Real education is about much more than just student grades

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2011, 12:00am


Many university teachers are dismayed by the University Grants Committee initiative to promote an 'outcome-based' approach to education. Large sums of money are being spent on it, while it threatens true education.

Under the initiative, Hong Kong lecturers have to list, in every course description, the desired 'outcomes' and ensure that they teach to them and assess them. So 'outcomes' would appear no different from the 'objectives' in previous descriptions. However, the crucial difference is that the outcomes must be expressed solely in terms of students' abilities. And, even more restricting, no desired outcome can be stated unless it is both measurable and assessable as part of the student's course grade.

Outcome-based assessment causes problems for teachers who try to educate for life in society rather than train for immediate assessment. That is, teachers who do not just deliver self-contained courses, but interest students and encourage lifelong learning; who try to entrench habits of critical thinking and foster civic responsibility; and who facilitate service-learning, so students experience the joy of working for the community while at university and throughout their lives.

None of these important objectives can be measured and incorporated in student grades because they concern students' life and behaviour after graduation. Although they figure prominently in Hong Kong universities' mission statements about their ideal graduates, the initiative ignores or sidesteps them.

The initiative would be less pernicious if less rigidly or narrowly enforced. However, committees implementing it categorically reject outcomes like confidence-building, enjoyment, interest, and motivation to study further. Since these cannot be incorporated in grades, they are 'non-compliant', becoming 'illegal structures' on the curriculum edifice.

Massive funding supports the enforcement regime. In 2007-08, Polytechnic University spent HK$15 million on projects to foster outcome-based education. Our institution also hires co-ordinators and fellows for the same purpose. Shortly, two overseas consultants will, over 21/2 weeks, spend nine hours with each member of our department. This expensive visit will, we suppose, involve interrogation of our course materials, assignments and tests to enforce compliance.

Actually, this initiative is the last thing that we need at the apex of our educational system. The reforms in primary and secondary schools, implemented since 2000, aim to steer the education system away from mechanistic training towards a balanced, all-round education, to allow for a wider range of abilities. After all, students might earn good grades at school; but, subsequently, through a lack of interest or motivation, they may not use what they have learned and so lose it. Experienced Hong Kong educators recognise students' lack of motivation and the concomitant reluctance to take responsibility for their own learning as a major problem.

Students now entering university have benefited from the reforms. Ironically, they will be entering a learning environment based on rigid measured outcomes. It reflects a regressive educational philosophy. Students become machines to which teachers add components to enhance their capabilities, and, as they come off the conveyor belt and out of the factory, test that they meet the output specifications. Outcome-based assessment might apply to vocational training, narrowly conceived. It does not apply to real education. It reinforces teaching for assessment, not learning for life.

The enforcers of an outcome-based approach are, perhaps unwittingly, working against the spirit of a liberal arts education. The initiative is irrelevant to many of the qualities we desire in our graduates. The University Grants Committee should either call a halt to this movement or radically modify its implementation.

Professors Andrew Goatly and Ersu Ding have been university teachers in Hong Kong for the last 13 years