Elements of a good UG education

Last Updated 23 December 2015, 18:33 IST

Having once been an undergraduate student and now being a teacher of undergraduate students, I have often pondered over this question: ‘What does a good undergraduate education entail?’ I believe, a good undergraduate education should contribute to the making of a caring, collaborative, and thinking citizen. This is a citizen who is interested in the wellbeing of the community and is capable of identifying information that is credible and therefore reliable


What sort of a learning environment nurtures the above-mentioned capabilities? It should contain four pillars at the very least: an environment of care, both inside and outside the classroom; the flexibility in choosing the subjects of study; a well-considered assessment and grading framework; and a curriculum that provides a contextual understanding of the subjects of study. 

Truly engaged
An environment of care not only nurtures academic learning but also contributes to the formation of morals, values, and creative abilities. These happen when the teachers are truly engaged with the life of every student, both inside and outside the classroom. A colleague recently pointed out to me that my informal conversations with students outside the classroom have had a significant impact on their in-class behaviour and their willingness to learn. Moreover, it is important to emphasise that education, broadly conceived to include moral sentiments, should be imparted to every student and not to the ‘average student’.

The option of studying subjects other than the major (be it Biology, Economics, History, Literature or Physics) allows the student to explore different knowledge systems. Minors in data sciences, development studies and education, for instance, complement the major subjects. A Literature student who wants to pursue business journalism would benefit from taking the data sciences minor. A Physics student who is interested in teaching Physics would find it useful to take up the education minor. A Biology student who is passionate about the environment is well served by minoring in development studies.
Therefore, such choices allow students to follow their interest and passion, and not all of these need to be tailored to a particular career path. In fact, I know a Physics student who intends to take up economics as a minor out of his interest for the subject.

A paradigm shift
Our thinking about assessments requires a paradigm shift. A good educational environment does not equate assessments with marks. There should be some non-graded assessments that provide qualitative feedback to the student about her understanding of the content, and more importantly, about different ways of learning to understand it. Thus, flexibility to choose courses alone cannot create a good learning environment. It has to be complemented with a well-thought-out assessment structure. In fact, a good assessment structure is as important as delivering a good lecture.

While the above three pillars are the ones considered necessary for a good undergraduate education, the fourth has not been sufficiently emphasised. The imparted knowledge needs to be contextualised, that is, the scope and applicability of the subject matter should be seen in relation to the extant socio-political conditions. This is usually done by having courses such as ‘Science and Technology in India’, ‘Issues in Indian Economy’, and ‘Indian Popular Culture’ in the curriculum.

However, these are often provided as electives, thereby indicating that the evolution and application of knowledge, in principle, can be divorced from socio-political conditions. Thus, a good curriculum may instead seek to make the courses that contextualise scientific and social scientific knowledge compulsory.

To reiterate, just as a good doctor is one who cares about her patient, a good teacher is one who cares about her student. The aspect of care, particularly in education, deserves attention. It is this environment of care that would ultimately prove transformative for students.

(The author is faculty at the School of Liberal Studies, Azim Premji University.)

(Published 23 December 2015, 18:03 IST)

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