Lately, I have been doing a lot reading and thinking about alternative methods of learning and teaching. Additionally, I have been reflecting about what I have liked about school and what I have not, as well as thinking about how I like to learn and how I typically learn best. Can the traditional grad program be improved? I think it can.
First, let’s start with the end product. What does the university want out of its graduate students when they graduate? Ideally, they would like to turn out professors who publish. Yet, in my experience, I have not really been prepared to take on that role because it has been shielded from me. This is where I believe the program can be changed.
While in the Air Force, we were encouraged to train as we would fight. Through countless inspections, we were evaluated on performing as we would carry out our mission during wartime. Thus we were expected to train and work so that it became a daily habit. I believe the graduate program could benefit from a part of this model. If they want to develop professors who publish then the students should do more teaching and more publication writing.
Fortunately, most of my grad work was completed through online courses. I personally believe I learned more in online courses than in instructor-led lecture courses. In most online courses, we had weekly discussions where we focused on an issue and had to bring our thoughts and opinions to the thread. In normal lecture courses, we were typically fed information rather than leverage good adult learning theories and leverage the experience of the class. The best face-to-face classes have included lively discussions or debates. The lecture courses have been rather forgetable.
If I were to remake the graduate program, these are things I would do:
Assign a mentor: First of all, I would assign a mentor or adviser on the first day of entering the program. The student and mentor would have regular discussions to ensure the student was moving forward and learning what was needed in the program. When I say regular, I am thinking about every two weeks. These discussions would focus on readings, projects, and other tasks necessary to develop the skills and knowledge to one day become a professor.
Change curriculum to one of objective mastery: I would change the curriculum to a list of tasks that the student needed to demonstrate mastery prior to program completion. Sign off on objectives would be through discussion and performance demonstration to the adviser. In the Air Force, we had a document called a Career Field Education and Training Plan (CFETP). Here is an example for my past career field. Essentially, the task listing would list the requirement along with recommended resources. Students would demonstrate task mastery through projects from papers submitted to journals to presentations given at symposiums and conferences, all under the guidance of their adviser. The adviser would also recommend books to read and discuss based on where the student was in the program.
No classes: Instead of having regularly scheduled classes, students under the guidance of their advisers would be required to regularly present on subjects as appropriate to their training plan. These discussions and presentations would be offered to anyone who wished to attend. This would mean the student would have to first learn how to effectively teach or present. These presentations would take the form of frequent student research symposiums to brief out their most current research. It could take the form of weekly book discussions either face-to-face or online. Wouldn’t it be great to have a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the great books? Or to talk about Dewey and Lindeman? If you were a students you certainly would want to be well versed on the subject before leading a discussion.
More student projects for publication: Since the goal is to create students who can or should be able to be published, they should start on day one of entering the program. The student adviser should be able to help students get published by co-writing with them, reviewing their writing, or pairing them with a faculty member within that area of specialization. Again, I believed I have learned more while working with my adviser on a publication than many of the classes I had taken. As I am now working on my dissertation, I am again gaining more than many classes I had taken. It is this process that I believe helps a person learn. The process has to be active and social.
I believe challenging students to write for publication will strengthen them more than the countless papers they write that will never see the light of day.
Naturally, this idea challenges what we take for granted as formal education; however, since a majority of people learn the most through informal learning, perhaps we can change the system to leverage the strengths of informal learning. The idea is objective mastery, who really cares how you mastered the task, only that you mastered it. The relationship between the student and adviser will certainly be strengthened in the process… as it should.