On the dependency culture in third level

Let’s start with a story. I’m in one of my third year labs, teaching by walking around. One of the better students in the class, a first class honours student, in fact, approaches me and we begin to chat about some data that she can’t explain. This worries her; it doesn’t interest her or enthuse her. She’s fishing, fishing for the ‘correct’ explanation for the data. And in her world, ‘correct’ is whatever I think. I try to draw her out, to extract some original thinking from her, but it’s clear she’s reluctant to express any opinion at all. After five to ten minutes I finally succumb and offer her my best guess as to what is happening in her experiment. “Will I put that in the report?”, she says. Exasperated, I tell her that I don’t really care what she puts in the report as long as it is the result of logical reasoning by her.

That story, for me, encapsulates so much about what has gone wrong with education. In her mind, her ‘job’ as a student is to repeat back to me what I think. That way she believes she’ll get the highest possible mark. This is a mindset that sets in during the Leaving Cert years and never quite goes away, at least for the majority of students.

So how as it comes to this? How, when the entire conversation around third level education is littered with terms like ‘critical and creative thinking’, ‘problem-solving’, and “21st century skills”, do we have students who are so dependent and so lacking in the confidence to think for themselves. Part of the reason, I think, is that many students simply do not acquire the very basic knowledge and the very basic tools required for third level and are stymied in their learning throughout their studies. How, for example, can third level students ever become engineering problem-solvers when they cannot do basic algebra?

The other cause of this reluctance by students to think for themselves is the fact that while many educationalists like to talk of students “driving their own learning”, or “constructing their own knowledge”, the reality is that students have been made to be dependent by us. In our efforts to improve the quality of third level education, we have taken it upon ourselves to do more and more for students and to make life as easy as possible for them. Think of the amount of time and effort that goes into trying to ‘engage’ students and the sense of guilt that one is expected to feel if your students are not ‘engaged’ by your teaching. But that’s part of a wider cultural trend.

Another reason for the slide into dependency is that modern third level education has become increasingly utilitarian. So much of the language surrounding education, especially the constant use of the word “skills”, suggests that the sole purpose of an education is to prepare a person for the workplace. Of course, this is an extremely important aspect of education (notably for the mental health of graduates) but it is not the only one and the paradox is that by constantly focusing on a narrow range of outcomes as a preparation for work, we actually end up making students less ready for work.

The utilitarian nature of third level education is illustrated by a couple of ideas that permeate the entire system. These are the ideas of ‘graduate attributes’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Now, I know that many people are heavily invested in these ideas and it is not my intention to be unnecessarily disparaging. Graduate Attributes are essentially those attributes or characteristics that all graduates of a given institution are expected to have on completion of their studies. Learning Outcomes are those skills, that knowledge and that understanding that each and every student should have acquired by the end of every module and every programme. The learning outcomes idea makes sense for many programmes, especially those that are subject to professional accreditation. Indeed professional organisations typically demand that education be outcomes-based. But are learning outcomes really appropriate for all courses?

Taking graduate attributes and learning outcomes together, it is hard not to see modern education as a place where graduates are ‘produced’ rather than places where students learn. And if your educational philosophy is that third level institutions exist to produce graduates with a certain set of attributes and skills, doesn’t it make sense to package, manage, monitor and control their education so that the ‘product’ coming out the other end is precisely what you claim it is. But in doing all of this, something important is lost.

The final cause of the dependency culture is that we now take the evaluation of teaching at third level very seriously. No one can argue with the need to put in place systems and procedures that will ensure the quality of what we do. But we know from our knowledge of the CAO system and, for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, that the very act of evaluating something can often distort it horribly. How do we evaluate teaching quality? Well, one way is to use student surveys of teaching and the best way to score well in a student evaluation is to make students happy. And you make students happy by making life as convenient as possible for them; by organising their learning and by not challenging them and requiring them to think, at least not too hard, especially in an exam. As any cognitive scientist will tell you, thinking is difficult; remembering is easy.

What other way do we evaluate the quality of an academic’s teaching as part of say a promotion process? Well, we could access their online course notes, assuming they have such a thing. What will we look for in those notes? Probably a high degree of organisation, good production values, maybe the use of different media, some evidence of innovation, and general all round student-centeredness. So the academic whose online notes are little more than ‘signposts’ for students to forge their own individual path through a subject, now has a hard job convincing others that he/she is a good ‘teacher’.

I’ve no obvious solution to this but every now and then I stop and observe the modern third level experience  and I’m glad I’m not a student. Third level education seems too controlling, suffocating even, and there is always another assessment around the corner.

There is a middle ground to be found here, a space where we have high expectations of students, where we are there to support them when needed, but where we have the courage to do what all those educationalists claim we’re doing in this 21st century, and that is to let students free to follow their own path and genuinely control their own learning.

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Student Loans

This is the text of an unpublished letter I wrote to the Irish Times a few weeks bag. Given this announcement, I thought it might be worth reproducing here.

