By: Vy Phan

Meaningful bonds between students and professors start in a scholarly environment. This week, The Brunswican talked with two professors at the University of New Brunswick about their views on the mentor-pupil dynamic. The discussion spanned technology in education, course policies, the importance of flexibility, and the tentativeness of letter grades. 

“Mentoring and learning is a contract, and the implicit rules are never endowed,” said Dr. Viqar Husain, who has been teaching for 22 years in the Mathematics Department. He added that students don’t learn just by listening to lectures. “There has to be more interaction… that’s why participation is supremely important. It’s an opportunity for all students not just to listen but to question what’s being said.” 

Husain pointed out that the rise of technology over the past decade has had an impact on the teaching process: professors can make videos, write on an iPad, and project notes. Undergraduate students are no longer limited to learning through their textbooks. However, this increased access to resources is not always conducive to learning. Online discussion panels such as Chegg offer assignment solutions in a way that questions academic integrity. 

“That’s unfortunate but that’s part of the technology that we have to live with,” said Husain.  

A universal discussion that educators often ponder is whether a way to truly measure student knowledge exists. 

“[It] is very difficult. We have tests, quizzes, [and] exams, but I think all faculties should be aware that these are approximate measurements,” said Husain. “Though [it’s] relatively easier… to measure [whether] students actually understand a concept or can fill in the details [through conversation]… I’m not in agreement with very firm, hard percentages [for] grades. Someone says the dividing line between a B+ and an A- is 80% and a student gets 79%. How can I be sure that my measurement is that precise?” 

Some students view rigid mark schemes and tough late assignment policies as disciplinary tactics instead of knowledge-assessing tools. To this, Husain said: “I am extremely flexible and I think most faculties should be, because we’re not running an army camp here.” He also noted that late assignment submissions from students are case-by-case situations and arrangements should be given careful thought.

What about an assessment system where pass/fail is issued rather than numerical percentages? Husain said that it may be suitable for the workforce, but would be a problem at the graduate level: “It would be a challenge for universities to figure out who to admit and who not to admit, and [they] would be reliant on just using letters of reference…. These letters may not be sufficient by themselves unless they’re so supremely favorable, but it would be very hard to gage a student’s knowledge.”  

We also met with Dr. Stijn De Baerdemacker, a professor and researcher in the Chemistry Department. When asked about his opinions on standardized tests, he said after much pause: “If you want your tests to be standardized or “fair” you have to make them objective, and objectiveness is not a good proxy of understanding in some cases… because interpretation and understanding is a subjective matter.” 

Over the years, he has learned to include an extra question that asks students to explain the answer they’ve worked out.

In research courses, De Baerdemacker uses rubrics as a means of assessment. “If you want to get a B in this course, you have to have all these skills [that are listed in the rubric]. If you want to have an A, you have to have all these additional skills.” He also pointed out that his colleagues are moving in this same direction. However, he considers the topic of grading a nuanced and multifaceted discussion.

“[A grade] does reflect your performance but I’m wary of assigning too much value to it.” Speaking from his experience, job interviews don’t ask for his grades but for his knowledge and opinions. “But then again, those things are reflected in the grades, so there is no one answer for this topic,” he concluded.