Many students are coming out of school with high grades, yet lack the skills, support systems, or vision to pursue a meaningful career… Promoting good grades is not inherently wrong, but that motive has to be paired with the aspiration for personal mastery.

Try and think back to when you were in school. Did you ever get to a point where you were so busy with assignments, classes, and extra-curricular activities that you didn't have the time to prepare for an upcoming exam? Or maybe you weren't even that busy, but the "Procrastinator" in you convinced you that you didn't have to start studying for your next test until the very last moment.

In either case: time goes on, and the next thing you know, you only have a day or two left to review (or learn for the first time) an entire concept. Since you are pressed for time, you have no choice but to cram for the exam.

After writing the exam, you are left nervously waiting for your results to come back. When your test results were finally posted, you were relieved to see that you received a high mark! And so you think to yourself, why not do this again, if not every time? You scored a high mark by cramming once; why ever put in more effort when you can coast by..?

The thought exercise above demonstrates how our education system prioritizes marks before mastery, where students are willing to forgo proper studying habits for good grades. This practice is not necessarily the students' fault but, instead, a natural consequence of the environment they're placed in.

The academic model we operate in is constructed on poorly aligned incentives, and this effect comes at the expense of students' ability to explore their true interests and passions. Given the constraints, the ideal solution cannot emerge in the current system, and we must pursue solutions outside the current model to see real change.

In our last post, we explored the current landscape of the education system, mainly where we've seen change and where the education system still needs to improve. One of the fundamental flaws we will explore today is the current academic model's emphasis on test scores (marks) over a student's mastery of a subject. While it might sound counterintuitive to claim that these two things don't go hand-in-hand, this is possible when good test results are obtained through poor incentives and practices.

What is the problem?

The problem that plagues our school system is that students are fundamentally incentivized to prioritize attaining high test scores at the expense of their actual learning and comprehension. At first glance, you might question that statement as you would think these two things should be aligned; getting a good grade means you have a strong understanding of the course concepts, but this is not necessarily the case. Many students come out of school with high grades yet lack the skills, support systems, or vision to pursue a meaningful career.

Why is it a problem?

Humans tend to assign value to what can be measured immediately and place less value on things that are difficult to measure. Marks are easy to measure, making it a tangible outcome that all can well understand; the score a student receives on an evaluation is, in theory, a direct representation of that student's comprehension and abilities.

On the other hand, measuring someone's true mastery of a skill/topic can be much harder to quantify, making it easier to place on the back burner. The problem is that we need to remember that it matters not only what grades you get but also how you obtained those grades. The methods and processes we follow to learn new information directly correlate to how well we can retain that information and apply it to future abstract problems. In school today, there are many ways to achieve high test marks without actually understanding the content, including:

These actions can lead to a positive short-term outcome but will come to the detriment of a student's future learning and long-term progress. When it comes to cheating, we must question why so many students feel the need to cheat in the first place. Apart from occasional laziness, many students are often under immense pressure. This pressure can come from various sources - family members, teachers, grade requirements to advance in your degree, comparing oneself to your peers, and general societal expectations. While marginal stress can have positive effects on learning, we know from the latest neuroscience that such examples of chronic stress severely impact the brain's ability to learn. As students, we are often told in school that:

The notions above further reinforce the malpractice of promoting the attainment of good grades through any means necessary. Study methods like solely memorizing answers from past exams demonstrate that the student lacks any internal motivation to understand the subject matter but is studying exclusively to achieve a good mark. Reviewing past exams to understand better the upcoming exam's structure can be done with perfect utility, but only when it is done alongside first-principles study.

In a similar situation, cramming at the last minute for an exam is a symptom of a poor structure set up by the course instructor and department. In university, courses often have one or two exams that make up over half of the course's grade. When course evaluations are spread out, students can go for long periods without having to study - without penalty - thereby promoting the practice of last-minute cramming.

While it makes sense to have a midterm and final exam that constitute most of the course weighting, the remainder of the grades to be earned should be equally distributed across the semester in small but frequent evaluations. This way, students have both opportunities to demonstrate continuous learning and their comprehension in one sitting.

Who is affected?