Dear Sir,

The subtext of  recent discussions regarding  the possible introduction of student loans for third level education is that the state simply cannot continue to bear the ‘burden’ of educating its citizens. However, it is worth noting that in its recently-announced capital investment plan, Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021, the government has allocated a mere €110 million for Higher Education out of a total exchequer spend of €27 billion. Interestingly it is planned to spend just over €3 billion on ‘Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation‘ an area where we have traditionally relied heavily on claims about our ‘highly educated workforce’.
These numbers would seem to suggest a certain mindset within government whereby third level education is seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’ and this mindset is colouring the entire conversation around how we should fund our third level sector.
Your faithfully,
Greg Foley


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Do CAO points predict third level performance?

In 2010, the HEA produced a report in which they concluded that ‘prior educational achievement’ was strongly correlated with progression rates at third level. This effect was found to be strongest at Level 7 but was still significant at Level 8. Very few academics would be surprised by this.

Yet, a number of very reliable people with whom I have spoken in recent years have said to me (based on sound data analyses) that CAO points are not an especially  good predictor of third level performance. The number typically quoted is that CAO points account for about 20% of the variation in academic performance at third level.

At first glance these two findings seem contradictory; but that is not necessarily the case.

Suppose you take a particular programme with a particular median CAO points value and do a scatter plot of, say, First Year precision mark of individual students versus their CAO points. When you do a linear regression, you’ll probably find a positive slope but a pretty low correlation coefficient.

Now suppose you repeat the exercise a number of years later where the median points value is substantially different. Now when you do the scatter plot and regression you’ll find a similarly low correlation coefficient but it is quite possible, likely even, that the new precision mark data will not overlap with the original set of data. Most academics would suggest that if the median points value in the second study were substantially lower, the scatter plot would be shifted left and down as shown schematically below (ignore the numbers!).

Of course a big factor in all of this is the fact that it is by no means certain that third level standards are constant. I tend to think that standards are constantly being adjusted slightly (and teaching methods being adapted) to meet the capabilities of the incoming students. Thus, any correlations you might expect to see tend to be ‘dampened out’ somewhat.

But it would be a nice to see a real analysis, covering a number of years and a broad range of median points, in the manner of the graph below.

CAo blog

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Fighting the spin – some interesting data on college entry

Points in IoT and university sectors – are universities really gaming the system?

CAO all

Points distribution for so-called niche courses (intake <= 10), the devil incarnate in the eyes of many!

niche courses

Points versus intake all courses – intake and points are uncorrelated

Points v Intake

Data as above but with intake <= 100

up to 100

Trends in student preferences


Use of Random Selection – new points system will fix this (apparently!) but is it really a problem now ?

random selection

Points inflation – students are performing better – this is the major source of heat in system along with the herding of students into STEM

points inflation

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CAO Points and Generic Entry

Ok, a one off…probably

Over the last four or five years we have heard many interested parties encourage school-leavers to study STEM subjects. Not surprisingly, the entry points for STEM courses have risen steadily. Unsurprisingly, the points for Arts and Humanities subjects have dropped but nobody seems concerned about this despite the rich arts heritage in this country.

Now, in response to the rise in points for STEM subjects, commentators are, somewhat oddly, becoming fixated on courses that have a very low student intake and blaming them for all the points inflation that is going on. These courses account for about 12% of the total number of CAO courses and given their small intake, they probably impact on a relatively small number of students. However, we can’t be sure as we don’t have access to 1-2-3 preference data. But I would bet a large sum that the first preference numbers for these courses are tiny, except perhaps for some of TCD’s programmes where they seem to use random selection an awful lot.

In addition, Philip Nolan and Tom Boland have been out in force pushing the ‘generic courses’ agenda. The belief is that more generic entry will take the heat out of the points systems, although the rise in points for generic entry courses (like Common Entry to Science in DCU) would make one question this argument. Regardless, the media is jumping on this particular bandwagon and the third level institutions are being portrayed as ‘dragging their heels’.

In addition, there is an increased tendency to invent all sorts of pedagogical reasons for generic entry; encouraging better second-level study habits and avoiding over-specialisation at an early age are two of the usual arguments. The first is guesswork and the second ignores the fact that most third level courses are pretty ‘generic’ in the early years anyway and only become very specialised in third and fourth year. Thus, doing a BSc in Neuroscience, for example, doesn’t preclude you from a science career outside neuroscience. And anyway, what ever happened to all the talk about lifelong learning and how in this 21st century everyone has to be flexible and adaptable.

What is really going on here is that policy makers are being political. They want to be seen to be doing something about the points race but in doing so want to pass on the problems of an under-funded, over-crowded education system onto the third-level sector. The CAO system will look nice and tidy but the pressures on students will be postponed until third level where they will be less visible. For example, if, in DCU, we admitted all our science students into a generic, common entry first year, there would be a right old dog-fight to get into two or three high-demand programmes whose numbers must be capped for logistical reasons. Are first year students equipped to deal with the pressures? That is a question that nobody is asking. Indeed, nobody is asking how the student experience, failure rates and drop-out rates might be affected by a more generic entry system. Maybe there will be no effect at all but shouldn’t we be thinking ahead rather than slavishly following the agenda of a small number of parties?

