Which Students are ‘Adrift’? And why?

From NPR, “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ in College“:

As enrollment rates in colleges have continued to increase, a new book questions whether the historic number of young people attending college will actually learn all that much once they get to campus. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, two authors present a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years. The study measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.

Richard Arum, a co-author of the book and a professor of sociology at New York University, tells Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep that the fact that more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university was cause for concern. [...]

Part of the reason for a decline in critical thinking skills could be a decrease in academic rigor; 35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester.

As colleges become more and more and more and more and more about $$$ and less and less and less and less about education, it is no surprise that students feel that college is easier and respond in kind.  Perhaps college is easier.

For example, in my short academic career:

  • I have known professors who are trying to get tenure who make their classes “easy” up until after student evaluations and then give a ridiculously hard final to create an appropriate grade curve.
  • I have known professors and graduate students, concerned for their careers, who phone in their teaching duties to a level that could be defined as irresponsible.
  • I have heard professors tell graduate students that teaching should be the lowest of priorities throughout their career if they are going to ever be able to make it to the ever-elusive tenure track.
  • There are professors who tell their teaching assistants to give mainly As and Bs when they grade in order to keep the students happy.

Some of this is laziness but most of it is about professors recognizing that the universities are now viewing students not as learners but as consumers.  And if you want to make it as an academic, you need to understand that and be realistic about your own tenuous position in this mix.

So many students want to learn.  They want to be pushed.  They love realizing that they are, indeed, smart and capable.  But to push them, you have to be willing to piss them off.  You have to be willing to have a student complain about you to your department chair, the dean, the chancellor.  I’ve seen it done.  A professor who is trying to get tenure is terrified of this because the student, as consumer, has a weird power to affect your standing as an academic when you are simply just doing your job and have done years of work to attain the position you are at (and this is all compounded, of course, if you are a woman or part of a minority population – but that’s another blog post).

The fact that they are talking specifically about critical thinking and writing skills makes me just livid.  Because you know where students learn those skills?  In the liberal arts.  Can you guess what programs are hit the hardest and valued the least in the overall money-making college world?

I have spent many, many hours of my life now trying to teach the college kids at my university both of these skills.  I have been a supplemental instructor for courses where I literally taught students how to take notes, how to read a monograph and an article, how to outline an argument, how to make an argument, etc.  I spent many more hours reading drafts of papers and talking students through the ways in which you can strengthen your writing as I ever did grading that stuff.

As Ann Little has pointed out, this data that lead NPR to the conclusions above actually shows something else that is often left out of the story or stuck way down at the bottom of a report.  She links to another article that goes into more detail about all of the numbers and reveals:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning.

Oh.  So, all that work that I am doing is helping.  Phew!

When the authors of the study or the reporters discussing it talk about students in these big generalities, they are actually eliding the fact that students who major in the “traditional liberal arts” are getting a better education when it comes to those most minor of skills, critical thinking and writing.

At the same time, they are also pointing to the changing way of doing business at a university, one that places professors in a position to cater to what the students think they want out of school.  The data presented above should not be used to condemn students or their professors, but rather to evaluate how universities are being run today and the culture of learning that this is creating (or, rather, dismantling).

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