The Science and Art of Learning

The idea of education is a seed that each of us here carry, and while its roots may extend far and deep into our heads, it often does not grow high up and flower. It will form the occasional basis of discussion we undertake long into the evening. Opinions will glide through us whenever we- students and teachers- make our way to the class we don’t enjoy. Our minds shuffle, rearrange and play with these ideas as if they were a deck of cards. These are questions not many students will raise a hand in class to ask, but then how many raise their hands at all. Learning and education are  charged areas, full of counterviews and dissent, but hardly expressed in a form that seeks to move forward and looks for a solution. It’s like a vessel of supersaturated solution that is all but waiting for a framework to crystallize on.

Spurred initially by interest in the Washington Accord, we met Prof. A. K. Ray at the Centre for Educational Technology. What we received in turn was an insight into and an overview of one of the models attempting to address learning- pedagogy.

Outcome Based Learning

One can see why a subject like pedagogy is a difficult one. The study of learning includes those aspects of human nature than cannot be set into code, while recognizing that certain practices can be shown to be effective, making it a mixture of an art and a science. Prof. Ray, who has been active on the national scene for pedagogy for 30 years, says that countries across the world are taking an interest in pedagogy, as seen by the Washington Accord (see box for details) and other similar international agreements, which focus on outcome-based learning. A common set of requirements for accreditation are related to infrastructure- class size, libraries and so on. But the spirit of the program, says Prof. Ray, is in defining what the outcomes spoken of will be and how they will be tested.

The Washington Accord

The Washington Accord is an international agreement signed in 1989 between six countries with a view of accrediting education at the 12+4 level. Accredited courses from the signatory nations will be recognized amongst others. The scope is limited to undergraduate courses for now.

Over time, a second version of the Accord has been released and more nations have woken up the idea, including India. It is interesting to note that the implementation of the program takes a different form in different countries. In USA, ABET (Accreditation Board for Engg. And Technology) is the recognized accredit or of college education programs while in India it is the NBA (National Board of Accreditation). The interpretation of ‘acceptance’ of students is interpreted differently as well, though the idea is to facilitate mobility. Graduates from non-certified courses might not be eligible to work, or pursue higher education in other countries. The EHEA (European Higher Education Area) though not directly related, houses some very similar ideas about education and technical skills. It’s gone further though, and extended guidelines to cover postgraduate and PhD programs.

The Accord lists a number of clauses which are guidelines or requirements, and every signatory state must ensure that these are met. It is deciding what these clauses are, and how skills will be tested that is dealt with the tools of pedagogy. NBA inspectors in India will conduct the process of review, and they are aided by Washington Accord observers in obtaining familiarity with the process.

As adapted to engineering education, desired Learning Outcomes (as in the Washington Accord) include generic cognitive abilities, such as the ability to conceptualize a solution to a complex engineering problem and the ability to solve the problem. The way these outcomes are phrased reflects pedagogy’s emphasis on levels of cognitive ability.

The second half of listed Learning Outcomes include the ability to communicate with fellow engineers, the development of legal and economic sensibilities and importantly, the affected ability (one that must be cultivated) of learning to learn, of being prepared to acquire knowledge lifelong. Students must be able to deal with two kinds of complexity- one would be scientific, and the other the presence of ethical, environmental and other constraints. Think about engineers’ mobility across nations, and these points begin to make sense.

What is the proof of procedure that outcomes have been met? Some of the methodologies include interviews with ex-students, employers and of course, the students and faculty. Which brings us to a major point of how these Learning Outcomes will be achieved in the first place and a shift in the way we think of courses.

Rethinking Courses

“We treat our engineers like kids!” says Prof. Ray, referring to tests that call on students to define, recall and state rather than analyse and synthesize. Today there are few courses where students have an idea of what they are going to learn from it beforehand. How often it is the case that we look to previous years’ papers to get an idea of what is expected from us. A well designed course must have a well defined course curriculum, one which states the learning outcomes with complete clarity and in a language that demonstrates thinking in terms of learning hierarchy (see box). Students should be able to know what the objectives are. The course is treated in a modular fashion. Such work is not an easy task, as faculty need to familiarize themselves with a style of review. Designing a single course can take upto 900 hours.

Course Curriculum

Take for example a heat transfer course. Poorly decided objectives would be:

  • State Fourier’s Law of heat conduction.
  • Calculations based on standard formulae.

Better objectives could be:

  • Given a complex set-up, identify the governing equations and boundary conditions.
  • Identify a method of solution.

Similar thought must be given to lab courses. Students must be able to propose experiments and analyse readings.

We asked Prof. Ray about the sea that dilutes all attention and concentration, the class size. “Are students going to reduce in number? Are you going to find many more good teachers?” he asks in return. The answer, as is known, is a no. These are then given constraints, and a way to deal with them is the greater and intelligent use of technology. A possibility is a 1-3-0 course, with tests taken at the end of every class. An intelligent multiple choice quiz can be designed (see box) that generates quality feedback and automatically mails it to the student. The class is encouraged to form groups, and such a system enables continuous evaluation and quality feedback.

Intelligent Tests: The leftmost column represents student ranks. All answers to Q1 are D or C, showing that the distraction power of other options is low- a poor test question. Q2 is said to have a high discrimination index as it is seen to separate the top students. Q3 could be an elementary concept. Only one student gets Q4, which could mean that the concept is difficult or was taught ineffectively. Meaning could also be attached to why a student selects a particular wrong answer, identifying weaknesses. Technology is a tool, not the solution. Automated checking reduces workload on the teacher.

At the time of review, how well the stated course objectives achieve the Learning Outcomes are rated. Different courses of a department are stacked up and compared (see box). If it so happens that a particular Learning Outcome is not well addressed, a new course may be introduced by the department, or under collaboration with another department. All departments interact in this manner and taken together, the Institute’s strengths and weaknesses are identified.

Course Assessment:

D: Department, C: Course, LO: learning Outcome, O: Objective. On a scale of 5, the department is strong in LO 1, weak in LO n and offers little scope of LO 2.




A Long Term Model

How far the aims of the Accord will be realised is an open question at this stage. In spite of familiarity with the idea for more than 10 years, major US universities follow the clauses in letter only, treating the document as additional paperwork. In fact, companies exist that will write a sound curriculum for you. The specialized language and words used are hollow in the absence of intent.

The methods used seriously will result in greater competition, and there is a strong need to compete and gear up with the rest of the world. The proposed changes are long-term, over a span of 10-15 years. As the result of a first phase of activity, many faculty members are now aware of what the Washington Accord is, and some courses are being restructured within its framework, e.g. a Mining Engineering course is ready to go out and be tested in the classroom.

“Set your goals clearly, let it be debated. Deciding what to do is most difficult. Then, you need to consider how best to go about achieving it,” says Prof. Ray. It is the spirit of the movement, to enable outcome based learning, which is what really matters. The pedagogical framework is a path to reach that goal, though questions remain and as a model it may evolve over time. Answers to how Learning Outcomes like an ethical sensibility will be realized are yet to be found, anywhere across the globe.  Finally, there’s the matter of practical results. Ask yourself the question: Will the implementation of tools from pedagogy by educators see in students the spark of sincerity and interest?


1 Comment

  1. Lakshmikanth M says:

    Informative article. It is true that to compete with the world, we need to design the courses carefully. I appreciate the idea of taking feedback and inter-departmental courses.I hope changes in the course work will improve the educational system.

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