Lessons from Graduate School [30min]

Does the model for Graduate School inspire any changes to undergraduate education or even graduate education?

We just finished prelim week in our department, where graduate students, after a summer of intense studying, get 4 hours to complete 8-10 problems in some area, and demonstrate their readiness for further study. In graduate school, students take courses as they need some grades and a certain number of hours, but for at least some of the courses (2 in our case), the prelim exam is the real proof of achievement. As graduate students were very good undergraduate students, and the courses are not the critical part of the program, grades in the courses are usually quite high (mostly As, B+s, some Bs) with anything lower considered a strong signal that maybe graduate school isn’t right for the recipient.

This testing represents the ideal that success in graduate school is really determined by the final achievement (the dissertation), and the added tests are feedback, mostly to make sure the students are ready. The best part is that by decreasing the reliance on individual course success and the type of study habits that that encourages, is that is moves students into a focus on independent mastery.  This is all good and is pretty much the tradition in math graduate programs, but it has some flaws (for another post).

When this works, students learn the material, but they also learn to be better students, making connections, extensions, etc. We could probably do a better job helping and directly supporting this, but mostly students do all this on their own. Now for our undergraduate programs, graduate-level work is not the goal, but it would be an honorable goal to help students develop better learning skills and to take more ownership of their own learning. I wouldn’t do this with end of year or degree exams (although, from my understanding of the European models for undergrad, it can work), but I would look to a combination of a capstone course or experience, and an evaluated portfolio of work, to start prompting these changes in attitude and behavior. Another part would be to take the sequence of courses that students take, and work to incorporate supporting activities, like short independent projects, and direct discussions reflecting on learning.

One of the impacts of the graduate program structure is that students can really see that there’s a difference between undergrad and graduate studies. Incorporating more of these higher level activities would help distinguish undergrad from high school.



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