Separating university education from grading

by Stefan_Schubert2 min read3rd Jul 201460 comments

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Education
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One of many problems with the contemporary university system is that the same institutions that educate students also give them their degrees and grades. This obviously creates massive incentives for grade inflation and lowering of standards. Giving a thorough education requires hard work not only from students but also from the professors. In the absence of an independent body that tests that the students actually have learnt what they are supposed to have learnt, many professors spend as little time as possible at teaching, giving the students light workloads (something most of them of course happily accept). The faculty/student non-aggression pact is an apt term for this.

To see how absurd this system is, imagine that we would have the same system for drivers' licenses: that the driving schools that train prospective drivers also tested them and issued their drivers' licenses. In such a system, people would most probably chose the most lenient schools, leading to a lowering of standards. For fear of such a lowering of standards, prospective drivers are in many countries (I would guess universally but do not know that for sure) tested by government bodies.

Presumably, the main reason for this is that governments really care about the lowering of drivers' standards. Ensuring that all drivers are appropriately educated (i.e. is seen as very important. By contrast, the governments don't care that much about the lowering of academic standards. If they would, they would long ago have replaced a present grading/certification system with one where students are tested by independent bodies, rather than by the universities themselves.

This is all the more absurd given how much politicians in most countries talk about the importance of education. More often than not they talk about education, especially higher education, as a panacea to cure for all ills. However, if we look at the politicians' actions, rather than at their words, it doesn't seem like they actually do think it's quite as important as they say to ensure that the population is well-educated.

Changing the system for certifying students is important not the least in order to facilitate inventions in higher education. The present system discriminates in favour of traditional campus courses, which are both expensive and fail to teach the students as much as they should. I'm not saying that online courses, and other non-standard courses, are necessarily better or more cost-effective, but they should get the chance to prove that they are.

The system is of course hard to change, since there are lots of vested interests that don't want it to change. This is nicely illustrated by the reactions to a small baby-step towards the system that I'm envisioning that OECD is presently trying to take. Financial Times (which has a paywall, unfortunately) reports that OECD are attempting to introduce Pisa-style tests to compare students from higher education institutions around the world. Third year students would be tested on critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and written communcation. There would also be discipline-specific trials for economics and engineering.

These attempts have, however, not progressed because of resistance from some universities and member countries. OECD says that the resistance often comes from "the most prestigious institutions, because they have very little to win...and a lot to lose". In contrast, "the greatest supporters are the ones that add the greatest value...many of the second-tier institutes are actually a lot better and they're very keen to get on a level playing field."

I figure that if OECD get enough universities on board, they could start implementing the system without the obstructing top universities. They could also allow students from those universities to take the tests independently. If employers started taking these tests seriously, students would have every reason to take them even if their universities haven't joined. Slowly, these presumably more objective tests, or others like them, would become more important at the cost of the universities' inflated grades. People often try to change institutions or systems directly, but sometimes it is more efficient to build alternative systems, show that their useful to the relevant actors, and start out-competing the dominant system (as discussed in these comments).

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I'm a college professor, here are my thoughts:

1) Professors, hate, hate grading. It's the worst part of our job. High status professors (not me) rarely do their own grading.

2) You learn a lot about what students know when you grade them.

3) You can use grades to motivate students to do things you want such as to show up on time, to not disrupt class, and to do their homework.

4) It's helpful for students to get frequent and quick feedback, especially on papers. When drafts are not graded students put far less effort into them. Your system would need to involve someone grading drafts of papers.

5) When I want students to learn something that is difficult and probably doesn't interest them the only tool I have is to say that this will be on the test. It works.

6) Students across colleges and courses greatly differ in ability. Good tests are calibrated to the quality of your students and gives them flow.

7) I teach economics. The vast majority of what I teach will not be directly useful to my students when they graduate, yet employers still care about the grade I give my students. Would employers care as much about the grade students receive on your proposed exams? Perhaps not, as part of the skill employers value is learning to accomplish tasks set by a person the student knows well.

Students being graded by outside bodies would change the student-professor relationship radically (which is a further argument for such a reform, in my view). Today professors are both supposed to help students to learn and to judge their knowledge and their abilities. Under a system like the one I'm sketching, the professors would only have the former role.

Compare with driving school. In driving school me and my instructor worked together to maximize my chances of passing the test. The instructor didn't need to "grade" me (whatever that would mean in that context) to get me to show up on time, to do my homework, to do stuff I found boring, etc, because I knew it was in my best interest to do all these things if I wanted to pass the test. We co-operated to reach our joint goal. This contrasts starkly with the university educations, where professors and students have conflicting interests (nicely illustrated by some of your points).

Under this system, professors would essentially serve students to reach their goals. Students would presumably be much less subservient if the power of grading was removed from the professors. All this is to be welcomed, in my view.

