In the first year of my doctoral studies, I wrote an article and submitted it for publication in a conference. My article was rejected by the conference scientific committee. One of the reviewers wrote that the reason why my article was not accepted was that after reading it, he was not able to answer the two following questions: What do I know now? And, what can I do now?

That rejection and that anonymous reviewer taught me one of the most important lessons I learned during my doctoral study. Even now, ten years later, I tend to repeat these two questions, whenever I read something, have a dialogue with someone, watch a movie or attend a seminar. These two questions give me a reality check when it comes to assessing whether I have learned something and make me more alert as I am going through some new concepts and ideas. Why is that so? The first question, “what do I know now?” checks whether I have received some information or assimilated a new piece of processed data, that can help us understand a phenomenon better. The second question, “what can I do know?” is about knowledge. Knowledge has organizing power. Once we convert information to knowledge, we are prompted to take action, to trigger a change, to take measures to do something. It’s like when we hear music and we dance automatically!

As a learner, I have noticed that there are two caveats that are worth mentioning. First, I always bear in mind that the transformation from information to knowledge is not instantaneous. Once we put the seeds in an incubator, we should attend to them on a regular basis before they sprout. Therefore, I know I should keep repeating the second question, stimulating my brain to keep looking for practical implications. In the same way that it may take a few listens, before we fall in love with and dance to a piece of music, that we were initially not fond of. Second, knowledge can emanate from a combination of various sources of information, some of which may be tacit, and thereby not easily be detectable. For instance, reading and memorizing poetry or mastering and using a mathematical technique, may not easily be traceable in the practical insights we develop, but they may still count as crucial steps towards development of such insights. Thereby, if I do not see an immediate practicality in the information I am exposed to, I know it does not mean I should reject it. Similarly, if I invest time in assimilating some concepts or ideas and yet I do not seem to be able to map them onto a concrete application, I worry not and the role they play can be subtler than what I can possibly imagine.

As an educator, I ask my students to ask themselves these two questions as they are going through their studies. More importantly, I also ask them to challenge me when they are unable to answer the two questions during my courses and when we go through the course material. It does not mean I should answer the two questions for them. Rather, as a learning designer, I should help them in their process of seeking answers to the two questions. They may find I difficult and may find the wrong answers, but this exercise can orient them to a more proactive approach towards learning, and help them realize they are the ones responsible for acquiring the knowledge they need to align themselves with what life expects from them.

I sometimes feel that learning in the current educational system is becoming synonymous with absorbing memorizable chunks of information for the mere purpose of answer questions in a final exam. To me, True education is about striving for acquiring knowledge. Effective learning occurs only when what we know can manifest itself in our thoughts and actions, that’s when we start dancing to the rhythm of knowledge. As educators or learning designers, our responsibility is to steer ourselves onto the path of becoming knowledge-oriented and then, help the learners in their journeys, first and foremost, by embodying the properties we wish to see in them. I hope after reading this short blog you can answer the following two questions: What do I know now? What can I do now?

One of my father’s recurring nightmares is sitting a geometry exam. He has told me about it several times. I also have similar nightmares; very recently I dreamed the final exams period had started and I was not ready. Even when I woke up later, I could still feel the tension in my body!  The gap between my father, myself and my students spans across four generations. I believe there are certain aspects of the educational system that have been taken as given for long, we neither question them, nor try to change them. Final exams are one of them. “The thought of a final exam still gives me and my father nightmares, and I have not seen many students who are fond of the idea, neither have I seen a teacher who is keen on correcting exam papers, so how come they still around?” I thought to myself a few years ago. I had always been reflecting on the effectiveness of final exams as a means of evaluation and finally decided not to give final exams anymore in the courses I teach. “But, how do you manage to measure learning and grade the students?” you may wonder.

I will give you a very recent example. This fall, I taught a course on Systems Thinking at Business School Lausanne, where the students did not have to take a final exam. Instead, they collectively created a blog that summarized and synthesized the most important lessons they had learned from taking the course. You can find their blog here https://bit.ly/2K0KRen. 40% of the students’ grade came from the work they did on the blog and every single one of them received the maximum grade here. I will now outline here why I was convinced they all deserved it.

