I do this fun exercise where I contrast how I learn for fun versus how I learn in school. One big difference is in having to take multiple tries to learn something.
In school, retrying is hard. If you fail a course and have to take it again, that’s a huge negative. Why is that? In our education system we happen to value forward movement; students cannot be left behind. Therefore only the students who blatantly do not know the subject, who do not submit the work, who do not come close to passing the test, only they will have to repeat the class. Everybody else gets passed, albeit sometimes with a C or D.
When I think back on my courses, there’s definitely some that I should not have passed. I didn’t know the material; I didn’t properly grasp the ideas; I didn’t get it. But since repeating a class is a travesty, I was allowed to pass. Sometimes with quite good grades!
Of course there’s a financial aspect to this problem. Failing students is directly correlated to them losing money. If not in more tuition, then in delaying their entry to the workforce. There’s a financial aspect as well to the school. Students who have to repeat courses tend to get discouraged and might drop out.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. Some schools go ahead and fail students. UChicago, Cornell, etc. are famous for their trial by fire classes. Often times this is combined with a “dropdown major”, basically a major that one can switch to that is easier. These aren’t officially designated, but they’re well known among students.
Maybe the answer is to keep things the same. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with students coming out of college not knowing certain subjects. It’s okay if some CS students don’t understand Operating Systems. It’s fine if some math majors don’t have a great grasp of Galois theory.
I know some will respond that students should just study harder. But there’s a fundamental time limit to a course and some knowledge takes longer than a semester to seep in.
We can imagine school as a video game where we progress from level to level. Sometimes the level gets the best of us and we have to try again. We have to hit the retry button and start at the beginning. It bothers me that we punish this act of retrying. We should be encouraging students to try again, to admit that they didn’t get a topic the first time around, to hit retry.
Anything worth learning is worth learning twice.
Like a burrito! ↩