Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Waiting for the Big One....

NPR this morning:

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.
I would like to say my educational experience doesn't bear this out; but it does.

I'm not sure how much "critical thinking" education has ever encouraged. It was fairly well encouraged in my pre-college experience, but not so much that I learned early on to challenge too many prevailing opinions. I seem to have done that on my own, through a peculiarly hard-headed notion that anything I didn't agree with and couldn't discard out of hand, I had to face head on and either accept as valid, or find a good reason to reject. Somebody must have taught me that at some point, because I'm sure I didn't spring sui generis from the brow of Zeus, much less my father. Still, "critical thinking" means, well, being critical; and it's a classic anecdote of college students that they come back home having learned to denounce everything their parents raised them to believe was true.

An exaggerated anecdote, but one with some connection to reality nonetheless. The seminary version of that is the student who comes into seminary a devoted Christian, and leaves a committed atheist. The UCC variant on that at my UCC seminary was that such a student was still ordained into the UCC ministry.* Such stories tell more about the experience of a truly rigorous education where critical thinking is not only encouraged but required, than it does about critical thinking. But try to imagine that outcome in any college today.

The anti-war movement of the '60's was prompted as much by professors challenging the accepted reasoning of the "Best and the Brightest" and the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit as it was a reaction to the horrors of war (because most people experiencing those horrors, or likely to experience them, were not in college). If there is a reason we don't have another '60's generation among us today, it's because no one is emphasizing the kind of critical thinking that should be basic to education. Then again, it's hard to build bricks without straw.

I taught English briefly, in the late '70's when I was a graduate student. I have noticed, in the interim, some decline in the quality of college students, but to be fair I'm now teaching at a community college, not a university. And while the university I taught at was hardly Ivy League, it's possible a slightly better caliber of student attended then than I see now. On the other hand, I'm constantly amazed at instructors whom I see assigning no more than 6 papers in a Freshman English class in a semester, and then requiring each paper be submitted in multiple drafts for review and approval before final grading takes place. I understand the theory of improving composition by editorial review, but can't help thinking it sounds far too much like middle school, and far too little like college-level work.

"If you go out and talk to college freshmen today, they tell you something very interesting," Arum says. "Many of them will say the following: 'I thought college and university was going to be harder than high school, and my gosh, it turned out it's easier.' "
On the other hand, and before you decide I am upholding the standards of academic rigor while my peers collapse into appeasement, consider how many students come to community colleges and need to take Developmental English before they can take Freshman English. I still remember my professors in the '70s', telling me how English majors were once the brightest, most capable students on campus, the most academically gifted and driven among the enrolled. They lamented that, 40 years ago, many students, English majors and non-English majors, needed remedial English classes on grammar and basic sentence structure, before they were ready for Freshman English. This decline has been going on for over a generation now. But if you take students with little preparation and subject them to college standards, you might as well toss them out of school and save everybody the time and effort. The sad fact is, far too many students simply aren't ready to do college work. I understand why my peers assign only 6 papers and then review those extensively before accepting them for grading. They are simply trying to teach people who have not yet been taught.

One of the critiques mentioned in the audio version of that story is that few students report having taken any one class which required them to write 20 pages over one semester. If you assign only 6 papers, and don't assign anything over 3 pages, it's easy not to make that mark. On the other hand, if you assign 6 papers and make each at least 5 pages long, one of two things will likely happen: students will drop your course, or they will turn in papers well under the minimum length. And, most likely, the ones turned in will mostly be garbage. I know some of the problem is motivation: that is, they won't do it. But a large part of the problem is ability: they can't do it. And why not? Because they don't have the apparatus to do the critical thinking necessary to generate enough content to fill 5 double-spaced pages.

5 pages, by the way, is about the minimum length of the research paper I assign every semester; and at the end of the semester I always have students who cannot make that much progress, despite having all semester to work on the paper and presumably having done the research which will pretty much generate the content. They don't do the research, of course, or don't do it very well, because they lack the critical thinking skills necessary to assess and evaluate data, much less to seek it out or to know what to do with it when they get it.

I teach in high school as well, and I can tell you the daily schedule is a crucial difference between high school and college. Meeting the same class 5 days a week gives the teacher ample time to guide the students, or even drill them, on the fundamentals they need to learn (yes, I know some high schools work on a schedule that doesn't require meeting the same class 5 days a week; but the total immersion in school, being on that campus for 8+ hours a day, is the crucial factor). A college schedule assumes the student already knows how to learn, and will attend class having done the work beforehand. Think of it as sharpening a knife edge until it is a razor's edge. You can't do that if the knife is just a blunt piece of steel; or if there isn't a knife there at all.

And yes, I think it will get worse before it gets better; in no small part because of the "consumer culture," the idea that colleges should advertise and entice and serve students the way Wal-Mart is supposed to do:

According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principle evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.

"There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high," Arum says.
I've been berated for poor course evaluations. It always struck me as odd that you would go to someone because you want to learn from them (i.e., they know something you don't), and simultaneously you could know what they needed to teach you (because you know what you need to learn). I've also been critiqued because my students' grades over several semesters didn't meet the averages of other instructors. Is this evidence I am a poor teacher? Or is it evidence my standards are too high, my expectations too rigorous? Both and a little bit of neither, I'm sure; but drawing too firm a conclusion from such data is a dangerous thing, indeed. And drawing conclusions from such evidence encourages what Arum identifies: pass your students, make them like you, and all will be well; for you as the teacher, anyway. If the students don't actually learn, or more importantly learn to think, well....

They'll be in good company, eh?

*UCC pastors still love to explain "UCC" as: "Unitarians Considering Christ." But we do so cautiously.

Addendum: And yeah, maybe it's just where I live:

Despite significant improvements in test scores both for math and reading, the portion of Texas' adult population with at least a high school education has gotten even worse than it was ten years ago. The percentage of Texas' population with a white collar job has decreased more than 3% between 2000 and 2009, the fourth worst performance by any state. Texas also experienced one of the smallest increases in higher education, ranking 45th in bachelor's degrees and 42nd in advanced degrees.

Population Change (2000-2009): 2,967,222 (14.2%)
Bachelor's Degree or Higher: 25.5% (30th)
Population With White Collar Careers: 12.5% (32nd)
NAEP Math: 18th
NAEP Reading: 34th

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