Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Really Is To Blame?

By now, everyone who reads this blog has probably heard of the book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Arum and Roksa that basically makes the claim that the emperor has no clothing by giving evidence that students do not learn much in their four years in college. If you have missed the release of the book, you can learn more at the following URL where the authors are quoted as stating "How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.”

What I find most interesting is that the blame game has started. Something is obviously wrong so what is to blame? Here are some culprits that I’ve heard mentioned: grade inflation, lack of education classes for college professors, the stress put on faculty to do research so they can’t focus on their teaching, lack of student preparation in K-12, student evaluations, lack of uniform requirements (students prefer to sign up for easier teachers – what a shock that one is), the desire of universities to retain students, increased use of adjuncts, the failure to reward good teachers appropriately, and on and on.

And, my response is—after 40 years in the classroom—certainly, all of these are a factor. We have built an education system with so many internal flaws that I’m surprised it works as well as it does. It is not one problem; there are many problems. Anyone with their eyes open should have seen this coming. You’d have to be totally in denial not to have expected these results. The only thing that surprised me about this study was that anyone was surprised.

I have always said that good teaching is not a mystery. If a teacher (a) seriously challenges a student, (b) helps the student understand the benefit from the knowledge to be obtained, (c) offers an appropriate amount of assistance, and (d) treats the student fairly, most students will be willing to climb a tall mountain for you. However, if you leave off even one of those four, students will gladly go drink beer and work on their suntans.

Is there a solution to the educational problem? Well, here is one. Following is part of an opinion piece that appeared in the University of Richmond school paper this past Thursday written by a student named Liz Monahan. (Although she has never been one of my students, I have written about Ms. Monahan and her opinion pieces previously.) And, although she is talking about this one university, my bet is that students at virtually every school in the country could say about the same thing (at least if you believe Arum and Roksa).

In her paper, I especially like her very last line. What would we teachers all do if this were to happen? Now, wouldn’t that change the world as we know it?

From Liz Monahan:
Four years of my life have been spent at a phenomenal liberal arts institution with enough learning resources (whether they be human or text) to wrap around the earth twice, and yet I find myself wondering one thing. What did I learn while I was here?

In the book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa discuss the data accumulated during a study they conducted on whether college students improve their critical thinking and writing skills during the four years they attend college.

The study, which involved using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, indicated that more than a third of students showed no critical thinking or writing improvement after four years in college.

The results of the study also indicated that 35 percent of students said they studied five hours per week or less, with a 50 percent overall decline in the number of hours spent studying compared to years past.

Sadly, I don’t doubt the data whatsoever. Excluding a small minority, we study less. I’d go as far to admit that I study less now than I did in high school. I remember spending hours on my Gateway computer typing up study guides for exams and writing extensive papers for various AP classes.

According to the study, 50 percent of the students said they didn’t have a single course that required them to write 20 pages total. I’m not shocked by that statistic either.

Granted, I am a journalism major and am writing constantly, however I do have many friends who say that when it comes to writing papers, they simply aren’t assigned them.

I can recall writing a 30-page research paper on inclusion in elementary education during my sophomore year of high school.

Thirty pages for one assignment makes all of the assignments from my general education classes at Richmond look like a two weeks paid vacation.

When I question why it is that we study less I think it all comes down to one thing: accountability. In high school I was held accountable by my parents, my teachers, my peers and more importantly, by myself.

If I didn’t put in the effort, I didn’t receive a good grade. And why should I have? I didn’t deserve one. Which was why I made sure I worked hard — always.

Accountability is not a word we hear very often in college, at least at this one. We’re all told that college is supposed to be hard.

That’s when the justifying starts. The fact that I got a C on an anthropology paper no longer has to do with the fact I wrote it the night before it was due, rather that I’m not an anthropologist. Justifications like these make lack of accountability a comfort.

Many professors are just as guilty as their students. Instead of demanding hard work, effort and, inevitably, respect from his or her students, he or she attempts to gain respect (possibly in the form of a good evaluation wink, wink) by catering to the “needs” of students.

Another possible explanation for the decrease in studying, authors of “Academically Adrift” say, may be that the pressure put on students to be socially engaged is too great. What do colleges care about? Student retention.

So a happy student means a student who is doing fun things on and around campus. Fun things on and around campus mean that student is coming back next year.

So when the admissions spiel sounds a little like, “We care about your happiness,” future generations of college students should smile because now they’re in on the joke.

Data from the CLA survey indicated that students who majored in more traditional liberal arts studies such as English or philosophy showed higher levels of critical thinking and writing skills. It makes sense. I can’t imagine it’d be easy to B.S. your way through an analysis of the Theory of Forms.

For those of you, like myself, who are questioning your personal improvement throughout your year(s) spent at University of Richmond, a word of advice: It’s not too late.

First step: Hold yourself accountable. No one will do it for you.

Second step: Challenge your teachers to challenge you.

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