Funny, I agree, but with completely different connotations.

When I was a high-school teacher, I hated when the students (and parents) made pressure on me to teach less, and then of course to test less at the exams. I mean, the essence of the job is to provide knowledge, and my "customers" were begging me to give them as little knowledge as possible. That was very unpleasant. Yeah, some students liked to learn new things, but many of them gave me negative feedback for trying to explain them anything, because it meant more work for them at the exams.

If the tests were fixed and completely out of my control, then as a teacher, I wouldn't be the bad guy anymore. Instead, I would be the one that helps (against the external threat).

my "customers" were begging me to give them as little knowledge as possible.

More likely they were begging you to give them less knowledge than you thought made sense. Unless every teacher was getting the same response you were getting, perhaps your idea of the optimum amount was the problem and not the students idea of the optimum amount.

If the tests were fixed and completely out of my control, then as a teacher, I wouldn't be the bad guy anymore.

You would still be the bad guy if your idea of the amount of background understanding they needed to have to pass the tests was different from theirs. I tutored my daughter in 10th grade (US 16 year olds) chemistry and algebra this year. At a certain point while covering enthalpy of reaction calculations it was clear to me she didn't really understand charge and electrons and protons, she essentially had not sense of the Bohr atom. It quickly became apparent that 1) she did not agree with me that the best way for her to learn how to do enthalpy problems on the test was for me to take her backwards through the bohr atom and then back up the entire curriculum, and 2) she was right, my approach would have made sense if she was EVER going to use this stuff again, which it was clear she was not.

In New York State our high school classes did have state standardized tests. In my opinion, the dynamic in the classes was not particularly different in the ones with regents exams (standardized test) vs the ones that did not. However, it never struck me that in any of my classes that we particularly wanted the teacher to teach less I may have just been blind to that as I loved school and eventually became a professor, so possibly I was very atypical in high school.

For my students who care a huge amount about grades, if others made up the test students would likely get upset with you for not just teaching to the tests. Deviations on my part would be seen as reducing their chances of getting I-banking jobs.

The logical conclusion then is that it's absolutely crucial that the tests are designed in such a way that guessing the teacher's password is impossible and solid background knowledge and genuine understanding of the subject is essential to getting a good grade.

And if that's not possible, then that implies we're entirely dependent on the teachers knowing what they're doing and being able to do their job well and we should focus all our efforts on ensuring that that's the case.

the essence of the job is to provide knowledge

No, I don't think so. The essence of the job is to provide motivation for students to absorb knowledge -- and that's something quite different.

So you are arguing that professors shouldn't test their students (the only testing that should exist is external). I vehemently disagree. You've assumed that testing is solely about evaluation - separate from learning - when in fact it is about both. Students learn better when tested, and teachers teach better when they understand how students are thinking.

In your driving school example - testing and learning are not separate. The instructor is in the car with you - he is constantly testing you and giving you advice on what to improve. Your system would take this feedback mechanism away from college professors. If you want to leave internal testing in place but also have external testing for actually determining student grades, that would an idea worth fleshing out* - but removing internal testing would be a disaster.

But more importantly, I'm not seeing the problem that you're trying to solve. You've presented some theoretical reasons for why this system is bad, but not much in the way of specific problems the system is causing. You've sort of alluded to a general - improving educational standards - idea, but I'm not sure what this means in principle. Is it increasing course loads? Improving the relationships between professors and students? Reducing grade inflation?

*Actually I still dislike this system. In classes based around a constant flow of work - exams, problem sets, projects - your record throughout the class is probably a better indicator of your performance than an external test. Also it doesn't work for ... actually most classes. It works for large lecture classes and that is about it. How would you go about externally testing students on Medieval Chinese poetry? Or Computational linguistics?

[-][anonymous]7y 5

4) It's helpful for students to get frequent and quick feedback, especially on papers. When drafts are not graded students put far less effort into them. Your system would need to involve someone grading drafts of papers.

As a graduate student, I cannot agree more. Frequent but only semi-significant marks are the best learning tool: significant enough that everyone has an incentive to do the work, insignificant enough that the student can get some of it wrong and simply receive correction rather than failing.

The dopamine kick I get from programming and theorem-proving derive directly from the immediate feedback of something either working or not working without impacting my social status or life plans, allowing me to learn how it's working and optimize it.

As usual, SMBC says it best.

The easier college gets, the dumber you look for not having a degree.

the same institutions that educate students also give them their degrees and grades.

In the Netherlands and Flanders, there is a government organisation responsible for maintaining the quality of higher education. It is true that they do not grade the students, but they do look at past exams to verify if the questions asked were sufficiently difficult and if they were graded properly. They use experts from competing universities to help them make their judgements.

British universities have external readers -- academics from other universities -- who grade exams. [Correction: They review the exams and the grading.]