They spent much more time on creating the blog than they would have spent on preparing for the final exam. I asked them to create an activity log that captured what everyone did and how much time they spent doing it. As this was a publicly shared document and everyone including myself had access to it, there was no chance of free riding. The moment someone claimed they have completed a task, but was in fact incomplete or was done by someone else, others would have reacted to it. Towards the end of their work, we collectively decided it would not be necessary to keep track of activities as everyone thought the contributions were equal.

A friend of mine who was part of a rowing team, once told me that a competition was approaching and her team had to prepare for it. The team met at 5 a.m. every other day for six months. “There was no way to stay in bed and ignore the alarm. My other seven team members would be there waiting for me,” she said. Perhaps, this was something every member of the team was thinking and it was difficult for all of them to get up regularly at that early hour for such a long time, but the team spirit made them get up on those mornings and put in that effort. She later said that they won the championship that year and she regarded this as one of her best experiences. A similar situation happened in the case of my young bloggers. Almost all my 17 students met outside class hours, sometimes on days they did not have any courses at Business School. They did not want to disappoint their friends. They all managed to put in the effort. At the end of the day, some ended up doing more than others, but those who did less, did much more than they would have otherwise done, had they been faced with a final exam.

Teaching is the best way to learn. I made it clear that the blog should be written for those who were completely new to systems thinking, with no technical background. Achieving this meant that learning the course content became a secondary challenge. As a guitar player, once I heard a valuable advice that if I am not able to play a part, I should try playing something that is a bit more complicated, even if I keep on failing at it. After a while when I go back to the original challenge, much to my surprise, it is not a challenge anymore. Same thing happened with my students. There is so many ways that the way they presented the content in their blog can be improved, but here the blog was not an end, it was a means, a transitional object, and a vehicle for learning the course materials.

In their journey to create the blog, they developed various soft skills, such as working in teams, writing, creating short tutorials, project management, etc. Based on my experience, I have realized that the best way of designing for learning soft skills is as a by-product and in an emergent way. Such skills are not best transferred in a direct and intentional fashion. They should emerge as a result of carrying out other tasks. In addition, my course was the first occasion for many of these students to meet. The blog they created provided an opportunity for them to get to know one another and made them closer as classmates. Their collective effort resulted in the creation of cohesion among them as a class. It made the whole class a very well-functioning, self-organizing team.

In retrospect, there was no better way I could have directed them towards learning and internalizing systems thinking concepts than having them create the blog. There were a few technicalities involved in how this happened.

  • I gave them the choice between creating the blog and doing the final exam. I could clearly see that anything that exempts them from doing the final exam would be a joy for them. In other words, in their view, nothing can be worse than a final exam and avoiding final exam served as a good incentive for them to create the blog.
  • I told them that we can skip the final exam only if they do a great job with the blog. I even told them that their work will be evaluated by how many readers they can attract to the blog.
  • I followed their progress on a continuous basis, tracked the changes they made and met with them outside course hours to give them feedback to improve their work. I wanted them to feel that what they are doing is important to me.
  • Another acceptance condition I put forth was that everyone should know all the contents of the blogs, since it would not make sense if an author is not aware of the contents of what he/she has created.

My final question for all learners and learning designers: are final exams relics of the past? What other components of the current educational system can be replaced, modified or improved?

Stay tuned for the next blogs in this series and Keep on Learning.

Dr. Arash Golnam (www.golnam.net) started teaching adults at the age of 18. Arash has taught a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in disciplines ranging from management, industrial engineering, and information systems in academic institutions around the world. Arash completed his Ph.D. in Management of Technology at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and holds a Master of Science in System Dynamics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). He currently works part-time as a scientist at EPFL, writing a book on the application of systems theory and principles in designing services. Arash is a member of the core faculty at Business School Lausanne (BSL), and an adjunct professor at Webster University Geneva. He has been awarded as the distinguished member of the faculty at BSL in four years in a row.

Learning Design for Millennials is a blog series capturing Arash’s experience as a learner and an educator.