Alan Dix > HCI Education

abject failures

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column September 2001
It's exam board time again in the UK and I've been attending meetings in my own institution and at others where I am 'external'. Meetings where we scan lists of names and marks and pass and fail students. 'We fail students' - now that is an interesting phrase. In the exam board setting we are pronouncing "they have failed", but why lack of ability, lack of diligence, external personal circumstances, or just that we failed the students in our teaching?

In one exam question I set this year even the strongest students could make no sensible attempt at a particular part. It was something I felt the students ought to have been able to do, but they were clearly unable to. Who failed whom?

In the UK and indeed most countries, we have an education system that seems oriented towards failure, not success. We of course laud the successful, but do so only because they have managed to leap or elude the failure traps we have set them along the way.

We give all students, regardless of ability and current attainments, the same quantity of material to deal with and wonder that many fail in parts of it and those that 'pass' do so with a sense that they don't really grasp what is going on.

This is made worse in the UK higher education system because it evolved at a time when only a very small number attended University, perhaps 2-5%. In particular the normal period for an honours degree is 3 years, shorter (as a normal period) than in many countries who have always had mass entry into higher education. Now around a 1/3 of all high school leavers go into Universities or similar institutions, but we ostensibly apply the same standards in the same timescales - come on! - something has to give whether it is what we teach, what attainment we expect, or simply how much pain the students go through!

I know that in the US it is more common to take variable amounts of time taking what courses you can afford the time or fees to take each year, and that you feel you can reasonably achieve. But I'm also aware that the competitive side of US education and society leaves so many trampled by the wayside.

The attitude to retaking courses and exams is also very critical. In UK Universities, 'resits' are increasingly becoming the norm and yet are still treated within the system as exceptional. If you fail an exam a resit typically can only get you a minimum pass grade - one failure really is for ever. If you fail too many times you become irredeemable - from a Christian perspective to brand anyone as 'irredeemable' seems abhorrent. Somehow when I hear of US students 'flunking' courses this seems less final - is this a reflection of an attitude that achieving the goal is more important than what route and how long it takes to get you there? Can we create academic cultures where to fail does not make you a failure?

Within modules there are similar patterns (repeated as far as I am aware universally). Typically we teach a body of material to a similar depth throughout a course and most students, at some stage in the course, lose track of what is going on. Even if they 'succeed' in understanding early in the course, their final experience is one of confusion. My ideal (which I may not achieve) is a student experience consisting of a very broad view of what is available in an particular area, punctuated with excursions into detailed subtopics where they can touch ground and attain a sense of success and mastery over the subject. If they feel control and confidence in one subtopic, they can later go on to fill in deeper knowledge of other subtopics where needed.

One of my most fulfilling moments whilst teaching was on an industrial short course on UNIX network programming. Throughout the course 'taught' periods were interspersed with practical tasks and at the end of one session I gave them their 'hands on' - to produce an email client where the user could type a message and it would get sent. The students' looks said it all - I'd obviously completely misjudged it - "where is this man coming from" their faces clearly said. I explained again that they had all the building blocks in previous examples, but they were totally unconvinced. "OK", I said, "just have a go". After 15 minutes half of the students had working systems and the rest came early for the next session and completed the task before the session started. They had achieved something they had thought difficult and unachievable, something that seemed too like a real system for them to produce - they had succeeded.