Are you sure you meant what you said? There are externals that are involved in exams, but they do not mark, they are involved in making sure exams are "within guidelines" when exams are being made, and they also make sure marking had been done properly (but they generally do not exhaustively check everything).

To the best of my knowledge, marking in the UK must be done by lecturer+ in rank (e.g. not postgrads or postdocs).

If the lecturer happens to be a postdoc (which is not unheard of in a final year course, for instance) then they are also likely to do the marking. I agree that exam marking is unlikely to be farmed out to postdocs who are otherwise not involved with the course.

OK, thanks for the info. If external readers are checking up on the way the exams are given and graded, and if more senior people are marking the exams, that's better than the way it works in the US.

[-][anonymous]7y 5

I am a lecturer (US equivalent: assistant professor) at a research intensive UK university but also very familiar with the US system where I did my undergraduate studies and some graduate work. I thought it might be useful to give a more detailed look inside the UK system, at least from one department.

Here, exam marking (grading) is done by academic staff rather than postgrads (as xnn already said elsewhere) - and in our department it must be done by the person in charge of the class rather than someone unrelated (we have a lot of team teaching, and I don't think there are any academics here, even full professors with major grants, who are excused from contributing to teaching). This person is also responsible for designing the exam which goes through a quality control process - must be checked off by another member of academic staff, and then approved by an exam board which goes through question by question to assess how each question relates to the intended learning outcomes of the class, then going to an external exam board who also approve the exam.

We also have independent second marking which is a serious time sink and major bone of contention - marking is not just done by the course convenor, but a second academic independently marks each exam essay and then come to a consensus about the final "agreed" mark. Additionally, one other internal person surveys those marks, particularly for marks just under a grade border, and discusses grading scheme with the first marker if there are problems. And then, as mentioned the external examiner goes over the exam paper, marking criteria, and a sample of the essays at different levels. And if that were not enough we then have a big meeting with all the parties involved to discuss exam marking issues across the whole degree program.

As you may expect this is an astounding amount of work - the need to assure high quality marking through such heavy efforts is closely related to the typical tendency in many UK institutions to offer no feedback to the students about the details of why they were given a certain mark. Coming from the US this feels very extreme: our students in the UK write essays without notes in in-class examinations and then never see them again, nor indication of why they earned the mark they did. So I very much hesitate to say this is better than the US system where students have access to their exams and thus some amount of accountability is forced by student feedback.

Thanks for those details!

This is incredibly different from the way it's done at the US and Israel (I've taught at Harvard and Hebrew U), where exams are graded by grad-students TA, and certainly no more than one grader each exam.

This leads to a temptation to grading by one's own own highly informal curve, as well as to extreme grade inflation in top US universities.

The UK way is far better, except for the lack of feedback.

The UK way is far better, except for the lack of feedback.

The UK system does not prevent grade inflation for fairly obvious reasons. Whether a full second round of grading happens depends on the department and the class.

As a professor at the University of Rochester in New York (private university) when I taught intro to programming to engineers with ~150 in my class, grading was done by a team of graduate student TAs that I supervised. I wrote the exam, I taught the class, and I supervised the grading giving pretty explicit instructions on each problem how to grade it and grading them all together so questions could be addressed in real time.

Essentially it was me grading the exams, but supervising a team.

The remarkable thing to me was there were no foral checks and balances on either the quality of my teaching or the quality of my grading. This was true the entire 8 years I taught there, and I think is completely typical of US higher education.

Do they grade the exams themselves? For instance whether a particular exam is a good test of ability or not? or do they actually grade the student work? It would seem the former would be much more advantageous.

The draft examination papers are sent to the external examiners, who make comments as they deem appropriate. These might, for example, be "this question is too hard" or "this question is not clear". The final approved exams are then taken by the students and marked by the lecturers who set them. The external examiners then return during the moderation process, helping to decide where the boundaries for various classifications should be set.

I'm actually curious why "the market" hasn't corrected itself on this one. I mean, since people go to college to become employable, tools to determine the best colleges should have emerged, and this in turn should have forced colleges to make sure they deliver. Especially since most colleges in the US are largely private institutions.

But this hasn't happened, even with the outcry against college loan burdens. I'm no libertarian, but this is one situation where I'd expect libertarians to get it right, so what's going on ?

There are two influential theories of the value of education: the human capital theory and the signalling theory. According to the former your education makes you more productive, and in so doing enables you to land good jobs with good salaries. According to the latter, education in itself doesn't make you more productive. However, having acquired a place and good grades at a prestigious university is a signal that you have certain desirable features (eg intelligence, conscientiousness).

Now it seems to me that if the signalling theory is right, then it doesn't matter that much what students actually learn during college, as long as employers can continue to predict who's going to be a good worker on the basis of degrees and grades. Hence if that theory is right, the market would only exercise a weak pressure to improve educational standards.

