Rethinking College Education
Or The Death of the Information Gatekeeper
The surest way to have great ideas is to simply have lots of ideas, be relentless at testing them, and shamelessly dump the worst 99%.
Modern college education, with its hyper-focus on quantitative evaluation, delayed and sparse feedback, and penalization for failure, is the greatest obstacle to creativity. In this post, I explore alternative ways to frame college education, and specifically evaluation, such that we nurture instead of stifling our students’ creativity. This opens the path for rethinking how can college remain relevant when gatekeeping information is no longer a valid business model.
I have been teaching Computer Science in college for over a decade now. During this time, I have helped over one thousand students learn how to code, and do various cool stuff with computers. Some get there way faster than others, and some never do. And while much of their success can be explained by their effort, we teachers play a significant part. A part that can make all the difference between a student who drops mid-semester, and another, with the same background, initial skills, and family support, who graduates and then goes on to become the next CEO of a thriving software company.
I will talk about my own experience teaching Computer Science, but I think these ideas extend to all other college majors, and perhaps to most if not all educational levels.
Computer Scientists are often tasked with solving problems that are at least slightly different from anything anyone has ever done. Sure, there’s lots of repetition in coding another Android app, but most of our graduates will end up working at places that are pushing the frontier of knowledge, even if in a small way. Succeeding at this requires creativity, which in this post I will loosely define as the ability to produce good and novel ideas. By good, I mean ideas that work, or at least ideas that get you closer to a solution. By novel, I mean ideas that are slightly different from most of what everyone else has done —even if, as structuralists think, everything is somewhat a mixture of everything else.
The problem with creativity is that, at least in this simplistic definition, it is very rare. Many of us just can’t pump great after great ideas. No, we have lots of bad ideas for every good one. But there’s an easy way out: you just have to grind through all the bad to get to the good ones. It’s more of a matter of quantity over quality. But there’s a catch: how do you know an idea is good or bad? Bad ideas often seem good from far away. Most of the time, you’ll have to test them to see them fail miserably and learn something about it. This is what I call the virtuous cycle of creativity:
You come up with an idea, test it, and then reflect on whatever the outcome is. More often than not, that idea is lousy, or mediocre at best. By testing it you become aware of its flaws. By reflecting on it, you adjust your internal ideation mechanism (whatever that is in human cognition) to make it more likely to produce a slightly better idea next time. Rinse and repeat.
Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach were some of the best composers of all time (at least for Western classical music) and also some of the most prolific. And you’ll see this time and time again, not just in art, but in science, engineering, sports, and business. Yes, some people are one-hit wonders, stumbling over an extraordinarily good idea either by dumb luck or extreme talent. But most of the really good ones are just relentless in producing and filtering ideas.
The first question I want to tackle in this post is the following:
¿What happens when this virtuous cycle of ideation collides with the unforgiving nature of college education?
My claim is that college education, especially college evaluation, is by design a major obstacle to creativity because it hinders our students’ capacity to loop through this cycle of ideation as fast as possible.
To see why let’s consider the most important element of the ideation cycle: feedback. Looping through the cycle requires having access to feedback about the performance (or quality) of a given idea. That’s what the testing phase gives you. The better the feedback you get, the more effective your reflection will be, and the more you will learn for the next iteration. There are four key characteristics that I believe valuable feedback has: it is frequent, timely, informative, and safe.
In contrast, college evaluation (and thus, the feedback provided by it) is often sparse, delayed, opaque, and unforgiving. Let’s take them one by one.
The first characteristic of valuable feedback is being frequent. It is straightforward to understand why frequency is important, as it directly ties to how often you can test a new idea. College, in contrast, presents students with very few opportunities to get valuable feedback in the form of partial exams and projects. It gives them sparse feedback. Thus, students have very few chances during a regular semester to go through the full cycle and adjust. In my experience, most college projects only get feedback at the end, when there’s already no chance to improve.
