Oncology Physics Lab Oncology Physics Lab
Western Science

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." 

This quote is sometimes mis-attributed to Albert Einstein as prior equivalent statements have been made in the context of wealth.  This was recently cited in the speeches on separate occasions given by two Canadian Organization of Medical Physicist Gold Medalists, Professors and Medical Physicists Jake Van Dyk and Michael Patterson. Needless to say, I hold both in high regards.

Upon reflecting this statement, I think the quote also has an element of truth for the young undergraduates, not just for those who are established and well accomplished.

For the undergraduates, what can be counted are their grades, and what actually counts, but cannot be counted, is their learning.

I do not blame them, as we are part of the vicious circle - we use their grades to select those who can get into medical school, progress into their field of choice, and scholarships.

How do we break this vicious cycle?  I think we have to use a two-pronged approach.  

One is that we cannot just use grades to gauge a student.  We have to do some soul searching to see what we value.  For example, we may value community service, or abilities to create/innovate/build outside the classroom. In the end, excelling in taking multiple choice or written exams within a finite period of time is not the skill that counts in real world practice. We then have to find a way to put things we value into part of the evaluation equation.

The second prong has to come from the students.  Central in their minds are grades. Many things they do, they do them for grades. To be most time efficient, there is a tendency for them to just memorize and regurgitate in the exams. To complete the homework assignments in the most time efficient manner, they may just google the answer and put that in, without having to stretch their brains to solve these problems.  Deep thinking has been pushed aside, making true learning secondary. Worse is that after a while, this becomes a habit and deep learning becomes non-existent.

Looking at this from a different perspective, I would like to tell these students that they are truly wasting their time!  Why do it at all, if it is just for grades? University is a place where you come to learn, to discover what you are good at, and what you are not.  If everyone were good in Physics, I would have no job.  Same for other disciplines. It is OK to obtain less than ideal grades in some classes, but there is no better opportunity to learn as much as possible about different subject matters at the undergraduate stage.  Looking back, I am jealous of them, wishing that I was the one taking those courses and trying to learn more about other disciplines.

If students put learning front and centre and grades secondary (that is, getting good grades is more like a side effect of learning), then students will actually gain valuable thinking skills that are critical to progress through university and those skills will help them be truly successful after they graduate.

When students take learning into their own hands, they would demand that we give them learning objectives/outcomes at the beginning of each lecture so that they know what they are supposed to get out of each lecture, and by end of each lecture, if they did not get some of the learning objectives, they would demand that we explain them again. I have just started providing learning objectives/outcomes for each lecture.  I hope that students will take advantage of them.

Active learning strategies in the classroom assume that students are motivated to learn, and not just sit there and copy lecture notes.  This is a point that has been made by teaching experts before, that we should communicate to the students how active learning works.  I have to do a better job in this, but at the same time, students need to change their attitudes, to put learning central in their minds before any novel active learning strategies would work.

Coming back full circle, what if we do nothing about the viscious circle I alluded to earlier?  I am afraid that we are drifting toward a trap best described by this quote: "students pretend to learn and instructors pretend to teach". Maybe it is time to act.

Comments are welcome.






My primary goal in teaching is for students to fall in love with the subject matter.

These are reminders to myself as well the students:

Excellence follows interests.

“If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done before.” - Thomas Jefferson

Give it your all - fail hard now so you can succeed easier later.

"Learning isn’t just a matter of absorbing new information or acquiring automatic responses to stimuli.  Rather, we human beings spend our entire lives constructing theories about how the world works, and then reconstructing them in light of new evidence." - Alfie Kohn

Real learning happens when knowledge is constructed, not received.