmentalizes knowledge into individual subjects, teaching them as separate classes, often without referencing material you are learning in your other classes. From my experience, the working world – or the “complex world” that BCIT aims to prepare us for – does not operate under the same pretense. When I entered the workforce, the challenges I encountered weren’t separated neatly into subject, they were mixed together and many different skills were needed to solve a whole task. Most of the work we do outside educational institutions is task-oriented and may require the application of many different “subjects” in order to achieve a solution. So the question that I found myself asking when I returned for my second trip through BCIT was: if the real world operates like that, then why do we teach by subject?

Right now, I’m taking six courses concurrently. On any given day, I’ll attend lectures on between two and five of those subjects. Because my attention is pulled in so many different directions, I often end up sacrificing putting effort into one or more of the six course, because another one has a midterm or test coming up that I need to study for since it’s worth a huge part of my overall evaluation. I also end up having to switch topics rapidly throughout the day, going from “Math mode” to “Chemistry mode” in the span of 15 minutes. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it does mean that I’m less aware of when I’m falling behind in any given subject. Some people would argue that constantly switching between subjects is meant to simulate a “real world” scenario, but in my experience out there, this is not how things work at all. In their jobs, graduates will find that almost all tasks require the application of several subjects in the course of completion, but rarely will they come across a task that is completed most easily through the application of information learned in just one class. In the ‘real world’ you’re always working towards accomplishing the same task, and even though that task might require you to reference knowledge that would typically be grouped under different subjects, as they are at BCIT, there is a single goal you are working towards. In this particular institutional model we have here, the subjects are not necessarily interrelated, so I’m never entirely sure how one course pertains to the next. However, the real challenge for me is how we are evaluated, by demonstrating that we can recall information without the use of any resources.

Formal testing is an inevitable result of this subject-based learning, and BCIT is notorious for its demanding course load, which necessitates a multitude of exams and tests every semester. To be fair, graduates of BCIT are often very accomplished and sought-after, so the model does get results, however, the aggressive pace of delivery and continuous testing puts a lot of undue stress on students and decreases the retention and deep learning the universities hope to encourage.  Consider the effects of stress on memory formation and retention. While relatively low levels of stress – say, the simple stress of a professor’s high expectations of you – may increase the learning ability of students to focus on the subjects being taught, high levels of stress – such as those surrounding midterms or finals – have been shown to degrade memory recall, cognitive performance, and new memory formation2. While this affects everyone, students who are more prone to anxiety or stress due to testing are at a huge disadvantage compared to people who are less stressed during testing.

Standardized testing is so common today that we seldom pause to question its place in education. But the current method of testing is rapidly losing utility as an effective measure of useful knowledge or the ability to perform a task, and can contribute significantly to the stress of students and teachers2. In my experience, students are expected to learn and memorize course material in order to successfully pass a test wherein they will have little or no access to reference material, or the tools commonly used in industry. However, when I was working professionally, I was never required to operate without access to as many references as I could find, and in the most stressful situations, there were always coworkers a phone call away, ready to help out. I believe the current model of standardized testing does not accurately test a student’s ability to be successful in their job.

“I believe the current model of standardized testing does not accurately test a student’s ability to be successful in their job.”

Much of our current education system revolves around the idea that academic performance as measured through standardized testing is an accurate indication of the amount of knowledge a student has internalized. And although some alternate methods of evaluation are used here, including lab tests, and hand-in assignments, the bulk of my grade at BCIT comes from these formal examinations. I believe tested results do not correlate well to my ability to complete a task. When I want someone to build me a house, I want him or her to have the skills and demonstrate the ability, not just prove that they have read and memorized the building code. Textbook knowledge may not directly correlate to actual ability. Countless adults in the working world will remember how many tests they took in school, staying up all night to cram as much information as they can into their heads before entering the gymnasium and pouring it all out in the course of two hours, only to realize later on how little of that information they can automatically recall now from memory.

What if there was a way to teach students that doesn’t leave them harrowed and wishing for freedom?

One alternate method that I have experienced and found valuable, involved teaching and evaluating performance by task or project. Instead of being enrolled into a flurry of first-year courses, you would be given a project, or set of projects like one you would encounter at an entry-level position in your future field of employment. Then, through communication with instructors and access to online content, you would embark on a process of self-guided learning, collecting the skills required to complete the job at-hand. Under the tutelage of experienced professionals, each student would have the opportunity to learn through trial-and-error, instead of through an academic system that discourages making mistakes. With this model, teachers become much more like guides or mentors, helping to point you towards other teachers who know the subject you are looking to learn, or pointing you towards resources that you can use to learn what you may need to learn next. This method would not feature testing in the way we think about it, instead your project would be evaluated upon completion, and you would have to demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of how your project functions to graduate.

Another alternative that might be easier for more conventional universities to pivot towards, is an online content delivery model, with access to classroom periods under the supervision of an instructor. Under this model, students could have online access to the entire course content as presented by the instructor, starting on the first day. They would be able to go through and replay ‘lectures’ at their leisure if they didn’t grasp a concept quickly or easily the first time, and pause the lecture to complete assignments or ‘in-class’ examples — an active learning method that I have found very effective. A model like this may also work out better for the instructors. Instead of preparing and delivering the same course content year-by-year, they would just have to make a very nice presentation once. This would allow them to spend more time on course creation and refinement, and, because they aren’t presenting to the class for several hours a week, it would allow for more, not less, student-teacher interaction. Models like this are already being trialled at a grade school level with good results2.

I believe the world is slowly headed towards education that is more self-directed, and if we want to maintain a high level of enrolment in our universities, it’s likely that they will need to change their business model and methods. To maintain relevance in our complex world, universities will certainly need to pivot their education model, and seriously consider revising the current educational paradigm to be more task-oriented. Within BCIT there actually are groups actively working to help ensure and improve the quality of the education. Many of the instructors I have spoken with are enthusiastic about new learning models, and believe that improvements can be made. Rest assured, there are people out there considering these questions, but that doesn’t mean we as students can be passive consumers of the existing model.

If you feel passionately about different learning methods, or if you have a story to share about your experience, or if you simply want to engage in conversation around this topic, reach out! I’d be happy to talk.
Email me: michael@6whites.com


1 S. Vogel and L. Schwabe, “Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom,” npj Science of Learning, 2016.
2 https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/publications/2014-03-07_implementation_briefing.pdf)
3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/10/24/confirmed-standardized-testing-has-taken-over-our-schools-but-whos-to-blame/?utm_term=.99187ece7f8d).