The first prominent group to be affected is the students. Students will naturally suffer when they are encouraged to displace personal mastery for good grades. When we forgo mastery, many students at a young age will have accumulated gaps in their knowledge. The gaps will be so significant at a certain point that the idea will arise in the student's brain that a particular subject or career path is not for them. Because they're using grades as the benchmark for success and not performing well, the system implicitly tells them that a certain subject is "not for them."

Teachers are also impacted when mastery-based learning is forgone for an obsession over good grades. When marks are the only thing that matters in the classroom, teachers are limited in interacting with their students. Because of the pressure to progress through the curriculum at a fixed rate - regardless of student outcomes - teachers cannot fully engage with their students in a way that can manifest their full potential.

Parties within the school system are not the only ones that are impacted. The future employers of the students will also have to face many prospective employees who showed great potential on paper (good grades) but will enter the workforce without the necessary skills to thrive in their new positions. Because we are using poorly aligned metrics, companies lack a concrete method of effectively evaluating large volumes of applicants.

Where and when did the problem emerge?

The problem of misaligned incentives is a phenomenon that is not unique to education. It is built into our human nature to forgo delayed gratification for immediate assurance; it can be seen across all walks of life, and the core behaviour can even be dated back to Neolithic humans.

In hunter-gatherer times, humans lived in environments that posed continuous threats, so it was impractical to act in a manner that did not secure your immediate situation. Similarly, we have built a system of education that incentivizes instant gratification for life-long learning.

The problem is that our environment today does not pose the same threat as our ancestors lived in, and many modern activities can benefit from having a long-term vision.

So, the tendency to forgo long-term benefits for short-term satisfaction runs deep in our human nature, and the education system has no reason to be an exception to the rule.

What are the current limitations to change, and how do they stifle progress?

Once a system is in place, it can be challenging to make substantial changes for improvement. Many factors of the current education system deter the opportunity to progress toward a more mastery-based learning model.

For one, many teachers do not have the necessary resources and support from the school administration to make substantial changes on their own. In many cases, the student: teacher ratio in a classroom is very high, making it difficult - if not impossible - for teachers to dedicate enough 1:1 time for each student to tailor lesson plans to that student's needs.

Similarly, a student in a traditional class setting depends on the teacher to learn. The teacher will often introduce lessons for the first time in class, forcing students who could get ahead to slow down to keep pace with the rest of the course. On the other hand, struggling students are forced to move on to new material once a unit is over, regardless of whether they have adequately understood the course material. While some classes can get past this by following the "flipped classroom" model, many teachers cannot reap the benefits of this model of teaching due to the lack of resources at their disposal and the time and effort required from the teacher to execute a flipped class effectively.

Mastery-based learning would also require a higher cadence of small assignments of evaluations to incentivize a student to stay up to date with the current lessons, but this also would need a teacher to spend more time creating additional assessments.

What would the ideal solution look like?

Human attention is tough to scale; it is finite and has strict boundaries and limitations on how far it can be extended. We are not doomed to the constraints of the current system. Technology, however, can scale to orders of magnitude beyond what humans can often do on their own.

The ideal solution cannot lie with the current model but, instead, would have to enable a new delivery of teaching and learning, free from the current model's limitations.

At its core, this solution would have to allow teachers to scale their attention to a personalized level for every student, meaning the ideal solution would have to:

When people think of technology, thoughts of automation and human replacement often tend to accompany them. The ideal solution would by no means be a substitute for humans but, instead, would act as a supplement to aid teachers and students in their respective work. Introducing the right technology into the setting can enable humans to reach new heights in our pursuit of learning, connection, and meaningful life.

Closing Thoughts

Humans have naturally evolved to work and play within various reward systems. Education as an industry has historically been highly resistant to change, often failing to keep up with the demands of a continuously changing society. The school administration and educators must create suitable environments and reward systems for learning and mastery.

When it comes to incentives, students have been required to work in the confinements of an environment that prioritizes test scores over learning and personal mastery, which comes at the detriment of the student's personal development. Promoting good grades is not inherently wrong, but that motive has to be paired with the aspiration for personal mastery.

Having students learn within a mastery framework allows them to develop, pursue their passion and interests beyond test scores, and embrace authentic lifelong learning.