19 December 2005

Maybe It Isn't Just Us

A recent article in The Boston Globe posed the question "Are colleges failing?" (user id: bugmenot@123.com; password: bugmenot) The standards movement over the last several years was in part driven by colleges and universities claiming that entering students were woefully unprepared for the rigors of post-secondary education. And while this may in part be true, no one has asked (until now), just what colleges are doing to support student learning. The author of the Globe article believes that colleges are not doing much. He states that current eductional research shows that
  • Most college seniors do not think that they have made substantial progress in improving their competence in writing or quantitative methods, and some assessments have found that many students actually regress.
  • Students who start college with average critical thinking skills only tend to progress over the next four years from the 50th percentile of their class to approximately the 69th percentile. Most undergraduates leave college still inclined to approach unstructured ''real life" problems with a form of primitive relativism, believing that there are no firm grounds for preferring one conclusion over another.
  • Further studies indicate that problem-based discussion, group study, and other forms of active learning produce greater gains in critical thinking than lectures, yet the lecture format is still the standard in most college classes, especially in large universities. Other research has documented the widespread use of other practices that impede effective learning, such as the lack of prompt and adequate feedback on student work, the prevalence of tests that call for memory rather than critical thinking, and the reliance on teaching methods that allow students to do well in science courses by banking on memory rather than truly understanding the basic underlying concepts.

People pay a lot of money in order to get a degree. Wouldn't we think that there would be more for the money besides a piece of paper? Why isn't there?

Some of the answer may be related to the lack of teacher prep PhD candidates receive. They do get a lot of experience with conducting research, but little in pedagogy. Perhaps faculty is resistant to letting in "best practices" through the college doors. There would have to be a great deal of time devoted to restructuring classes away from 3 hours of lecture per week.

But what of the future? What if we (America) start to actually graduate a hefty percentage of students who can read critically, think mathematically, write fluently, and reason scientifically...yet a greater share of the global economy doesn't come our way because college doesn't further those skills? Will the public put more pressure on colleges and universities to produce a different sort of graduate? Will students and parents demand more for their money?

Maybe it isn't just us---the public school system---that is failing to turn out citizens ready to compete in today's world.

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