No doubt the human capital theory is closer to the truth in some areas (say medicine) than in others (say a classics student at Oxford who lands a job at a bank). However, it is a further aspect to take into consideration.

I'd be interested to hear why you think that the market would be good at correcting for this. For one thing, we often lack reliable measures of how much students learn (I take it that this is what OECD is now trying to remedy). Hence employers go by reputation even if second-tier universities are in fact better.

Another issue that should be noted is that teaching is a necessary evil for most professors: what they really are interested in is research. Also they are hired mostly on the basis of their research output. This incentivizes them not to spend too much time or effort on teaching, something which leads to a further lowering of standards.

Obviously, signalling is an important part of university education. People pay $100's of thousands of dollars for a degree, not for an education. And people are much more concerned about making sure they get the degree, and much less worried about whether or not they got the education.

I suppose it is less obvious whether the "human capital" is really developed by education, but I believe it is and I suspect most people who succeed in school or in teaching believe it does. I was an entirely different person after my BA in Physics than before, with mad skills at analyzing all sorts of physical systems and formal systems. I knew and used mathematical techniques up the yinyang as well as a tremendous amount of physics and chemistry. The skills I acquired as an undergrad were essential for my graduate work. I was again an entirely different person coming out of graduate school, able to be expert in some areas, and able to tell the difference between what I was expert at and what I was not expert at.

In my opinion, you would have to be blind to miss the importance of signalling in higher education. In my opinion it would be easier to miss the importance of the training, but that effect is real nonetheless.

something which leads to a further lowering of standards.

Even under human capital theory, do we have a good measure of the added value of good teaching versus poor teaching?

I don't know, unfortunately. It seems to me it would be hard to measure. The relative importance of human capital effects and signalling effects are also very hard to measure. On this, I would recommend reading this article on how a recent British government report completely disregards the signalling theory and without argument assumes that the human capital theory is right:

Regarding the signalling effects of higher education, BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] assumes that “higher earnings reflect higher productivity as a result of learning (ie, there is effectively no signalling effect)”.

This is an “extraordinary” assumption, according to Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London. “I had no idea they didn’t take [signalling] into account at all,” she said, adding that failing to account for it was “bad policy and bad economics”.

Further down:

The debate between human capital and signalling theory is a political as well as economic argument, according to David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. What he calls the higher education “lobby”, through Universities UK, “naturally argues the human capital theory line as a way of getting extra public money and/or justifying the charging of high tuition fees to the punters”.

Politicians also “hope” human capital theory “might be true as they flounder around trying to find something they can do to hopefully achieve economic growth”, he said.

Asked if BIS would take signalling into account in future given the report’s findings, a spokeswoman said the study “acknowledges the potential role of signalling in driving the observed earnings returns to degrees” but also “highlights that there is no consensus from the literature about their magnitude”.

“The authors therefore recommend that we should not reduce the estimated earnings returns to reflect signalling – as any reduction we applied would be arbitrary,” she added. “We will however continue to consider the implications of signalling effects in policy development and also in the development of any research in this area.”

As if zero signalling effect is not arbitrary... This is quite outrageous actually and should have received more attention.

Possibly we shouldd have another discussion of human capital vs signalling in higher education, and what to do to minimize costly side-effects of signalling.

There is a third factor that both BIS and THE ignore: tournament theory. If there is a set amount of productivity possible in a field, and the people in the field are selected according some ranking, then improving a person's ranking will increase their productivity, but it doesn't follow that the productivity of society as a whole is improved.

For instance, if you look at how much coaching a high school baseball player gets, and whether they get into MLB, you'll probably find a correlation. So giving a student coaching increases their productivity. But that doesn't mean that society benefits from the student getting coaching. There is a finite number of players in MLB, and a finite amount of benefit that society receives from it, and coaching a particular student just means that the benefits move from some other student who would have become a professional baseball player.

For example, in some societies, women might generally earn less than men at the same rank despite having the same qualifications, indicating that factors other than educational achievement and productivity are at play.

Not necessarily. Besides the (unlikely, but cannot be dismissed a priori) hypothesis that women inherently less productivity, if there is prejudice against women, then that can cause women to be less productive. For instance, if judges are less likely to rule in favor a female lawyer, then women make less productive lawyers. "Productivity" isn't merely a property of a person's inherent abilities, it's also influenced by the society they live.

I'd expect the market to correct first on the students side by creating reliable tools to determine which college is most cost effective (e.g. a simple measure would be average time before repayment of college loan), which would then lead students to these colleges which are more cost effective, which would lead colleges to focus on employability-related courses (and on specializing etc).

