Wednesday, May 17, 2006

High School vs University

We were chatting the other day about student responses to going up a level - notably the transition from high school to university, and the transition from undergraduate to graduate study.

An interesting consensus emerged: a lot of high school students take some time, weeks, years, or never, to "get" the difference between university studies and high school. At least from our perspective, the high school curriculum is very structured, there is a fixed text that completely defines the content for the exams; the students study to the exams, not to learn the material, and the teaching rarely goes beyong the structured curriculum. In contrast, at university level, even for the introductory classes, the content is dynamic - the instructor may use a text, but it often provides a loose framework or guide to the content, or more bluntly, it is a crutch for students to lean on, or more rarely a broader reference going beyond the curriculum. Class content goes beyond the book, or contradict the book, and there is an implicit expectation that the students read beyond The Text and search out broader, deeper and contradictory sources, preferably at their own initiative.
The transition to graduate school is also often protracted, as students expect for weeks to months to see more of the same; but at grad school the text may not exist at all, and problems are open ended or incompletely defined. While as "warm up" grad students are often given "known problems", exercises with known solutions or well defined parameters, the essence of grad research is to transition to underconstrained problems with unknown answers; potentially non-existent answers.
This is curiously hard for a lot of people, although far more grad students "get it", and rapidly, then do undergrads.
A lot of undergrads get stuck for ever in "high school mode", where everything has preset authoritative answers, and The Text gives all answers.
This is a socially dangerous mode.


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