Basic Instinct #3: Learning to face consequences

This posting is the third in a series of comments on – what I consider – important abilities which many seem to have started to develop during their childhood, but which they have forgotten about to bring to a full understanding at age 18+.

At least the young students starting at TU Graz seem to have a lack of a lot of these abilities. From numerous discussions with students I got the impression that this missing ability might be due to being overly protected by the education system and by family.

Since most of these abilities seem to be very natural to me, I call them “instincts”. In this third posting I want to look at the basic instinct of “facing consequences”.

Facing consequences

It seems that we humans are born with the following prejudices about life: We all seem to understand this world as a “3-dimensional thing”, and we all seem to have a similar understanding of “time”. As a third “instinct”, we are born with the belief that a “cause” has a “consequence”. These prejudices give our brain the ability to cope with the facts of life: We notice changing structures over time and constantly search for “causes” and their “consequences”.

With these prejudices in mind, children experiment and learn. They cry, and get food. They smile, and get a smile in response. They “do the right thing”, and get a nice comment by their elders. They experience a “cause” always together with its “consequence”, and from this they learn; they learn to attract pleasant consequences, and they learn to avoid unpleasant consequences.

To learn to avoid unpleasant consequences can also lead to strange behavior. Unfortunately, such strange behavior is quite commonly found among students at TU Graz. Let me give a you couple of examples which, to my mind, fit to some extent the season. After all, it is carneval.

(1)
“Dear teacher, unfortunately I cannot come to the exam since I need to go skiiing”.

“Why did you register then?”

“Well, I always register for each exam. Just in case I feel well and happen to be prepared for the exam.”

(2)
Teacher: “I am sorry to have to tell you, but you failed again. If I remember correctly, I have asked you this question during the previous exam, too. When you could not answer it, I even explained to you the correct solution afterwards.”

Student: “I am sorry, but I thought that you will not ask me the same question again.”

(3)
“Dear Mr. Posch, I am about to start with my master-thesis project, but, strangely enough, my chosen adviser asked me to finally do the exam in computer organization.”

“What? Have you still not managed to finish this 2nd-semester bachelor course?”

“Unfortunately, I never had time. Moreover, no one has asked me to do it until now.”

(4)
A student towards to end of the 5th attempt to do the lab-section of “computer networks and computer organization”, a course to be done in the 2nd semester of the bachelor degree program: “Dear Mr. Posch, it is so difficult.”

My response: “If this is still difficult after five attempts, you better quit with studying.”

Based on the observation described above, here are some suggestions for improving our studying culture at TU Graz.

(Goal 1)
If a student registers for a course, she indeed has the intention to successfully finish the course. If this were the case, we most likely would reduce the average time for finishing with some university degree.

Suggestion: Registration for a course and not sincerely going for it should be awarded with a so-called “miss”. A student should always be reminded about her “misses” relatively to other students’ “misses”. At the end of a semester, a student should get a mail with a message of the following type: “This semester you were among the top 10 percent of students. You have successfully finished 6 out of 6 courses you have registered for.” Or: “Only 5 percent of all students got more miss points this semester. Unfortunately, you have only successfully finished 1 out of 6 courses you have registered for. We suggest that you talk with your mentor”. In this way, students can learn and improve with respect to judging their habits when it comes to registering for a course.

(Goal 2)
If a student sits in a course and experiences some difficulties with the material of the course, she should clearly think of immediately acting against this undesirable situation.

Suggestion:
Teachers should intensively encourage students to speak up as soon as they encounter difficulties with the course’s material. Of course, the teacher should also clearly define what previous knowledge she expects from the students. Here is an example: For the 2nd-semester bachelor course “computer organization”, the teacher should ask for successful completion of the first-semester course on programming in C. All students who have not successfully mastered this programming course should get a warning sign. There are various ways of “speaking up”: Asking in public, talking to the teacher during her office hours, getting together in study groups and have a discussion about the difficulties, and more. What should definitely be avoided is that a student just stays quiet; this increases the risk that this student will study longer than necessary. The worst example seems to be when a student does not successfully finish the course “computer organization”and keeps on trying higher-semester courses which depend on the understanding of the organization of a computer. It should not be left up to the student to ignore such a situation and just continue. She should be forced to act in some way. Students should get letters from the university like this: “You have registered for the course xxx in the 6 semester and have not finished the course “computer organization” from semester #2. Please, talk to the teacher.”

