Letter: Rancourt’s teaching was “relevant,” “reasonable”

Former student comes to fired prof’s defense; says he encouraged thinking, hard work

As a former student of Denis’ and as a former science student, I really appreciated the teaching methods that Denis brought to his class and to the university. Challenging students on their beliefs, making general science relevant to realities of today instead of purely theoretical. Those are things that I value in a classroom.

Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired

Letter: “He didn’t teach at all”

Contrary to what a lot of people have been saying, Denis has never been about giving anyone a free pass. Denis has constantly encouraged students to follow through on their own interests, to explore things, to work hard and to make it relevant in their daily lives. By constantly challenging a students beliefs he helps them develop their ideas, argumentation and research skills. In this context, given that examination isn’t a stress factor in Denis’ classes, students aren’t expected to think like him to answer correctly on an exam in order to get good grades. This changes enormously the interactions between teacher and student and liberates many constraints to genuine and wholesome learning.

In today’s classroom too much is based on memorizing and learning theory, not enough on ethics, on how it applies in our daily lives, the impact research or scientific knowledge can have on society, politics, war, etc.

Grade based evaluation is mostly based on if you remember what a teacher thought you in the classroom, on reading what the teacher told you to read and on what the teachers perception of a student understanding concepts and remembering facts. From personal experience and common say, students will forget most of the facts they remembered for a given examination the hour after the exam. Techniques and formulas will remain imprinted, but the practical aspects of a given topic often won’t be remembered because of the external pressures that are exams and grades. Students are pressed with time and pressed to obtain high grades. Therefore they aim to perform well on exams as efficiently as possible. This kind of behaviour is definitely not conducive to learning.

To those that say that you need grades to maintain a standard, I say not so. In my opinion and experience you retain and learn much more, technical and practical knowledge, than you do in most other types of classes. And if someone doesn’t want to learn? They won’t retain much in the current system either.

Denis’ methods aren’t all that revolutionary. Major universities around the world have many classes where no grades are given. Many classes, even at the University of Ottawa, turn away from conventional evaluation and teaching methods to either more project based, to taking away grades, to group discussions. Many classes at the University of Ottawa have up to 30% or more of a mark attributed to class participation to try and increase the participation and interest because it is something that is lacking in a lot of classrooms. University of Ottawa Medical school moves away from standard evaluation and teaching methods, yet it still manages to achieve very high standards, by more practical and problem-based approaches. Hampshire college in the U.S. is completely gradeless.

By switching the objectives from performance to education. During my degree I stopped focusing on getting high grades and focused on projects I appreciated more. Hence, when classes presented projects that had more practical approaches I performed better because I enjoyed them much more.

For me, it comes down to differences in teaching methods. Denis’ methods are quite relevant in todays context and as a professor his choices are reasonable and within his rights. The current dominant methods, continued from high schools, don’t suit everyone, that much is obvious. And those that it suits, might not find that Denis’ methods suit them. But this does not mean that his methods are less relevant and don’t work.

In the end, Denis’ dismissal and opposition to Denis is more so related to diverging political beliefs that clash. Denis has been a strong critic of the upper administration and of general teaching methods, and relevance of research and teaching to the real world. The fact that the University of Ottawa administration can get away with firing someone for his teaching methods, when all over Canada and the U.S., and probably elsewhere, these kinds of teaching methods are often implemented and accepted by university professors, illustrates some problems with the university administration structure, the power they hold and the way decisions are made.

I think the discontent with his actions and the firing stem from the fact that people don’t agree with him and don’t like him criticizing and CHALLENGING them. And they choose to officially fire him for giving out grades arbitrarily. Even at the university level, nothing should be accepted as the status quo. Constantly challenging ones beliefs is important, even for University Presidents and tenured professors. If you can’t accept to be challenged and disagreed with, then you don’t belong in an educational institution such as the university.

Daniel Cayley-Daoust
B.Sc. Environmental Science


Letter: Rancourt’s teaching was “relevant,” “reasonable”

  1. I think Daniel brings an interesting point with regards to the medical schools.

    Whenever someone argues for a different pedagogical model or grading system, opponents will almost systematically give the medical school example, how dangerous it would be if we stopped grading doctors on a A-F scale, etc.