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Incentivising Thinking

It is well known in the medical world that patients will be compliant, i.e., will take their prescribed medication, if they perceive a direct benefit from taking that medication. Thus, someone with asthma might have no problem taking his/her ‘reliever’ but may be a bit hit-and-miss with their ‘preventer’.

There is an important message in there, one that applies to education as much as medicine; people will buy into something if they can see a real benefit to themselves from it.

Recently I’ve started to use this approach to get students to actually think. I don’t believe critical thinking can be taught but it can be encouraged. And the best way to  get students to think is to reward them for doing so.

So, in two of my modules I’ve posed a challenging problem (essentially computational) and offered students the reward of  2% added to their final module mark if they can solve it. While many students have not engaged, a significant group have. Interestingly, while they are obviously pulled in by the carrot of the 2% bonus, they tend to become like the proverbial dog with a bone and I get a sense that the challenge takes over and the prize becomes less of an issue than the satisfaction of solving the problem. Indeed I have had to tell some of them to let it go because they were spending way too much time on one particular problem.

In doing this I have been hugely encouraged by the ability of some of our students, especially their ability to draw on what they have learned in other  modules – maths modules in this particular case.

There is no doubt that we can do more to get the best out of our students.

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Basic Research and ‘That’ Letter

Governments always want some sort of tangible return from academic research. But since the financial crisis began in 2008, the prevailing view in Ireland has been that the primary or even the only role of academic research should be to generate economic growth through product innovation and the creation of start-ups. Personally I think this approach is misconceived because I don’t think academics are natural entrepreneurs and I suspect that the direct impact of academic research on the economy is tiny in comparison with the effect of FDI or tourism or agriculture. Furthermore, the focus on strategic research creates additional costs for institutions because it requires an enhanced administrative sub-structure, and it often involves the secondment of academic staff from teaching to strategic roles.

So how does one make the case for providing funding for academic research? (I refuse to use the word ‘basic’ because it’s such a loaded and subjective word and I don’t buy into the notion that so-called ‘applied research’ is derivative, depending on ‘basic research’ for new ideas. I actually think that applied research often inspires basic research!)

The first thing we need to do is ask ourselves some tough questions, questions that I would ask if I were a decision-maker. Here are some:

  1. What is the evidence for a causative link as opposed to a correlation between academic research and economic prosperity? The answer is not obvious and if you do even a minimal amount of reading on this topic you will find that this is very much a subject of debate amongst economists. Does academic research contribute significantly to the economy or is it a case that economic prosperity creates the conditions whereby academic research can be afforded? Furthermore, a key question here is not whether academic research can have an economic (or social) impact, but whether providing across-the-board funding is an efficient and cost-effective way of doing things. (Money spent on academic research is money not spent elsewhere.) That’s how the policy maker will think at least. And, if you think about it, most of the third level institutions themselves have rejected the ‘broad’ approach, favouring a more strategic one in which an emphasis is placed on a small number of themes. Finally, in the Irish context, what evidence, if any, is there that academic research done in Irish institutions has had a measurable impact on economic prosperity, and has it been worth the investment?
  2. What precise role does academic research play in third level education? It is well known that much undergraduate teaching can only be done effectively with the aid of graduate students – in all disciplines – and it would appear that many policy makers are not quite aware of this fact. But does research activity improve undergraduate education? There is no convincing evidence, for example, that being research-active makes you a better lecturer. It is good to have enthusiasm and up-to-date knowledge, but a lot more is required to make you a good third level teacher. Do undergraduate students benefit from the presence of cutting-edge research laboratories, either within academic units or within research centres? Do they get sufficient access to these laboratories? Perhaps, but would students not benefit more if schools and departments were equipped appropriately rather than existing on a shoestring as they do now. We need to articulate better the link between academic research and the quality of undergraduate education – if indeed there is one – and we need to back up what we say with evidence. Plausibility is not enough.
  3. How significant has the ‘brain drain’ been as a result of state funding for academic research becoming focused on strategic areas? To answer this, we need data on the numbers of high quality BSc and PhD graduates, and experienced researchers, that are being lost abroad and, crucially, data on the contribution that those who stay behind make to the economy. Indeed, how important are PhD graduates – in all disciplines – to the Irish economy? Can we quantify this in any way? Where are these graduates? Are they driving change and innovation in our companies and organisations, and can we link their ability to do these things to their PhD education? These are hard questions and we like to convince ourselves of answers that, frankly, serve our interests, but we need to be scientific and get the data.
  4. How important is our international prestige as a nation of scientists (and engineers) to our economy? Do we have any data, for example, to show the link between FDI and our university rankings or our publication outputs? Again, it would seem plausible that certain types of companies would like to locate in a highly science-literate society but can we quantify this effect?

These are hard questions (and questions for economists and social scientists, not scientists) and maybe it is not even possible to provide answers, at least not yet. Perhaps many academics presume that the answers to these questions are so self-evident that they are not even worth asking. I think that would be a mistake though because I suspect that many observers, including policy-makers, will view the Irish Times letter as academics doing their usual thing and merely looking for funding for ‘pet projects’.

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