The second characteristic of valuable feedback is being timely. This means, being as close as possible to the actual testing of the idea. Even if you get frequent feedback, if it takes on average a month between putting the idea out there and learning something about it, by the time you can reflect on it you’ve already moved on to trying new ideas, and it gets really hard to go back and adjust from an experience. College evaluation tends to be rather delayed since professors need time to grade exams and projects. Thus, when students receive that feedback, they’re already moved on, probably to another project or another subject, and have very little time left to reflect.
The third characteristic is being informative. This means knowing not only whether the idea was good or bad, but why. The more informative feedback is, the easiest it will be to adjust your ideation mechanism for next time because you will know exactly (or close to) what to change. In contrast, most feedback students get in college is an opaque grade: a number or letter that just says how “good” their performance was. However, even when we tell them what was the exact thing they messed up (e.g., this step in this exercise is wrong), we rarely tell them what they should have done instead. Students are left to guess what they could have done differently to achieve the expected result.
Finally, valuable feedback has to be safe to obtain. This means you risk nothing or almost nothing, except of course your time (and maybe a minor financial cost). If getting feedback is costly (in monetary terms or otherwise) then you’ll be incentivized to take as few loops as possible. This will make you concoct complicated schemes in which you mix several ideas at once and make only one experiment, but then it becomes extra hard to elucidate what exactly went wrong. College evaluation tends to be unforgiving, in the sense that bad grades early in the semester can drive down the final grade, which is taken to be some kind of average of your course performance. The ultimate cost of feedback is when it stops you from even getting future feedback, something college professors are very fond of doing: penalizing underperforming students by removing their ability to take the final exams and sending them straight to “extra” exams.
The question I want to tackle next is how, or even whether, this state of affairs can be improved. For that, we should look at the reasons why college evaluation is so bad. For starters, it is not, as many students seem to believe, because professors are sadistic people who enjoy torturing their students (well, maybe some are, but not the vast majority). The reason ties in with something I’ve written about before: Evaluation is seen as an end in itself, and not as another means to improve students’ education.
If our only purpose in evaluating students is to determine who gets to pass and who has to repeat, and we do not consider the (positive or negative) effects it may have on their learning, then we will aim for efficiency. This is precisely what we have now: a dry process designed to sort students and place them into buckets with as little effort from evaluators as possible. Do only the minimum amount of exams that give you enough information to make a final decision on who passes. Make it as generic and quantitative as possible so they’re easy to grade. Give students back the minimum amount of information to cover your ass in case of complaints. This is how we end with an evaluation that is sparse, delayed, uninformative, and unforgiving.
But what if, in contrast, we think of evaluation as another crucial component of education, perhaps the most important one?
You see, college and academia are built on the foundation that access to knowledge is very limited, and college professors are the gatekeepers of the secrets of the trade. This was true for millennia, but the Internet changed all of that. Now, information is out there, ready for grabs, free, and accessible for anyone with a minimum living standard —and yes, I know this is a minority of the world, but still orders of magnitude more people than those who have college access.
We need to consider that evaluation is ultimately a form of feedback, probably the most relevant. And we need to understand that valuable feedback is perhaps the only useful thing modern colleges can give students.
So let’s rethink all of the college education centered around providing feedback instead of information. Let’s redesign our evaluations as means for students to get frequent, timely, informative, and safe feedback ‘round the clock. Let them do as many evaluations as they want. Check their projects with them weekly, or even more frequently. Become another team player instead of an outsider who’s only there to grade them. Replace quantitative grades with qualitative, informative descriptions of what they did wrong and how they could do it better. Downplay the significance of grades in partial evaluations and reassure them that it is safe to fail and that there’s always time to show how much they have learned later in the course. And then be true to that promise, and grade them according to how much they know when the course ends, and not with the nonsense averaging of partial grades.
I’ve tried to do all of this in my classes, and I can’t say that it has been a total success. It is very hard, not in the least because the rest of the system fights back. College administration demands quantitative grades and a prearranged calendar of sparse partial evaluations. Students are not used to this mindset, and they are cautious to show you their flaws for fear of being penalized. And also, it takes a lot of effort from professors. But if there is anything worth saving about college so that it survives the Information Age, is precisely this: being the most valuable source of frequent, timely, informative, and safe feedback our students could get.