How to get the best out of our students?
How should we see our students: as customers or products? In my four-plus decades in academia, I have seen them quite differently: as co-creators of knowledge. When they are challenged to think, connect, resolve, and create, they are at their finest. Pushed further, they can be serious knowledge producers. For this quality, my respect has only grown for them. In working closely with them, I have been significantly enriched.
Most students are ardent knowledge seekers and enormously creative in their knowledge gathering, processing and dissemination (research reports) abilities. Placed in the right circumstances and given the right opportunities, they can come up with ideas that are simply brilliant.
While some teachers are able to get the best out of their students, many are not. Students attending typical classes are often frustrated and demotivated; they become indifferent and feel a sense of emptiness—a sign that they are not learning. Consequently, their minds disengage quickly and lose both zeal and creativity.
The testing regimes and assessment strategies of typical teachers are also poor: they stress memorisation and regurgitation. As a result, students miss the opportunity to showcase what they can do when they are imbued and empowered with knowledge.
At BRAC University, I have seen students create Mongol Tori (a Mars rover) and present viable ideas like manufacturing cost-effective sanitary napkins from water hyacinths to meet the needs at lower tiers of society. Creativity is in their genes; for many, it is a survival instinct. Yet, in a large majority of classrooms, this instinct is rarely developed and honed.
I also had the privilege of teaching a research methods course involving graduate students at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development. I was delighted when a team of three students from the course went on to present a research paper from the course itself at a conference at Yale University. All three chose to continue working with me even after the semester was over.
In my early years while teaching at IBA, I made students go to the factories and business houses to talk to those on the ground, synthesise this learning with text-book propositions and theories, and come up with their own worldview. Aptly ingrained with a spirit of inquiry, the confidence they exude is simply elating. Many of my students have gone on to become CEOs, academic leaders, and high-ranking officials. From afar, I have watched them with pride as they successfully managed their affairs. One such CEO shared his classroom experiences in an article published by The Daily Star.
At Penn State, too, where I taught for nearly three decades, my students routinely won awards at the annual Penn State Behrend-Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research and Creative Accomplishment Conference. I believe this was because they were constantly challenged to dip into the unknown, seeking answers. One bright young student emailed me recently saying, "I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me. Without you, I would not have been able to bring the extensive body of research I've done to the interview to show all of the things I am capable of doing."
In January 2020, I was invited to teach at IBA as a visiting professor. Two of the nine DBA students from a course in multivariate analysis are continuing to work with me on retail banking. Another 45 ardent MBA students worked with me on a research project. Designed to glean insights about student experiences with higher education, what started as an innocuous class project began to evolve in a manner that was simply unanticipated.
A survey was placed on Google Forms, the link of which began to circulate among the student population in various universities. The rate and quality of the responses were stunning. It became sadly apparent how many students feel neglected, rate their academic programmes poorly, find a serious absence of well-rounded education, perceive a lack-of-fit with their academic environment, are unable to build enduring friendships, and rue their teachers who mistreat them and offer little time beyond the class hour to even have a simple conversation.
Dubbed as The Academic Experience Project (T-AEP), the data set from the class project now represents over 50 universities with over 1,200 respondents and is growing as the survey link continues to be shared. The responses are honest, direct, refreshing, insightful, and remarkably prescriptive. Here are three randomly selected voices:
"As an engineering student, I feel that our institutions shouldn't focus [just] on theoretical enrichment; they should concentrate on applied knowledge. Most importantly, we need a compact research-based education to compete globally. This is how they can make us [competitive for] the job market."
"Do the institutions try to build a strong sense of ethics in [their] students? Do they try to [make] you feel the sufferings of the people?"
"Academia-industry collaboration should be improved a lot; most of the businesses are focusing on just making money but not collaborating with the universities to develop the human resources they need to compete in the global market."
Interestingly, the T-AEP project made a deep connection with the students conducting the study. So, when asked to tell a story about student experiences, drawn from the data, their pens flowed in a torrential cascade. These stories were converted into a series of op-eds that are stirring, sometimes strident and bitter, but more often making powerful appeals to the higher powers to listen. I am thankful to The Daily Star for providing the platform to share these voices. What will thus follow is a series of op-eds every Friday, followed by their Bangla renditions, representing student voices beseeching change.
It is imperative that academics and administrators listen to these voices. They will learn what is not working. They will learn that students need to feel that they are part of a caring institution, which provides goal-directed nurturing, and is able to build their capacities that fit into the evolving 4IR future. I am willing to wager that if our universities can meet these three conditions, the human assets this country will produce will give back to their families, their institutions, their employers and their country in far greater measure than we can imagine.
For optimal returns, it behoves our primary and secondary education system to adopt modern pedagogical tools, hire-train-motivate teaching staff of higher calibre, and become far better aligned and integrated with our higher education goals.
My appeal to my fellow academics is a simple one: Create and develop a culture of listening to these young people. I believe, in their respectful ways, they will suggest how we can engage with them better. Then blend your ideas with theirs to give them an unforgettable educational experience. Bangladesh is making strides as recent global indicators suggest. But the country can do even better as we continue to empower the next generation. They are the future of the nation; for their sake, we ought to provide a better educational experience. Change We Must!
Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, and former Vice Chancellor, BRAC University.
This article serves as a preamble to several op-eds about the state of higher education in Bangladesh that resulted from faculty-student collaboration at IBA, University of Dhaka. Students from any institution who wish to contribute additional essays to The Academic Experience Project may contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.