Evaluating the evaluators

The standard university value proposition is that it’s not just a degree but an opportunity for learning and developing critical thinking. At Ryerson University:

The special mission of Ryerson University is the advancement of applied knowledge and research to address societal need, and the provision of programs of study that provide a balance between theory and application and that prepare students for careers in professional and quasi-professional fields.

However, as noted yesterday, Ryerson has charged a student with academic misconduct for creating a Facebook virtual study hall. Even if the students were passing around “answers” [which it appears they were not], the problem is not with the students.


Any institution that claims to support “the advancement of applied research and knowledge“, should not be in the business of asking for “the right answer”. Learning, especially in higher education, should not be about getting the right answer and this case shows the weakness of the university value proposition for our society. Too many universities have taken the easy route and they are as much diploma mills as anything you might find on the back of a pack of matches. The gaping hole in the university teaching model is quite obvious. If the “answer” can be found and passed around, your evaluation system is completely flawed.

Photo of Bas Relief by Elizabeth Lyn Wood at Ryerson (1962) by colros

9 Responses to “Evaluating the evaluators”

  1. Gilbert Babin

    Good points in this article.

    I do believe,however, that the writer is sometimes confusing the results to be attained with the process that must be used to attain the result.

    Trust me when I say that the student, particularly the junior ones, better know the answer one one of my exams. They must master the basic body of knowledge in the subject matter area. In my honest opinion they are not ready to think in a field until they have done so. Higher education should be in large part related to knowing facts. That doesn’t stop universities from fulfilling their missions. It does not stop students from becoming critical thinkers.

    This said, can’t think of many situations where students should not be allowed to pass answers around.

    I totally agree that universities are becomming diploma mills. I also think that is what they always been and should continue to be. Assessment of skills and abilities should be at a layer external to the universities. We are confusing reputation with the need for proper mechanisms.

    Yes the model has to change. Doesn’t necessarily mean that universities have to be the drivers for the change. In a “Network/Packet” world we will see more mashing of courses from different sources. This will create the need for independent accreditation and assessment layers.

    We shouldn’t by any means confuse a diploma with the ability to think critically. So I will keep on asking students to get the right answer when there is such a thing as a right answer.


  2. Jon

    This brief post, expanded upon by an exploration of the issues that Gilbert raises, should be an ongoing series of explorative journalism stories in the country’s major newspapers, in my opinion.

    Except that I do not agree with hios perspective that universities should become diploma mills. But this issue should be explored publically, and bradly throughout the society.

    Now, if it becomes a societal value that the buld of people going on to post-secondary education should receive vocational “training” as that “post-secondary education” (as I would argue a B. Comm is for going to work in generic coproate entry-level roles in marketing, sales, customer service, yadda yadda .. well, I’d be OK with that, as long as that were to happen in vocational colleges (and called that, not universities).. and leave the universities to (probably much) smaller populations where liberal arts, applied-science bodies of knowledge (engineering, compuetr science, etc.) and deep rigorous basic science would be the focus of learning.

    But that kind of decision would perhaps surface and illuminate today’s “reality”, which I might argue is closer to a Brave New World scenario than we want to admit. We camouflage the BNW issue by nce not calling what passes today for “education” by a perhaps-more-correct label, which might be “vocational training-and-socialization in diploma mills”.

    Ryerson used to be more of a community college focused on vocational training, before it became an “university”. I still wonder if it now is what I consider an “university”. I suspect that it is just a bigger, more populated vocational training institute.

  3. Harold

    The journalists won’t take on any of the difficult issues, because their entire operating model of feeding the furnace (as my friend Graham calls it) is supported by the dumbing-down of the populace. “Sell more stuff” is the mantra not just of big business but also journalists and more and more of higher education.

  4. Gilbert

    Harold you’re on to something very important in your last comment.

    I think it goes beyond the “Selling more stuff” problem. There was a wave of “more is better” things that has had an important impact on us.

    If we had a “Less is better” philosophy, and we will in an information overloaded world, we would greatly improve many things. I think that globalization will actually encourage the “less is better” philosophy. And I also suspect that the Network/Packet effect will lead to us thinking in terms of less…

    Give me just what I want, when I want it and where I need it.

    I also think that teaching and assessment are going to move towards less is better. Less facts to learn, less time in school, less teachers, less everything including hassles.

    Hey.. I am also the guy who said the perfect business has 0 clients and 0 employees… so I guess I am starting to get it.


  5. Dave Ferguson

    Gilbert, I’m not sure I’m following when you say “higher education should be in large part related to knowing facts.”

    I agree that “facts” are part of the foundation of a field — the texts of Shakespeare, the details in the periodic table, the power curve for an engine. But those seem to me to fall short of “higher.” E.g., a knowledge of facts tells me that on average each of Shakespeare’s sonnets uses seven words not used in any of the other sonnets. What does that say about appreciation for the context, for the artistry, for the use of the form?

  6. Gilbert

    I don’t expect my students to know “Are you smarter than a fifth grader facts”. I don’t expect them to think until they have sufficient mastery of the knowledge areas either.

    Most of the courses I teach cover processes and methodologies.

    For example in the project management classes I do expect the students to be able to name of all the PMI PM processes, all of the functional areas, know what the inputs and outputs of the process areas are. They must be able to name 18 common things that are found in the TOC of a PMI compatible project management plan. They must master all definitions in the glossary of the standard. They must be able to spit out the standard elements in a feasibility study document. Once they have studied these elements actively they are ready to learn. Until they have this knowledge it would be a waste of my time to try to transfer some of my project management experience.

    I do not expect my students to think in terms of project management until they have atleast some mastery of the basic knowledge area. And I warn them that only an idiot would want to manage a project before having the PM Model perfectly mastered. They are exposed to other models also.

    On top of having to learn the facts they are asked to produce a professional quality standards based project plan. This helps them concretize and use some of their factual knowledge. They really produce excellent pm plans.

    The students also have a separate team-project where they get to play the various roles in the project team and must learn how to manage conflict. And believe me there are conflicts. Less than 10% of exam material would cover the simulation stuff but part of their team project evaluation is related to proper use of vocabulary and understanding of processes.

    My university students have often stated that they learn a lot more in my courses than they do in the other courses. My university course evaluations/ratings are very good although the courses are demanding.

    When the facts are about processes, facts-based teaching works. Of course I help them learn the facts by providing automated tools and also some training on how to remember facts.

    Higher education should be in large part related to methodologies and processes which technically a facts or sequences of facts.

    I would like to see examples of what those that don’t teach facts are teaching.

    Note: I take a less factual approach if I teach mathematics or music.


  7. Dave Ferguson

    “And I warn them that only an idiot would want to manage a project before having the PM Model perfectly mastered.”

    I couldn’t say, though I’d guess projects did get managed (let alone the management of projects talked about) prior to the founding of the Project Management Institute.

    I’m not disputing the value of knowing facts, though I do have the impression you’re using “fact” to include relationships and interactions far beyond eighteen items in a theory of constraints.


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