Now there is the fact that people have conflicting notions of what education is for, because they're also looking for signalling, and could thus be misguided in their seeking of information (looking only for the most prestigious college in their affordable range).
Another thing is that employers, not students, are purchasers of signalling and consider that current institutions do a good job.
But I struggle to think why that wouldn't allow the development of fast-track colleges that would compress costs by focusing on employability-related courses, making them more cost-effective for a similar quality of graduates offered to employers.

Now it seems to me that if the signalling theory is right, then it doesn't matter that much what students actually learn during college, as long as employers can continue to predict who's going to be a good worker on the basis of degrees and grades.

Well, according to the signalling theory, we should see education focusing on material for which the ease at which students learn it is correlated with how productive an employee they would be. So, for instance, if people with a comparative advantage in memorizing the entire Divine Comedy in the original Italian also tend to be good workers, but people who with a comparative advantage in memorizing baseball statistics don't, then signalling theory predicts that schools will teach the Divine Comedy, and not baseball statistics. And signalling theory does predict that there would be strong pressure to improve educational standards; it's just that that pressure would be towards making sure that students actually have memorized the Divine Comedy, rather than making sure that they have actually increased their human capital.

Employers who focus on the signals your education emits seem to focus on where you studied rather than on what you studied. In other words, they seem to think that having a degree from Oxbridge correlates with being a good worker more strongly than memorizing the Divine Comedy does, or acquiring any other specific set of knowledge does. This belief (in the superior signalling value of an Oxbridge degree) seems to be quite weakly correlated with what Oxbridge and competing universities actually teach their students. It seems to me that universities' reputations are quite sticky, so that even if a red-brick university tried to raise standards in order to raise the signalling value of their degree, they wouldn't be able to beat the signalling value of an Oxbridge degree. If this is true, then employers' focus on signalling implies a very weak pressure on educational standards. If employers are going to give your degree pretty much the same signalling value regardless of the content of your course, then universities' will not be incentivized to improve or even maintain educational standards.

The market has to be very cagey when designing tests. Somehow the courts have decided that intelligence tests are illegal (because they have a disparate impact against disadvantaged minorities), but college degree requirements (even for degrees unrelated to an employment offer) are legal (despite the fact that they basically combine an IQ test with a family-wealth test and so can have an even worse disparate impact).

The article says:

Since the aptitude tests involved, and the high school diploma requirement, were broad-based and not directly related to the jobs performed, Duke Power's employee transfer procedure was found by the Court to be in violation of the Act.

Sounds to me that a college degree requirement unrelated to employment would also be problematic.

There are absolutely differences in the perceived value of the same degree from different institutions. I've also heard of deparments that have received complaints from businesses that the quality of graduates with a certain degree has dropped due to grade inflation. That has led to a painful period of lower results as they try to correct the problem.

It's very much a coordination problem. There aren't going to be a lot of people taking a test if there aren't a lot of employers taking the test into account, and there won't be many employers incorporating the test into their hiring decisions if there aren't many people taking the test to begin with. There isn't really a competitive market for tests.

What you basically advocate is standardised testing. As it happens politicians did introduce a lot of standardised testing in the last decade. It makes little sense to criticize politicians for doing nothing to further standardised testing.

You don't address any of the arguments against standardized testing that people made in the last decade.

As it happens politicians did introduce a lot of standardised testing in the last decade.

I don't believe in the US anyway that any politicians have introduced any standardised testing in the last decade at the university level, which is what the OP is about.

The case for standardized testing in schools is better than the case for standardized testing at universities. That's why someone wanting to push standardized testing starts at schools.

Bush's no-child-left-behind legislation is very unpopular. That's why no politician goes and tries to do the same for universities.

A large part of why we have the standardized testing that we have is that business lobbyists wanted it. Companies want to have grading that let's them easily compare applicants from different universities.The Gates foundation pushes the relevant ideas. At the same time it reeks of political suicide for a politician to simply go out and declare that universities degrees should be completely replaced by standardized testing at this point in time.

Bush's no-child-left-behind legislation is very unpopular.

Why specifically? (I am not an American, I know almost nothing about it.) In my country, when I hear objections against tests, it seems to me they fall into two categories:

a) specific flaws of the tests or the testing process;

b) claims that education is inherently mysterious and thus cannot be measured.

To which my obvious response is that "a)" is a reason to fix the tests, not to throw them away, and "b)" is nonsense. (There are specific problems with testing some things on paper, for example those that require lab work, or playing a musical instrument, writing an essay, etc.)

Specifically:

A child may be exceptionally tired or sick one day, which would disproportionally impact their grades. -- The child should be able to take their tests again, and again.

The tests only check memorization, not understanding. -- Devise tests that do check understanding.

Teachers try to teach only the subsets that are covered by the tests, and skip the subsets not covered by the tests. -- All subsets should be covered by the test. That does not mean that the test will have 1000 questions; it can have 30 questions which will be at the last minute randomly selected from the database of the 1000 questions.

