Bocconi: Is it really “knowledge that matters”?

Coming to Bocconi as an international student who completed the International Baccalaureate, I had a set of expectations about what university would be like. I didn’t realise until later that these expectations were in fact not “universal”, but specific to the educational method I grew up with. Hence, here is my take on the differences between these approaches and my opinion regarding what Bocconi calls “knowledge that matters” (keeping in mind that this is an opinion article). 


f you aren’t familiar with the International Baccalaureate, it consists of a two-year programme carried out in the last two years of high school. You study six “chosen” subjects, with three core, compulsory subjects, which are Theory of Knowledge, CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service) and the Extended Essay (a 4,000 word essay on a research topic relating to one of your subjects). 


My first semester in Bocconi, I could rapidly notice the differences. Firstly, the fact that all courses were lecture-based was in a way disconcerting. I knew classes in university would have more students and the format of learning would necessarily change. However, having 100+ students in every class and these being all lectures, made learning very impersonal and disconnected. Starting from the fact that students didn’t know each other, and there were no “ice-breakers” or attempts from part of the faculty or the university to make our class a community, classes were at the start, alienating. 

Lectures, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an educational talk to an audience”, made learning feel unidirectional. Knowledge was uniquely distributed from the professor to the students, and often, in very dense and long lectures. Coming from smaller and more interactive classes at school, it was incredibly difficult to follow at first, as there was hardly any input from the students and hence no incentive to internalise the knowledge within the class.


The second thing that caught my attention was the lack of participation in class. My school had always encouraged individuality and acknowledged when students made additions to class by being reflective, knowledgeable and risk-takers. In contrast, I would notice how in class the only contributions made by students were questions regarding the content. It was rare and almost unheard of for students to bring forward challenging perspectives that could enrich our lessons, or to share additional and personal knowledge  and experiences related to the class-content. To me, this was a significant loss, given that learning from fellow students equally is to me, equally as valuable; the potential to learn from my classmate’s ideas and perspectives was hindered. The structure of our lessons at Bocconi aren’t particularly designed for student interaction or reflection within class, making students feel like participating makes us an obstacle in the learning experience. 


By hearing out some of my classmate’s experiences I came to understand that for them this didn’t come as a surprise. Their experience in Italian highschools had been very similar, with a similar format of the teacher having the floor, while the students did the listening. From what I understood, Italian highschools had a very rigorous and disciplinary method where students were expected to study every other day, and have the content of their lessons almost memorised, which would eventually lead up to oral exams. This came to me as quite a shock, given that my last two years of high-school I had been assessed based on Internal Assessments, which would evaluate my understanding of the course’s content by my ability to apply it to real-life scenarios. From biology, doing my own experiment on the effect of antibiotics on plant growth (which was quite fun actually), to economics, analysing current economic policies using the concepts learned, or maths, attempting to explain linear algebra graphically and intuitively, this is what I thought of as “learning”: making knowledge your own. Of course, none of us were experts in any of these fields, however, these kinds of tasks empowered us, students, to feel capable of thinking and having an opinion


This is why I was particularly startled when I discovered Bocconi’s evaluation method, which is either, two partial exams throughout the semester, or a general exam at the end of the semester, depending on the course and personal preferences. I had trouble seeing how two exams or even, a single exam, could accurately reflect the learning made by students over a three to four month period. I know some courses have group projects or class quizzes, however, in my case, this is my fourth semester and I haven’t had a group project or coursework yet. 


It’s a lot of pressure having a semester’s grade being a reflection of your performance on a single exam; in addition to the fact that some students might have difficulty with test-taking and have other strengths. Nonetheless, I understand how important it is to succeed in stress-management and performance under demanding conditions, and this was always highlighted in my school. Since sixth grade, we would always be tested under exam conditions, following the protocol of international examinations. However it struck me that this was the singular way of evaluating students in Bocconi (at least in the first two years of my Bachelor programme), exhibiting a lack of plurality and diversity in its testing, failing to account for the variety of skills and abilities held by their students. Just as Bocconi prides itself in having an international body of students, this inherently leads to diversity in our educational methods, strengths and perspectives. Therefore, perhaps our evaluation methods should be tailored to this need for universality. 


Lastly, my final observation and point of divergence, and the explanation to this article’s title, is the content of Bocconi’s exams. The first week I was taken aback by student’s readiness to study after our five inaugural days as university students. At the time I didn’t fully understand this strategy or its purpose. I had done perfectly fine with international exams by following the coursework and revising the most important concepts throughout the course (except in classes like biology or history where you would need greater memory and detailed revision). However, classes like Management or Philosophy of Art that seemed to be very intuitive would prove to be quite the opposite at the time of the exam. Even in subjects where one would suppose that the main focus is exercises and problem solving, for example, statistics and computer science, I would be proven wrong. Theory seems to dominate all fields, and it’s the attention to detail, and the mechanisation of learning that characterises Bocconi exams. It took me a long time to realise that for Bocconi it’s more about how much you know, rather than what you can do with this very knowledge. It’s an almost passive, rather than empowering take on knowledge. 


As a generation that is constantly being called into action and urged to bring around change, this approach seems almost outdated. It is challenging to see the benefits of learning every definition, appendix, and chapter supplement by heart, and being asked to recite it in the exams. The International Baccalaureate had a strong connection to the sustainability goals, which we would discuss in a multiplicity of ways, ranging from literary works highlighting gender equality in English Literature, to environmental sustainability reflected in taxation in Economics, to the correct disposal of chemical substances in Biology. I was often asked to debate, discuss, and propose solutions to current world topics, which I would find challenging, enriching, and purposeful. In some way, I feel like I have lost my passion for learning, because at times it feels like our knowledge is far away from being in touch with reality. What is the value added that students provide to this learning experience? Do we enter and leave university untouched or do we aim to create knowledge that matters?


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