    Interestingly, it’s precisely medical schools and other professional schools, such as law and engineering, on which society places the highest professional standards, that often innovate the most away from conventional pedagogy. I could give the example of Berkeley’s Law School which essentially uses a pass-fail system instead of A-F, and is ranked among the top 10 in the country.

    It is thus ironic, to say the least, to have people use these professions as the reason why we must preserve the conventional teaching and grading model. Because even if this model was the best to ensure students remember a minimum of technical knowledge (even this is dubious, seeing how professional schools are moving away from it), is “remembering a minimum of technical knowledge” the most important thing for arts and science students?

    As a current PhD student, I would argue that critical thinking, creativity and even writing skills are more important in scientific research than memorizing lists of facts or theorems. Yet we don’t demand much critical thinking, creativity or writing from science undergrads. The emphasis is on memorizing masses of information, some of which are not integrated on the long run – as Daniel points out – mostly because they were acquired out of context and more or less in a vacuum.

    Of course, the ability to memorize textbooks and problem sets is easier to “grade” than the more holistic abilities useful for scientific research. But I feel this is one of the central problems that this debate raise: should we teach what is easier to grade students on, or what matters more for their personal and professional development?

    Even in the most shallow analysis, it’s clear that pedagogy and grading methods should vary in fields as different as law, medicine, physics, history, and theatre. It’s clear that we cannot place students from all fields in the same “scale”. It would be intellectually dishonest to do so, yet we pretend on a daily basis that people from different faculties, universities and fields of study can be compared just because we give them a GPA.

  2. You know, Philippe, many replies on this topic such as yours, above, really miss the essential point at dispute here. There are obviously alternative models for education and evaluation. No one disputes that. We could always debate if there may be a better system, or even if Rancourt is on to something. That isn’t the point here at all, or the problem with his approach.

    The problem is that Rancourt has decided that his opinion about the best way to teach and grade is unilaterally going to overrule the consensus of his colleagues. Remember, he applied through proper academic channels to grade on a pass/fail basis and was refused. He decided to do what he wanted anyway.

    In order to defend Rancourt you can’t simply argue that pass/fail works, or that grades aren’t needed. You need to defend the idea that every individual instructor should have unlimited authority to determine methods of instruction, evaluation, and grading on their own – with virtually no oversight or adherence to even those standards that are developed collectively among academic communities.

    I’ve yet to see anyone attempt to make that argument and I can’t imagine how it could be done. You’re welcome to try, if you like. But the fact remains that we agree to adhere to the judgment of communities of experts because the judgment of individuals is often suspect. If you believe every individual instructor should have unfettered authority to put their own ideas into practice – over the objections of their own communities – that does seem to run counter to the central ideas of academia. But have at it, if you can.

  3. Jeff, man, that was bang-on.

    Actually, I suppose you could argue that Rancourt is merely returning to a more medieveal vision of the university. Centralized fee collection and centralized university “policies” on things like grading as a mid-19th century phenomenon, I think. Bologna, Paris, Edinburgh, for example – these were just places where students congregated and would-be teachers came by to sell their wares and charge fees individually as they could. You had complete freedom to teach and grade as you please…provided you could convince people to pay you for your services.

  4. Hi Jeff,

    My comment on this post (compared to those on the other thread) was not meant to be focused on “the dispute”, but rather address some common arguments made in defense of traditional pedagogy/grading.

    But to relate this back to the conflict between the professor and the University, I do not think one has to agree on Pr. Rancourt on every respect (and in fact, I’m one of the many “Rancourt supporters”, as you could call us, who do disagree routinely with him on a variety of subjects). The fact is that many of us who support alternative pedagogies at the University of Ottawa have encountered incredible closed-mindedness and often degrading remarks in response, no matter how “polite” and “collegial” we were.

    Also remember that this conflict has been ongoing and has evolved over three or four years. And throughout these years I’ve encountered lots of hypocrisy from the administration. For example, the Faculty of Science leadership first said they were unhappy about how Denis Rancourt was teaching the “Science in society” class, although they really liked the class concept. Then when we asked that the class be offered no matter who teaches it, they turned the request down, saying no one wanted to teach it.