Some lessons may be optional, e.g. for schools that specialize in the subject. Standardized testing will make teachers ignore the optional parts, as they will not be part of the tests. -- Make tests for the mandatory parts, and separate tests for the optional parts.

b) claims that education is inherently mysterious and thus cannot be measured.

The issue isn't so much whether it can be measured but whether it can be measured in a way that removes the teachers subjective expertise. The world debating championships are held in the rule set of British parliamentary debate. It's clearly possible to measure the performance of a team in the sense that you can tell which team is the first place, which the second, third and forth. On the other hand the professes depends heavily on the expertise of the jurors. There no clear scoring card where you check whether the participants successfully delivered the passwords to the questions.

You move from judging the quality of arguments to checking for passwords if you force a fixed evaluation criteria.

Teachers try to teach only the subsets that are covered by the tests, and skip the subsets not covered by the tests. -- All subsets should be covered by the test.

You judge standardized testing by the effect it has in practice and not by some intellectual construct of how the world is supposed to be.

There are also other arguments for which I don't have time at the moment.

You move from judging the quality of arguments to checking for passwords if you force a fixed evaluation criteria.

In mathematics, you can have people solve a problem, which is not just repeating the right password, but actually using the knowledge.

But this is probably exceptional for mathematics. :(

This actually generalises beyond mathematics quite well - rather than ask people to describe a theory let them apply the theory to an example (perhaps even an example that actually happened).

As I haven't encountered this too often in practice (outside of mathematics, where proving for an exam is the rule rather than the exception) the obvious question is: why isn't this being used?

the obvious question is: why isn't this being used?

These are the moments when I am not sure... the obvious answer is "because people are mostly insane"... but then I feel guilty for thinking about this... but even after reflection this seems like the most likely explanation. (Okay, I could use more polite words and replace "insane" by "having really fucked up epistemic habits". Just to emphasise that the problem isn't in their hardware, it's just the software that is completely crap.)

A random data point: When I studied psychology, when we learned about Freud's ego-defense mechanisms, I was like: wow, this is finally something you could make a "math-style" exam about. (Okay, I know Freud is unpopular here, but please suspend your judgement for the sake of argument.) Because the ego-defense mechanisms have a relatively clear definition. E.g., someone says: "you " and you reply: "no, you and !!!" (without there being any evidence for the other person ); this is called "projection". Or, someone says: "you ", and you reply: "no, actually I " (without any evidence for , and actually some evidence for ), that's called "reaction formation". Etc.

So I was like: This is perfect. Here is how I would make an exam: Write a short story illustrating a use of an ego-defense mechanism, and then ask which of the mechanisms it was. That should be super easy, like elementary-school difficulty, and yet would help to connect the definition with a specific example (which some of my classmates had a problem to do; they just memorized the list of names of the ego-defense mechanisms, without attaching any specific meaning to those words; because memorizing lists was the generally used strategy there). I tried to explain this idea to some classmates, I tried to explain it to a teacher... no success. The typical response was something like: "Yes, such a thing could be done, but what's the point? How is that an improvement over memorizing the list of names? It just takes more time to do." (Except for one girl who studied both psychology and math, and she said: "Yes! Obviously, that's how it should be done.")

So, my conclusion is that some people are so epistemically challenged that they don't even understand the difference between understanding something and not understanding but remembering the passwords. (Did I say "some people"? I meant a huge majority of people, including a huge majority of people with university education, including a huge majority of people who specifically study human thinking and/or education at the university!)

Things like this leave me sad about the mental state of the humankind. (And then I read an alternative explanation, that it's all just a cultish influence of LW making me intolerant towards non-rationalists. No, it's a fucking epistemic abyss. The only thing LW did to me was to point a finger to that abyss and say: "Yeah, we see it, too. You are not halucinating. It really is bad.")

Presumably, the main reason for this is that governments really care about the lowering of drivers' standards. Ensuring that all drivers are appropriately educated (i.e. is seen as very important. By contrast, the governments don't care that much about the lowering of academic standards. If they would, they would long ago have replaced a present grading/certification system with one where students are tested by independent bodies, rather than by the universities themselves.

I strongly agree with the main message of your post but this is just lazy thinking. The obvious answer is that setting a universal standard for college courses is much harder than having universal driving licence standards. Everyone agrees that you should not drive through a red light. But what if one student comes from the Austrian school of economics and another from the Chicago School? How are you supposed to compare the students' knowledge objectively? If the government gets involved in this process people will inevitably cry that the government is trying to enforce their politics on the students. You can get around these issues but it's still a messy process.

That seems to be the purpose for the subject GRE test, which are standard for students to take going into grad school. It seems far easier to make that standard for employment as well, rather than inventing an entirely different test.

