I was a student of Electrical Engineering. I have been very passionate about learning from the 1st year of university. I focused on understanding every single concept in every single class. I completed my homeworks with utmost sincerity. If I couldn’t solve a homework problem, I would try my best with various methods till I approached my TA or professor for assistance.
I despised students who wouldn’t take courses seriously. I didn’t like how other students wouldn’t care about understanding the concepts and simply memorized solutions before the exam. And I absolutely hated it when their shallow efforts would be rewarded with a decent grade.
However, lots of things had happened in the summer of my sophomore (2nd) year that tilted my moral compass. The first incident is that of a power cut.
Power Cut Incident
One evening, there was a partial power cut at my house. My living room and kitchen had lights, but there was no electricity in my bedroom and bathroom. My uncle, along with an electrician, looked at the switchboard and spoke amongst themselves, “Okay so here we have 5 ampere, and in the bedroom we have 10 ampere. If you join these two phases we can have complete power.” And myself at the back, a sophisticated Electrical Engineering student said in his head, “Ummm, yeah, ampere is the unit of current!”. I had no idea what they were talking about and perhaps what I wrote is probably not what they had said, but I am just writing how it sounded to me.
I was upset because I was the one who was pursuing an Electrical Engineering degree from an expensive institution, but the two blue-collar workers, who came from rural areas of Bangladesh, trumped my sophisticated knowledge of current and electricity. They have no Electrical Engineering degrees, in fact, they have no college level degrees. Yet, they knew more than I did even after acquiring my degree.
Since then, I started questioning the legitimacy of my education.
Real Life is different from University Life
Later in the summer, I received an offer for my first ever internship. On the first day, I was sitting in the HR officer’s room when he said something in the lines of, “Son, real life is nothing like university. It’s very different.” And surely, it was a different experience.
Once the summer was over, I started looking for research work with professors in my department. On the first meeting with my research supervisor, he said, “See, research is not like your regular studies. It is completely different.” At that moment, I lost it. Jobs are not like your regular studies, research is not like your regular studies – Then what are we even doing in university?
We spend most of our time and energy studying. And more often than not, it affects our health mentally and physically. Students give up their time that they could spend with their family, friends or even with themselves, just so they can maintain a number on a piece of paper. A bad exam can completely ruin your mood and several bad exams can make you depressed. All of this only for someone to tell me, “Whatever you learn in university, you never use them”. And honestly, at that point I did forget a lot of things I had “learned” in my first two years because I had barely used them after the course. I had forgotten most of the topics from my calculus and physics courses and with that I forgot the value of learning.
Somehow many people, such as the old me, defend the system by giving arguments which are rather practically weak.
1. Courses teach you the basics
I was arguing with a person about how courses are not useful in the long run. She said, “Do you think V = IR is not useful?”. Obviously V = IR is one of the fundamental equations in Electrical Engineering. But, do I really need to write 3 exams in a span of 4 months to master this topic? Do I need to stress myself over quizzes every other day? Isn’t it better to show how professionals use V = IR instead of making us solve unnecessarily complex circuits which are anyway solved by software in the industry?
These “basics” that courses teach us can easily be acquired from the open-source material available online. I am sure a 30 minute video on YouTube will teach you enough “V = IR” for you to use at your job. I am sure I have studied (and forgotten) more Ohm’s law problems than the two blue-collar workers who fixed the power outage at my home.
I did my first internship in a field different from my area of study. I had worked as a Web Developer. So, I did not use anything that I had learned from my courses. Yet, at the end of the internship period, I managed to develop a decent website. How did I do it? I constantly referred to online materials and applied whatever I had learned on the same day.
You might say, “If you did an internship on Electrical Engi….”, just stop right there. I did internships as an Embedded Systems Engineer and Electronics Engineer. I always started with knowing practically nothing, but eventually I learned what I had to learn (by myself) and immediately applied them to complete my tasks. You will have the chance to learn the basics at your job and apply them to make an impact.
While they say that the basics are important, they themselves don’t spend that much time on the basics. Professors spend around 5-10% of the time on basics per chapter and spend the remaining time on complicated mathematical theories that are only used and understood by the hyper intelligent people of the society.
