The bimodal distribution in undergraduate education

As I do more TAing (TA-ing? TAing? Neither? Is there an English major in the house?), I am seeing what professors, lecturers, and instructors have been seeing for years — I know this because I sometimes hear the lamentations. Ah, the biomodal distribution. What does it mean? What do we do?

I think we all know what it means. It means that there are two groups here: one group of relatively “strong” students and another group of relatively “weak” students (the cause of this “weakness” I touch on in the next paragraph). One question that arises is: should we expect that grade distributions be unimodal? I think there is reason to believe that they should be  — that is, that the powers that be should try to make it so —  simply because of the logistics of trying to educate a group of people who exhibit this learning behaviour. There is no good way to cater to this kind of two-group population. To “aim for the middle” would be to do a disfavour to both groups.

About the lagging hump: I am of the opinion that we need to stop telling kids that they should go to university. No, actually, not all kids need to go to university. Not all kids want to, not all kids are willing to try even if they don’t like it, and not all kids are good at it. That last category kills me. I mean, if you don’t want to do something, but you’re made to do it anyway, but you’re good at it, then fine. But if you don’t want to do something that you’re made to do, and you’re not good at it, all parties involved are miserable. People need to stop being told that there is one path to success. There isn’t. Miserable students have the potential to be happy, fulfilled, engaged, etc. doing something else. We could have a lot of happier people being awesome at other things. Sometimes, I think about a quote of Albert Einstein’s: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

What should we do about this problem, and why aren’t we doing it? It seems that universities have become businesses — “branding” themselves, supporting obscenely priced textbooks with ever more frequent edition changes, allowing bubbling enrollment numbers and lecture/tutorial sizes — and, as businesses, it is in their best interest to maximize profits. Because of this approach, there also seems to exist a disconnect between (a) the higher-up administration “running” the business and (b) the frustrated faculty, staff, and students who are forced to deal with the reality of treating university education like a business or service. I ponder how much the powers that be really care about the actual education of students. I don’t know if things can change any time soon, without some sort of bubble popping. One thing I do know is that we really need to fix the problem of the lagging hump — if we care at all about real people, that is… This is a depressing post. To forget about it, please watch this great TED talk about how school kills creativity (har, har):