Good. OECD of course wants an international test but it'd be interesting to know how similar these tests are to the subject GRE tests.

The system is of course hard to change, since there are lots of vested interests that don't want it to change.

Not if you do something that requires no-ones permission. My suggestion is a public database that lists courses, degree programs or other products of formal education, and lists how many of the participants fail vs. how many get the degree/certificate/whatever.

With somebody who wants to radically reform education (like Peter Thiel) throwing a moderate amount of money at it, this should be very doable. And it has two groups of customers: Students will want to look up the stats before they start something, and employers will want to see how much of a selection is actually proven by a given degree/certificate/whatever. While you're at it, maybe also list average time to completion, price, prerequisites to participation and whatever else helps either or both of these customers.

With enough political influence, I believe the best reform would be to mandate that each programme of higher education has to fail at least a defined fraction (say a third) of the applicants. That's what they do for driver license tests in Germany, and it makes the faculty/students non-aggression pact quite impossible. (Of course it only works if trying a second or third time incurs nontrivial extra cost.)

With enough political influence, I believe the best reform would be to mandate that each programme of higher education has to fail at least a defined fraction (say a third) of the applicants.

That discourages students from cooperating. Students will help struggling class mates less when it's in their interests that those classmates fail the class.

That's correct. But I would argue that in many cases, we don't need students to cooperate as much as we need them to compete.

Or when groups of students work on a project together, the intensified competition could happen at the group level, like competition between companies.

In the UK there are plenty of such databases, but I don't know how much of an impact they've had.

What country do you live in? Aren't the MCAT, GRE, SAT, LSAT etc. exactly this? Colleges have an incentive to make sure that their students with good grades are also capable of getting good scores on standardized tests and indeed they do (in the US).

You've presented a good argument for why external testing should exist when we care about how students have learnt (and they already do exist). But are you trying to arguing the internal testing shouldn't exist?

I live in London but am Swedish and more familiar with that system really, having taught more there (and having done all of my studies there). In Sweden we don't have GRE's and similar tests. We do have a SAT-style test but that's very general and only important for university admissions. I don't think that standardized tests like the ones you mention are important in the UK either.

It'd be interesting to hear if the situation is different in the US. I'd be surprised if professors explicitly tried to train their students to score well on these standardized tests but am not very familar with what it's like in the US.

As others have pointed out, the GRE's, GMAT's and LSAT's already exist as standardized tests appropriate for university graduates. Apparently there IS demand on the part of graduate schools for a more standardized grading of undergraduates and they all require some of these tests. Presumably if there was any real desire for a more standardized grading beyond graduate schools, they could also require these tests. I am unaware of any employers who require GREs.

So the real problem with your proposal is it solves a problem that is already solved by graduate schools using GRE's etc, and which isn't perceived as a problem by anybody else (except presumably some of the posters on this board who presumably put precisely none of their money where their mouths are.)

I would also note that US Universities generally enjoy quite a lot better reputation than schools in the US pre-university level education system. And it is in the less respected system in which much more inroads towards standardized testing and standardizing education has been made. I'm not quite sure what this implies, but I do know I am fatally sceptical of any argument that says "we manage to do this in high schools and lower schools why can't we do it in universities" because the last thing I want is for our universities to emulate our much inferior pre-university system.

Could this be something that online universities could push as part of their appeal? Standardised university testing could go a long way to assuage fears about the quality of online teaching...

Exacly; that is what I'm alluding to in my post.

Changing the system for certifying students is important not the least in order to facilitate inventions in higher education. The present system discriminates in favour of traditional campus courses, which are both expensive and fail to teach the students as much as they should. I'm not saying that online courses, and other non-standard courses, are necessarily better or more cost-effective, but they should get the chance to prove that they are.

If you go to a relatively good high school, one of the worst aspects of it is the fact that most of the advanced classes (e.g. AP classes) spend most of their time "teaching to the exam" rather than focusing on providing knowledge. Doing the same for college would, in my opinion, completely ruin the university experience. Part of the point of college is to give students the freedom to explore their interests. Grading is really a very small point of the entire endeavor.

(I single out "relatively good high schools" because I imagine for most high schools the alternative to an AP class would be no class, so the AP class is probably an improvement. At a sufficiently good high school the alternative would be a college-level class taught by a local professor.)

I don't think grading plays as small a role as you seem to think - remove the grading (and just pass everybody) and see how many students show up for class.

This sort of standardised/independent testing would have a much more radical effect than the professor-teacher relationship. From my experience in the UK, plenty of people could get a decent grade at various humanities subjects just by doing a couple of weeks of 'revising' the subjects raised in exams and making sure they understood how it was graded. With university increasingly expensive (in the UK fees were introduced about 20 years ago, rose to £3k a year 10 years ago and rose to up to £9k a year a couple of years ago), it would be very interesting to see the effect of someone being able to get a degree in English by demonstrating their ability rather than having to pay the time/money cost of 3 years of studying.