2. Courses teach you how to think
One of my professors remarked that courses don’t teach you everything, but it teaches you how to think. While I agree with the former, the latter could have been true only if grades are not the primary motivation for students. An average student takes 12-16 credits (4-5 courses) per semester. They have to get good grades in all the courses to maintain a good overall GPA. During exam seasons, we have at least one exam every week, and two exams per week is not a rare occurrence. I had at least one semester when I had 4 exams in one week. On top of that, there are other deadlines in between.
Given this, students cannot afford to learn how to “think”. Instead, we always end up studying for exams by practicing and memorizing problems that are most likely to appear on exams. Such problems have only one right answer and one or few techniques to solve. So you are not really teaching us how to think, in fact we are becoming more narrow-minded by focusing only on problems with very defined solving strategy.
And that is definitely not the way I solved problems in my internships and research. In research, you often try to work on problems that no one has ever solved before. If a problem has been solved – is there a better way to do it? Is there something more cost efficient? Is this practical to do where I live? You ask these sorts of questions to yourself and then you start solving. You can ask the same questions in courses. But there are no incentives for asking them. Whatever your professor has taught you, if you use it, you get the grade. So why do anything different?
3. It’s the students’ fault
One day, I was in a conversation with a friend when I was criticizing my professor. My friend asked, “Well, what topic are you taking in the class?” I replied, “I don’t know…I don’t listen in the class.” He remarked, “Okay, if you don’t listen in the class, why are you criticising him (professor)? It’s your fault. You must focus well”.
I find it absolutely ridiculous when students are blamed for not listening in the class. Engineering lectures are extremely boring. Usually, it’s just a man/woman standing in front of a projector, speaking in the most apathetic voice, pointing his fingers on a dull lifeless PowerPoint slide consisting of words and equations. Occasionally he/she may write some equations or draw some pictures on the white board.
When I used to focus attentively in classes, I would somehow become tired after the lecture. I thought, “I just sat in one place, did not do any physical activity, then why am I tired?”. This is because everyone underestimates how much effort it takes to listen. You have to use a lot of energy to put all your focus on what is being explained, and the lackluster lectures act more like resistors than catalysts in this process. To overcome the resistance, we must use more energy, and not to mention the fact that lectures are 50 – 75 minutes long makes everything worse.
Why can’t professors do something to make classes interesting? Engineering is such a rich and exciting subject, and all they come up with is loads of math, equations, and unrealistic textbook problems. Even when there is a course project, it contributes to only 5-10% of the total grade. Furthermore, we are to write a massive project report in the end so the whole experience becomes more of writing than building/experimenting/designing.
And what do professors do to make the class more interactive – Participation and attendance grades. Students attend classes and engage in discussions for grades, not for the subject. Why can’t you use your teaching skills instead of threatening students to make the class more lively?
Whenever someone says it’s my fault that I don’t attend classes, I always think – Okay, you want me to go to a class where I have to spend so much energy to overcome so much resistance to learn the topic (for someone to tell me later that it’s not useful) – After class, I must still refer to some online videos because retention is naturally never 100% – And of course I have to “self-study” and very conveniently that’s the tag they put in their syllabi so that they can teach only 40% but test on 100% of the material.
On top of these, I am the one paying loads of money for tuition. Imagine you pay for a delivery service, but you are the one who is delivering your food. We yell at customer service personnel when we don’t receive the expected service we paid for. Can we do the same in this scenario?
Students pay money and professors receive salaries. Then why are students made to put in more effort? Isn’t it more important to question the study material and professors’ teaching methods rather than questioning students’ behavior?
It took me two years to figure out how the system has been cheating the students. I did not want to waste the remaining two years that I had. I stopped giving my academics as much time as I used to. I just did enough to maintain my GPA by following some smart techniques to score well enough in exams. I stopped caring about learning the subject material and focused only on studying the exam material.
With the extra time that I got, I made sure I got enough sleep. I started going to the gym and implemented physical activities such as running and swimming to my schedule. I spent a lot of time managing my student organization and participating in other student organization activities. I traveled with the university in many different countries for conferences, projects, and service learning. I learned a lot about my major through research, internships, and reading magazines.
This is why I don’t despise universities. My university opened many doors of opportunities in the form of student orgs, professional orgs, research work, student work, and internships. I simply closed the classroom door and opened the other doors. Until the classroom problem is solved, engineering students must spend most of their time exploring the other doors.