Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts on the university admissions process

A friend of mine, Rajan Rishyakaran, has written a good blog post critiquing the Malaysian university admissions process. While I don't know enough about local universities to comment on many things he raises, there are a couple of points which I think are worth emphasising: the difference between policy in theory and policy in reality, and the importance of decentralising some decisions.

There are many illustrations of the difference between something in theory and something in practice, but Rajan's example of coursework is as good as any. In principle, adding coursework to the evaluation process for university admissions would be a good thing.

After all, a major problem with our education system is that it focuses a lot on examinations which only assess students at one point in time, and often encourage rote memorisation instead of actual learning. If you fall sick during exam period, it can dramatically change your life's course, because you might not get into the university you otherwise could, or not pursue the degree you otherwise would attain. And because the format and style of exams is so predictable, all you need to do is practice with enough exam papers from previous years to be prepared -- you don't necessarily need to understand anything on the exam (I have found that understanding too much can actually be detrimental to your marks in some Malaysian exams).

If we emphasised coursework more, then one-off incidents which might negatively impact your exam performance would matter less: you have a substantial amount of time to do your coursework. Because the key element of your coursework is usually a report on something you have researched, you actually learn something useful: you learn how to write academically, and you learn some basic research or factfinding skills.

That's the theory; the practical reality is something else altogether. When I was in school, nobody took coursework seriously. Or rather, they took it the same way they took an exam: they figured out the best way to game the system, and they did it. Everyone would Google their topic, and instead of writing up a report about it, they would plagarise the most relevant websites. If they were too lazy to do this, they would plagiarise from one another very openly -- there was no stigma to copying or cheating off someone else's work.

It's not that they were lazy; it's that they knew this was the most efficient way to get things done. Teachers don't really care if the material is obviously plagiarised -- to them the coursework system is often a burdensome imposition on them because they have to read through dozens, if not hundreds of reports. Students know this, so they intentionally put a lot of work into making their reports more burdensome on teachers. One teacher's son told me that he intentionally put lots of irrelevant diagrams and photos in his coursework because this would discourage the teacher from looking too hard at his work -- she would see he had obviously worked hard on the report, and give him high marks.

The problem with coursework is that it is an arbitrary, artificial system of evaluation imposed by the central government with little thought as to what the schools and teachers can do, and little thought for what universities want to see. As Rajan notes, our university admissions process is extremely centralised -- everything is boiled down to a couple of numbers, which are then fed into the government's system. The government then tells you what university you will attend, and what degree you will pursue.

Likewise, with coursework, the government tells schools how to grade students' work, and it tells universities how these grades must translate into admissions decisions. There is no room for a teacher to assess students in his or her own way, to try something different. Neither is there room for a university to assess students in a different way, such as through tailored interviews or personal statements.

Obviously, there are pitfalls to granting educators more autonomy. But I don't think there is any question that at the moment we err far too heavily on the side of ridiculous centralisation. The government has attempted to standardise the education system to an extreme, and the result is something easily gamed by the pretence of ability, instead of actual demonstrable results. The government needs to grant universities more leeway in making their admissions decisions, and at the same time experiment with giving schools more freedom in coming up with alternative methods of assessment.


Shawn Tan said...

Another potential problem if we start relying on coursework too much is that, the work will be graded based on the teacher's bias. So, the teacher's pet is likely to get higher marks than the class devil. Unless of course, we restructure the system so that teachers from other schools would grade the coursework so that they only see a 'number' and are not affected by any character bias.

Character Education said...

Very good questions he had raised ,,as these are the main points when we talk about uni admission.