I'm not sure the results would be overall good: you'd get more hothousing and less depth of knowledge etc. etc. But I think it would be quite meritocratic both for first-time students and for people in work who'd like to respecialise in something needing a new degree but find the costs of doing the course prohibitive.

It would also expose a huge difference between degrees that just require a library and a computer, and degrees that require access to labs of various kinds.

This sort of standardised/independent testing would have a much more radical effect than the professor-teacher relationship. From my experience in the UK, plenty of people could get a decent grade at various humanities subjects just by doing a couple of weeks of 'revising' the subjects raised in exams and making sure they understood how it was graded.

True. Good point. I remember I did that myself once in high school. I and a few other pupils were dissatisfied with our religions teacher so we had a written and an oral exam with a teacher in another school instead of going to her classes. It worked very well and it seems to me I remember at least as much of that material (that I studied for those exams) as the material that I studied in my other classes.

I'm not sure the results would be overall good: you'd get more hothousing and less depth of knowledge etc. etc. But I think it would be quite meritocratic both for first-time students and for people in work who'd like to respecialise in something needing a new degree but find the costs of doing the course prohibitive.

Its hard to predict what would happen. But by and large I agree with Villiam's point that if the standardized tests are testing the wrong things, not giving enough depth of knowledge, then the primary solution should be to change the tests rather than to give up the whole idea of standardized testing.

The present system seems to me to be terribly cost-inefficient. The system I'm sketching need not be flawless in order to beat the present system, and we don''t need anything better than that to have a reason to start reforming.

While I think that there is some validity to your point, I would like more data rather simply your opinion on the matter. I will now play devil's advocate.

As it stands, there are some outside players that regulate universities, mainly the regional associations that give colleges their accreditation. Standards for accreditation can be found here: http://www.ncahlc.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html

Apart from that, you say that part of the problem with "contemporary" universities, but what has changed in recent history with teaching that has suddenly brought universities on the downhill slope? Surely British and European universities that have been around far longer have the same such problems. The general idea of teacher/student relationship does not seem to have undergone significant changes since first instituted centuries ago, except perhaps now with the advent of online degrees/programs.

Beyond that, although surely there is some laziness on both the part of professors and students, Institutions do have a stake in making sure that students have the requisite knowledge that is expected of them. Universities many times work with employers to develop and implement curriculum. I work at a college currently that is implementing a healthcare degree that by and large is being done because of demand from area employers. These employers have had more than a small part in designing curriculum.

My personal area of expertise is accounting. If anyone wants to really be an accountant, a degree is not enough. Professional certifications are a requisite to do almost any accounting position. There are a multitude of accounting and business related organizations that offer certifications for various areas such as CPA, CMA, CFE, CIA and many more. Obviously these organizations are independent, and have a stake in upholding their standards. However, just like colleges, they also need to contend with the duality of maintaining standards but also the fact that the revenue for the organization comes in large part from dues, which increase the more people pass the exam.

In any organization like colleges there is going to be this inherent conflict. Even in an organization like OECD, why would a college pay to administer the exams, and probably also to qualify into the organization if it knew it was on the lower end? Thus it would benefit the OECD to not have a comparison system, but rather a criteria system that could give everyone high marks. I am not saying this is the case, I am saying that there is a pressure to do so. Ultimately, it is government that needs to require colleges into programs like this for the welfare of society, since the results will obviously be very bad for some of the participants. In the same way if your school loses accreditation, you will almost cease to exist as a higher education institution since it would disqualify the institution from receiving federal student loans and grant money.

Good questions. I don't know whether there was grade inflation prior to the 20th century; perhaps there was.

Of course there are bodies that oversee the universities to different degrees. However, my guess is that such systems can never extert the same pressure at the universities as completely independent grading can. Consider the driving school parallell again and compare a system where driving schools would be able to issue licenses, but where they were checked now and then by government bodies with the present system where the licenses are issued by the government. It seems to me obvious that if those checks weren't extremely stringent - something that most checks of universities certainly aren't (many of them are also a bit arbitrary, something there's been a big discussion on in Sweden, where I come from) - the former system would lead to a lowering of standards. It would also extert less pressure on low standard driving schools, who in the present system are either forced to improve or are out-competed.

In some areas you do have independent tests already, which is brilliant. That's exactly what I'm advocating. However, usually you don't. Employers can influence university degrees in some areas, as you say, but in most areas this influence is very limited (and resented by professors and left-wing parties and student organizations).

I don't have more data at the moment. What kind of data is it that you want? I don't think I just stated my opinion, though - I offered reasons for my views. Besides, they are widely shared - the point about perverse incentives seems really obvious actually.