Parentalism within Science

At its last meeting on April 15th, the Vancouver Senate approved a proposal from the Faculty of Science, with amendment, to introduce a ‘Math Basic Skills Test’: an invigilated, 3 times per annum administered exam. The exam is mandatory for those wishing to take introductory differential calculus courses (MA100, 102, 104, 180, 184), but who achieved less than 80% in BC Math 12, and less than 73% on the optional BC Math 12 Provincial Exam. Those who fail to pass the exam, are prohibited from taking the above courses, but are allowed to take Math 110, a full-year differential calculus course which includes remedial material.

The rationale for the change is clear, and the math department deserves to be commended for the reasons it pushed for the change. In short, high school grades are a terrible indicator of future success when compared to standardized exams, and there are no standardized exams since the Province made them (excluding English 12) optional thanks to some lobbying against self-accountability. The math department, wanting to identify at-risk students early, needed a better indicator than high school grades, so they implemented the skills test which effectively replaces the data the old provincial exam gave.

What is of note is that this proposal did not pass without amendment. The original proposal prohibited students from taking Math 110 without first failing the skills test. A faculty member from the Commerce Faculty noted that such a requirement is a waste of resources, as a student dedicated to failing the exam will do simply that. It is not difficult to fail an exam, after all. The amendment passed, but with some dissenting rumblings from the Faculty of Science (for reasons unbeknownst to me).

A proposal such as this smells of a similar UBC failure, the LPI, which created yet another barrier, in particular for those out-of-town students, to admission and success at UBC. This supplemental exam, however, is of a different beast. Whereas with the LPI you were required to pass prior to taking 100-level English, with this exam you are given the option of taking a year-round introductory calculus course. This is a good thing.

The problem with the proposal is that it never once considered how students would interpret it. First, the proposal recommends that the exam be completed in-person, in an invigilated environment. Automatically this dramatically increases the costs of administration, and creates a slew of barriers around location and timing. Because of invigilation, now the exam can only be written three days a year, and only in one location, whereas an online exam could be written whenever, wherever. Second, this exam serves as an absolutely terrible introduction to university. Prior to Imagine day, prior to attending their first class, students will be forced to attend campus to write an exam (not easy if you’re outside of the GVRD) because, despite the fact we have said we trust their abilities by admitting them, we actually don’t trust their abilities at all. Hell, we don’t even trust them to not cheat on their first introduction to University.

The solution to both the above problems? Don’t invigilate the exam. Have it online, like a WebCT quiz, and let the students complete it at their own leisure. The purpose of having it invigilated is to not allow students to cheat, but if it’s made clear that by inflating their grade on this exam the only person they’re cheating is themselves, they should be honest. If they’re not, they’re at over a 50% risk of failing a course they shouldn’t be in, but they took the chance and played with the fire. In essense, this exam can serve as a great deterent to academic dishonesty, as those who commit it early, will be punished immediately after.

The entire construct of this exam is to basically tell students what is best for them, without giving them an opportunity to retort, or as SSC mascot Ms. Frizzle would say, the implementation doesn’t give students an opportunity to: take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. This slight policy is but another example of UBC systemically not trusting its students to make reasonable decisions, and treating them like another widget being processed by the degree factory.


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