Rethinking Reputation — Reconsidered!

Editor’s Note: On August 14, we published “Rethinking Reputation,“ an article about a transfer student’s experience at N. C. State. The author, Terri Howell, described her shock at courses that allowed “cheat sheets” on tests and class sessions that were no more than “groupthink” labs. Although Howell’s statistics courses were rigorous, she was disturbed by the “dumbing down” she experienced in other classes, including sociology and psychology. She also reported on significant grade inflation between 1995 and 2008.

Howell especially focused on an adolescent psychology course where students “watched MTV’s top ten music videos and viewed the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue to learn about media influence.”

We asked officials at N. C. State if they wished to respond. Jeffery Braden, interim dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) and professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, did. His comments are published here, followed by a brief response by Terri Howell.

Dean Braden’s comments:

The college experience can and should be different things for different students. Each student brings different learning strategies, different goals and different expectations of the institution she or he has chosen to attend.

For example, a student who values knowledge that is imparted from an authority to a student will have a different experience than a student who values a self-guided approach driven by personal discovery.

One approach is rote learning—memorization. The other is more dynamic search and discovery—“make it your own.” Both are valid strategies and both can lead to learning, albeit with different emphases.

At N.C. State University, students find both options. Because we are a “research extensive” university, we engage in creating new knowledge, not just transmitting existing knowledge. We tend toward a “knowledge-construction” style of instruction—of encouraging students to take information and make it their own, make it personal to them. Discover. Create.

Although you will find many classes where tests in the traditional sense of the term are an integral part of learning, you also will find classes where instructors are more concerned with students’ application of knowledge than how well students have memorized it.

Think competency exam versus test. It is not just a semantic distinction. In a competency exam, one might allow students access to information they need to complete the exam. It’s not the possession of information that’s being tested. It is use of the information that concerns the instructor, or evidence of how deeply students “get it.”

Most often, we expect students to think, reason, understand, and evaluate rather than memorize responses. It is the rare occasion in our working careers that any of us are expected to respond from memory. More often, we have time to gather facts and provide a reasoned response to a supervisor, co-worker or potential client.

By comparison, memorization is best applied in areas of learning where recitation and retention is an underlying goal—a study of the great poets, for example.

There is ample evidence across the country that both approaches have value, albeit for different purposes, and that students can be successful in either. It’s a matter of matching the instructional style to the subject matter and individual student preferences.

Terri Howell replies:

I appreciate Dr. Braden’s response to my article and the perspectives he offers regarding the transmission of knowledge at N.C. State University. Unfortunately, his response was narrowed to a comparison of teaching methods and failed to address the issues I had raised such as lack of both content in courses and expectations for students.

While “creating new knowledge” is certainly an admirable goal, especially in a research lab, watching MTV’s top ten music videos can hardly be considered “knowledge construction.” Dr. Braden’s closing comment refers to “individual student preferences,” which could explain the trend toward lower expectations. Thankfully I wasn’t aware of the “individual student preferences” option, so the majority of my education was obtained the old-fashioned way with “knowledge imparted from an authority,” and tons of self-guided homework.