(Goal 3)
If a student registers for an exam, she clearly shows the intention to actually do the exam.

Suggestion: Registration for an exam should cost a “point”. Every student gets a certain amount of such “points” per semester. As soon as she has used all of her “points” without having attended a similar amount of exams, she has to fill a form in which she explains how this could happen. With this extra work, students get discouraged from registering for too many exams at the same time. With this trick, we can encourage students to become better with planning what they want to achieve in the near future.

(Goal 4)
Students who fail in some exam should be encouraged to analyze the reasons for this failure.

Suggestion: Students who fail an exam should be asked to hand in correct solutions of the exam questions within two weeks after the exam. With this, students get used to analyze the problems they encounter in due time. Of course, an oral discussion with the teacher would also be most useful. Currently it seems to be the case that students shy away from the teacher and prefer to be left alone with their misery.

(Goal 5)
Slow and under-performing students should be informed by the university.

Suggestion: Students should get yearly letters of the following kind: “With your study record you belong to the top 10 percent of the students in the first year. Congratulations!”. Or: “Unfortunately, your study record is below average. You have only achieved 20 percent of what is required; 90 percent of all students in the first year perform better than you. You should be aware that if you continue with this speed, it will take you another 14 years to finish with your bachelor degree. By that time, you will be age 34. We strongly suggest that you talk with your mentor.”

I am not sure that the suggestions described above have no side effects. I am sure, however, that at the moment we do not encourage our students appropriately in order to act as grown-ups who fully understand the “consequences” of their actions. The university should professionally guide them towards becoming professional actors in some field in an adequate amount of time.

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3 thoughts on “Basic Instinct #3: Learning to face consequences

  1. Bernhard

    Maybe I can understand what you want to achive with some of your points.
    But I think what you really achive with the ideas of your blogpost is a paternalism (“Bevormundung”) of the students.
    This would transform the university into a FH (university of applied sciences) or even worse a “normal” austrian school with an “early warning system” (Frühwarnsystem).
    Is that really what you want? I am not sure. If yes, why don’t you apply for a job at a FH?

    Reply
    1. kcposch Post author

      >Maybe I can understand what you want to achive with some of your points.
      >But I think what you really achive with the ideas of your blogpost
      >is a paternalism (“Bevormundung”) of the students.

      What makes you think this? If your comment were true, all trainers would paternalise trainees as soon as they try to get them closer to professionalism. Check out my other comments on “planning” and “responsibility”. My goal is to guide students towards taking charge of life. It seems that an attitude of “laissez faire”, this is what we do at the moment, has too little effect. Being pushed once in a while might help many to wake up earlier.

      >This would transform the university into a FH (university of applied sciences)
      >or even worse a “normal” austrian school with an “early warning system”
      > (Frühwarnsystem).

      I have been very skeptical about the development of the Austrian educational system for decades. I rather prefer to compare the situation I know well, i.e. the situation at TU Graz, with teaching systems at universities in other countries.

      > […] why don’t you apply for a job at a FH?

      Because many years ago I chose to become a professional trainer/teacher at TU Graz.

      Reply
  2. Flori F.

    I do think that your proposed goals would reduce the problems you have described, but it would not help the young students realize that they need to take care of their life.
    After 12 years (or, in case of HTL, 13 years) of school with very restrictive, baby-sitting teachers, these young adult students finally need to realize that they alone are responsible for the success they will have in their life.
    It’s about time, and if university is just as restrictive as a school or FH, they will only start to develop the skills needed to take care of their life without babysitters when they get a job with a finished university degree… Thats way too late!! After being babysitted until 25 years of age, it is even harder for people to finally start to think and plan for themselves!

    I do cherish quite some of your posts because they explain parts of university and give useful tipps to students, but I cannot condone these proposals you have made here – people only learn out of trial and error, and if they don’t trip and fall on their face during university, it’s even worse when they finally do that later in their life.


    finally, a thought on your observation (3):
    “(…) start with my master-thesis project(…)”

    ???

    How is it even possible to do that without having finished all courses from the 2nd(!) semester of the bachelor, which would mean not having finished the bachelor? 😮

    Wow, I am seriously confused now…

    best regards,
    FF

    Reply

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