I suppose that every graduate program struggles with the best way to examine students. Schools wrestle with their mission and the responsibility to turn out graduates who meet some mysterious set of criteria which is never easy to define. The degree says something: “this is a researcher,” “this is a competent clinician,” “this person knows how to teach,” “this person carries on the honor and reputation of the university.”
Yesterday, I was invited to attend the examination process for students presenting a master thesis to the graduate faculty in the College of Education. As in most things I observe in Kenya, things were a little different. As part of their course work, students take a research class (or two) where they develop concept papers and make presentations to their colleagues. They are introduced to style and thesis format. When it’s time to write the thesis, they are assigned a thesis supervisor—who is probably not in their own discipline. A second reader is later assigned who reads the thesis and signs off before it is presented for review. When the student is ready, with two supervisor signatures, the thesis is presented to an internal reviewer and an external reviewer—both appointed rather than chosen by the student.
The presentation is pretty standard: A nervous student in front of a panel chaired by the Dean, with Faculty Chair and Chairs of Departments present plus reviewers and any other faculty who wish to attend. In addition, the examinee’s cohort is in the room to watch the presentation before all students are excused. The presentation: 15 minutes of Power Point summary; 15 minutes of Q & A. Ten minutes (it gets longer) of panel deliberation. And then decision. The usual: Pass; Pass with minor revisions; Pass with major revisions; Fail.
There were several things that puzzled me through the process: Having the dean chair the panel makes the whole thing mighty heavy. And developing and finalizing a thesis with less departmental faculty participation and support than might be if the process were more inside the department than a function of the college seemed to throw the student into a less supportive environment than I would prefer. I hope to have a few conversations with both students and faculty to get their assessments of the process.
Beyond the Process
Beyond the thesis examination process, I was intrigued by the findings presented in one study looking for effective preventions to secondary school dropout. The startling results: The chief reasons for dropping out (in rank order) were finance, pregnancy, and discipline. Pregnancy dropout is not a policy matter—like it was when I started as a school counselor 50 years ago. Pregnant girls can stay in school, it’s just more difficult. Financial reasons—Kenyan poverty is overwhelming and whether the school is public or private, it costs to attend. Some just can’t do that. And, I discovered that there is both “manual” and “corporal” punishment. (I knew what corporal punishment was; I found out that manual punishment is more like detentions or short time outs.)
Sadly, the thesis presenter had no solutions to any of those first three reasons for dropping out of school.
I observed another form of financially-caused dropout this week. I’ve had several very positive experiences with one of the campus student leaders—a really handsome guy with lots of social skills, high energy, competence oozing out of every pore. He has a smile and look which would put him on lots of magazine pages. When my wife and I just casually mentioned the possibility of bringing some children from the Children’s Home to campus for some interaction with the students, a tour, a little football (aka soccer), he jumped at the concept and came back a day later with a plan and approval to implement.
He will graduate this year. Instead of continuing his education to reach a dream (and he has a specific dream), he will find a job so he can assume his role as family breadwinner (and it’s a big family). Those are the times we would like to write a big check, and we feel sad about our own limitations.
Another young man working on the grounds crew at the university has been around the faculty guest house quite a bit. He works in the garden area behind our residence and nurtures the plots of plant starts which will be moved to various locations on the campus. He shyly approached Joan this week seeking money so that he can go back to school. He isn’t sure what it would cost, and he’s been out long enough that the chance of returning is slim. But he recognizes that being on the grounds crew isn’t enough. One could say, unlike many Kenyans his age, he is employed. That falls into the “good-news-doesn’t-sound-good” category.
I’ll give a short quiz to my Intro to Psych class this afternoon. Then, on Friday when we meet again, I’ll explain Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. It will be my hope that I can get the students to think beyond the first levels of the taxonomy and have some conversation about why discussion and challenge are needed in order to reach the higher levels. I get treated with so much respect that the interaction, challenge, and discussion that are critical to the evaluation stage (and beyond) don’t happen the way I would like. [OK, Bloom is old stuff, but I still like the taxonomy.]
Well, the baboons were back on campus this morning. I didn’t have my camera. Besides, they were flying so fast and the guards were herding them back across the fence so successfully, that I only had a glimpse. I suggested they close the front door or they might just come in for tea at ten. I’m told the elephants were here earlier (but I came to the office late).
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.