The higher education dilemma

One thing that has puzzled me since I was a student: what is the single most important objective of higher education? I always believed that when a curriculum was put together or when exams were designed, they all followed one ultimate underlying objective. When searching the Internet for the objective of higher education, I stumbled upon an interesting blog post by Steven Schwartz. He uses an old quote from Henry Cleveland: “The outsiders want the students trained for their first job out of university, and the academics inside the system want the student educated for 50 years of self-fulfilment.” Is higher education therefore a conflict of short and long-term objectives? But then how is the balance set between these two objectives? Can long and short term objectives be distinguished at all?

A study by Rohrer and Pashler (2007) found that retention of knowledge is affected by two main variables: the duration of a study session and the temporal distribution of study time across multiple sessions. Distributing study times over more than one periods increases retention. ‘Cramming’ before exams however may be effective in the short run but would result in very little – if any – retention in the long run. Students who continuously revise throughout the semester are more likely to retain knowledge than those students who leave revision to last minute and cram their revision into the final days before exam. The frustrating thing however is that this latter group of students can often achieve higher marks in the exam, although they will not remember much of it a few weeks following the exam. As Cleveland pointed out, it is no wonder why academics would like their students to retain as much in the long run as possible. But is it really what is happening at higher education institutions? One way of finding out would be to look at the balance between the two main pillars of assessment: coursework and end-of-term-exams. From the experiments summarised by Rohrer and Pashler it follows that it is coursework (and continuous mid-term assessments) that encourage the distribution of study times over the whole semester and achieve longer retention. Final exams on the other hand may inspire ‘cramming’ (as cramming may be as – if not more – efficient in the short run) and therefore achieve shorter retention. So a distribution of coursework and final exams in the overall system of student assessment may be an indicator of the weight short- and long-term objectives are allocated in the respective universities.

To carry on with this thought, would this also mean that students who do relatively better on courseworks have got more potential to do well as academics, whereas students who fare better at exams are better suited for the private sector?

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