    What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even if I would not have, personally, proceeded the same way to push these ideas as Pr. Rancourt did, I have to deplore the loss of one of the few, very few people in that university who challenge the statu quo in terms of pedagogy/grading, and proposes alternatives. Of course, the first time you try new methods, they don’t succeed perfectly. But I would argue that the mainstream North American education system is failing more students every day… just look at the dropout rate from every level from high school to grad school.

  5. This is a just another letter from one of Denis Rancourt’s cronies who defends him with high-minded platitudes about free speech and academic freedom. What they never discuss is who he really is. Just google ‘rockourt’ and you’ll see a totally different side to this story and totally different side of Denis Rancourt.

  6. While I can’t speak specifically to the UofO med school curriculum, it’s not exactly true that many med schools are moving away from “standard evaluation and teaching methods… by more practical and problem-based approaches”. Although it is true that – initially – Problem-based Learning almost completely eschewed lectures in favour of small-group tutorials, this has long since ceased to be the case.

    Here at Dal, we have 4-6 lectures per week, along with mandatory tutorial, practical, and clinical learning sessions in small groups. While there is evaluation for the small-group activities, each unit is ultimately evaluated by a final exam (composed mostly of multiple choice questions) which is typically worth 100% of the unit grade. Though ultimately every unit is strictly pass/fail, we still receive the numerical results, and a marginal pass (~60-65%) or outright failure requires remedial action. Note that this system was implemented by the Faculty of Medicine leadership, with continual and regular assessment of how well things are going (particularly in light of accreditation issues).

    So, while it’s true that the pass/fail element is something of a novel approach compared to typical undergraduate classes, evaluation in med schools is about as traditional as it gets. That delivery methods combine lectures and small group learning is not really that unique. But I’m not sure what relevance this is to Rancourt’s methods – the justification for pass/fail in med school has largely to do with issues of competition, stress, class collegiality, and a focus on learning as much as possible without agaonizing about knowing everything which is, in any case, impossible. I’m not sure whether any of this is relevant to a single physics class, especially when the requirements for a BSc in physics makes explicit reference to grades and specific courses. Professional schools – medicine especially – are wholely different animals entirely.

    (And I believe I’ve done on long enough! :) )

  7. Josh,

    I feel like the reasons you list for why Dal’s med school chose to proceed with the methods they have hits the nail pretty dead on. I don’t know all of the details of the med school at U of O either, but I feel it is similar to what you described.

    When you say: “justification for pass/fail in med school has largely to do with issues of competition, stress, class collegiality, and a focus on learning as much as possible”… I think this should apply to all programs for just those reasons. Because physics isn’t a “professional” school, is that justification to maintain unhealthy competition, stress, etc…? The reason for all this discussion is to try and change the standards. I’m not sure I understand when you say “especially when the requirements for a BSc in physics makes explicit reference to grades and specific courses”. I feel like Denis and others are trying to move away from grading to make it more about learning which is in theory a requirement for all degrees.

    But yes, even some med schools and many other problems use concepts such as group work, problem-based approach, pass/fail, and part of it touches directly to the kind of approach Denis had, part of it is quite standard also. But the fact is that there was enormous resistance from the administration to him trying these methods out when it really isn’t contested and is being used elsewhere in various forms…

  8. “issues of competition, stress, class collegiality, and a focus on learning as much as possible without agaonizing about knowing everything which is, in any case, impossible”

    These “issues”, I believe, would apply to most fields of knowledge, including mathematics and physics.

    Furthermore, I would suggest that the fact that professional schools, which are more directly linked to performance in specific “real world” careers, are willing to adopt a pass/fail system supports the idea that grades don’t mean much once you’re done with school, that their main purpose is for admission to the next school and getting scholarships.

    This is another question (how to rate people for admission/scholarship) we could address later. However, taking down the myth that a pass/fail system would lead to lazy and less competent professionals (which is almost inevitably the first scare tactic used in any debate on the topic) is already a major step forward.

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