Friday, January 11, 2008

Reflection 2: Pedagogy


This is the second of my “reflection” essays on my experience. I’ve been wondering how the Maltese system of university education works. Compared to the US it gives virtually no support to the students. It does not have learning centers, it does not really encourage “active” learning, and there is little practical education in the sense of connecting the studies to what might happen in the “real world”. Mind now, I am primarily talking about the area of international relations, though it appears to be true of law and even in some of the more technological fields.

In addition, there are no exams during the course of a semester or, in IR anyway, smaller assignments to help the professor and student check on progress. Students get a list of readings and might get a course outline that suggests specific things to read. The professor lectures, the students listen, and that’s about it. Once in a while they ask questions. There is usually some sort of research paper (tutorial) and then the bulk of the grade (called assessment here) is a closed book, take-in-a-classroom exam. I will be participating in some fashion in the international law exam, but I don’t yet know what that means. Sometimes the only exam that matters is one at the end of a year. Students who don’t do well are dismissed, after being allowed to resit the exam the following semester. Law loses something like 30-40% of its entering class; international relations loses fewer. Towards the end of their studies they do a thesis.

There is no competition by the university for students here, unless the students decide to go abroad. (There is a local alternative in some technological fields, but I am not sure how that works). Nor is the university driven by tuition. Students get stipends to attend and the university is funded by the government. Malta is not awash in government funds, so the university, while well kept and decently supplied, is hardly awash in money. Thus, there is apparently no concern about “retention” of students as there is in the US.

I have not quite done it there way in the sense that I've given the exam questions well in advance and made them take-home. I am reading drafts, too, just as I do in the US. I never allow rewrites after a paper is due, because I get much better progress getting them to rethink and revise beforehand. I don’t even assign a grade in the US to drafts—it’s purely optional, but my students learn quickly that it is worthwhile. The Maltese students were reluctant at first to believe me, but now they are showing me drafts. They need help with the usual things—using concepts from readings. On the whole they are quite good writers, just like my Tech students.

And, you know what? They do just fine with this “learning is your responsibility” system. I have some really, really good papers so far.

I still wonder, however, whether the Maltese system is too elitist. If you can dismiss a good chunk of your student body, who is that leaving out and why? There will be very well prepared students who just don’t work hard. Every university has those. I’m all for saying to them, “out you go, grow up.’ But what about students who are the first in their family to go to college and who didn’t go to the best of the public or private high schools/colleges (as they call the most advanced years in K-12)? Malta, like countries everywhere, must have a very well educated population to succeed in the world. If the current system does run against those who don’t already come from the middle and upper classes, what does that mean for the future of Malta? I don't yet know if this is what happens, so this is pure speculations.

It’s a problem in the US, too. My country is facing a terrible situation where we are creating and perhaps perpetuating an underclass with no hope and no options. Part of that failure is in our educational system. Still, the US has so many settings for getting more education that we have the infrastructure to cope with the vast differences in preparation of our young people, or of non-traditional students who return for education later in life.

I hope to learn more about all this as the year goes on. A few of my faculty friends and I have begun an informal exchange of ideas on education (one reading from the US and one from Malta). We call it “explaining Malta to Mary.”


Ylenia said...

Hi Professor Durfee,

i came across this blog through a google search and being one of your students i couldnt help but read it.

im impressed at the efforts you've made on commenting on our uni system here in Malta, its so nice to see that someone actually takes an interest... id like to make a couple of comments

this is my 4th yr at the uni of malta, im reading for a degree in law and IR where i previously graduated for a degree in european studies and anthropology.

the assessment system isnt really as uve mentioned. the truth is that assignments alone are rare and what is especially rare is taking the book in for an exam. they do happen but only in few faculties and very rarely.

the truth is that exams are set just as is done in most places. it varies from faulty to faculty. for example, when i was studying european studies students were normally aware of what was to come out in the paper so that we could research before hand, or exam essays were based on contemporary research our knowledge of current affairs and originality. in law its different, there they do all they canto fail u and get u out of the course, mainly because its over populated. the course starts off with around 150-200 students and ends with 80. funny considering that s student needs hardly any qualifications to enter. today all u need is a C in English intermediate, you only need Maltese by third year and no extra language. its ridiculous. assessments are based on what u dont know rather than what you do know. i can really vouch for how horrible it is.

i think the point that id criticise the uni of malta on is as you said, the lack of active learning. few students bother delving deeply into their fields, their primary goal is to pass their exams. i like to call it parrot learning. its sad to know that after all their hard word they havent had the opportunity to learn any practical skills to deal with the real working world, but i guess we cope somehow.

anyways i think ill get back to my assignment. id like to say a real thank you for posting that reflection, i wish more lecturers would take a better interest in us.

Mary said...

Thanks for helping me see more of the context at Malta.

In the US, students do assessed activities throughout the semester--perhaps three exams and a project, maybe more. Each of these is worth 15-25% of the final grade in the course. So, in the US you would have turned something in to me in Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan. Nothing would be worth 50% of the grade, much less the 90% of the grade that the end of year law exams equal.

I like to call the American system "attritional" Lots of smaller things, but students don't have the utter rush to complete nearly 100% of their grade in two weeks. Faculty and students here seem to think the American system is
a) too hard, people would have to study and assess all semester
b) (from the faculty perspective) would not encourage responsibility of the students.