When an American student finishes their masters or doctoral research, they face a thesis or dissertation “defense.” They stand before their teachers and classmates to “defend” their research. This important rite of passage forces them to clearly communicate their research and to also answer questions.
It also is a process that is quite different in the U.S. and in Asia.
In the U.S., those of us on a student’s graduate committee space ourselves out in the classroom, mixed in with the sea of graduate students required to attend the defenses in their department.
When students conclude their presentation, they ask: “Any questions?”
Those of us who are professors remain quiet. We look around at the other graduate students, raising our eyebrows or peering over our glasses in a gesture of anticipation. This is their time to participate. They should know enough from the student’s presentation to ask obvious questions, such as: “you thought the graph line went up because of such-and-such, but might it have gone up due to (something else) instead?”
And the defender would then have to explain what controls were used to eliminate that factor. Only after the students have exhausted their questions do the faculty take up this public questioning. That is still a time of learning for the students, some of whom will think: “Of course! I should have thought to ask that!” This is not to embarrass the defender. Nor is it just to pass or flunk the graduate student. It discerns how strong the science research is. It is how science works.
This public defense is usually limited. The public is then dismissed while the graduate committee continues in private to probe deeply into the candidate’s depth and breadth of knowledge before voting on whether the student passes his or her defense.
And usually each defense occurs on a separate day.
In Asia, graduate defenses are quite different. There might be 12 to 14 masters defenses, or four to six doctoral defenses in one day. They have many more students and average 60 students per class.
The examiners are a select set of five or six professors who sit on the front row, identified by red name cards. A student’s graduate committee members or chair cannot be on the examination panel. And in China, one examiner must be from an outside university.
The graduate’s classmates take seats at the back of the room. When it comes time for questions at the end of each student’s presentation, no student raises a hand. All questions come from the examination panel. Asian students learn textbook answers. But they lack any practice asking questions
Our graduate exam with questions from students has been an important part of the training of Western scientists. Graduate level research goes beyond knowing what has already been discovered. Students must develop the ability to ask questions to discover new concepts to add to our body of knowledge. Pushing students to ask questions advances their science training and their ability to see weaknesses in research designs. It teaches them to modify the “cookbook” of science methods. They get practice in seeking alternative explanations. They learn to be critical and expect clear results.
To become a full professor in China, you must work in the West for a year. Those young professors return with an understanding of graduate exams that will eventually change the Chinese exam system for the better. But some of my colleagues and I are beginning to see an erosion of student participation in American graduate exams. These last few years has seen American students reluctant to ask questions.
Questioning is a process that good teachers practice down in middle and high school science classes. The teacher relates: “We studied how Pasteur solved the silkworm problem. Now how would we begin to solve mad cow disease today?” Some students would complain that the answer was not in the book, nor in class lessons. But some student in class will realize, “We could use the same method,” and elaborate. The good teacher would then present the results, and ask the class what the results mean. This was the strength of American science teaching before No Child Left Behind drove so many K–12 science teachers to teach through rote learning for the all-important external assessments.
And those students are now the generation that is silently sitting in today’s graduate exams and failing to ask questions. The damage to good science questioning from the NCLB era has long-lasting effects.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.