Monday, November 8, 2010

The System of Higher Education in the US

I experienced being both a student and a teacher in higher education systems of 3 different countries. I have also talked to students from every continent about their experiences in higher ed. So I can tell you with all certainty that the higher education system in the US is the best in the world. For now.

In Canada, the quality of education that I received was extremely high. The university education system, though, is deeply flawed. Students are not, for example, required to take any courses outside of their Major. As much as I wanted to take classes in history and philosophy in the course of my BA, there was simply no space in my program for that. As a result, you have students who graduate with a Bachelor's degree in, say, Business Administration, Computer Sciences, or Italian Literature and who have no knowledge of anything other than their own very narrow specialization.

In Europe (both Eastern and Western), the learning is very exam-oriented. I always find it very hard to explain to my European students that getting an A on the final exam does not, in any way, guarantee a good (or even a passing) grade for the course. In the US, students are expected to work hard in class during every class session. In the Humanities, in-class participation grade is between 15 and 40 % of the final grade.

Another aspect of the higher ed system in the US that makes it the best in the world is the extremely advanced methodology of teaching. In foreign language teaching, for example, the US is far ahead of any other country in the world in terms of its highly developed teaching methodology.

In the last decade, the atrocious No Child Left Behind policies have effectively destroyed the primary and secondary education system in the US. At the college level, we already feel the dire results of "teaching to the test." Not only do our freshmen come into the classroom with almost zero knowledge of history, art, politics, grammar, etc., they also find it extremely hard to adapt to the university-level learning practices. They persecute professors with questions like "Will this be on the test?", "Can I get a study guide?", "Will you be handing out resumes for each novel we read in the course?", "Why are there no multiple-choice tests in this course?" They are prepared to cram and memorize. Generating and expressing ideas of their own terrifies them.

It took a very short period of time to reduce the primary and secondary education system to this sorry state. It will not take much longer to do the same to our higher education.

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Anonymous said...

It's always a pleasure to read your blog, Clarissa.

At UBC in Vancouver (not sure about the other campuses) all undergraduates from non-arts faculties are required to take a certain number of discretionary credits (usually amounting to 3-4 3hr/week courses) in the humanities over their 4 year program in addition to two 100-level English courses. As I understand it, most take introductory philosophy, history, or follow a language through to the 4th year and take a minor in it.

The sciences program here is running into the opposite problem within their own faculty, in that science students are required to take so many courses from 'sciences' that most students don't actively engage their specialty until late third or even fourth year for ecology and evolution people. The classes for these other requirements are often enormously inflated (400 people per section for a third year genetics course is, as far as I know, lunacy) and, to the dismay of the teachers, filled with uninterested students. And the number of these courses often crowds out trying to have a broad sampling from outside this major. My double major in botany and literature is a 5 year minimum.

I wonder if Canada has an equivalent to the No Child Left Behind policy - I don't know of one, but the behaviour that you mention is definitely visible in many of my peers. The boredom probably has something to do with it. Perhaps it could be some sort of horrible osmosis. I took highschool in a very rural school where no students were expected to move on to University, and so the teachers didn't put a lot of emphasis on 'preparing' students for the standard exams in this province, which may be why the teach-to-exam method is somewhat alien to me.

Anyway, rant aside, thank you as always for the insights (:

eric said...

Entering the university system after going through a third-rate high school (and not doing terribly well at that) and 6 years in the Marines as an infantryman, was daunting to say the least, even for a state school. It took me a semester or two to "get with the program," so to speak, insofar as developing good study habits, reading all the material, and truly engaging in a life of scholarship, which I learned to love. This was before digital technology became the cultural dominant (a mere decade ago!), so I actually had to take good notes and pay attention to a lecture from a prof who often had nothing more than a blackboard, with her class notes in front of her. It also helped that I was paying my own way (with help from the GI Bill), and not my parents, so I really HAD to take it seriously. Profs should be fighting tooth and nail to keep standards up, even against clueless parents, administrators, and politicians who demand "results." Those kids who want to learn and engage, will, and those who don't, well, que lastima!

NancyP said...

Chronic use of multiple choice testing does have an effect on students. The tests are set up to have a single right answer, and the student gets used to being able to either pull a "ready-made" answer out of crammed material or skip the question. The students get used to not having to work out the answer or write anything. The students become lazy about logic and compulsive about facts. Annoyingly, the students also tend to ask "Is this going to be on the test?". Lately, I just say "wait and see". This is the case with my medical students, and I am sure that undergraduates are just as programmed to the test.

Testmanship does play a big role in my students' lives, because they encounter these tests throughout their academic and professional career. There's no question that they need to be prepared for the Boards format.

Multiple choice tests are convenient to grade but difficult to write because the format is so rigid. The tests are amenable to statistics that identify "bad questions" (poor correlations between general performance and performance on that question).

JMP said...

Although I agree that there are serious problems with Canadian universities (since I teach in one), I disagree that they generally don't encourage students to take courses outside of their departments. In my undergrad it was a requirement that I take a certain number of courses outside of my major, just as it was in the undergraduate programs of the other two universities I've worked at. I guess it depends on what university and in what province you go to - I'm sure there are significant differences between American universities as well.

In any case, we don't have the "no child left behind" program, but we do have a problem with education cutbacks at the public level. The results of these have led to the same problems you describe, at least for the first university year, where students are utterly unequipped for university-level education.

Clarissa said...

Sorry, everybody, I should have mentioned that I got my BA in Quebec. Things are probably different in the provinces that do not have the CEGEP system.

Clarissa said...

"It's always a pleasure to read your blog, Clarissa."

-Thank you, Anonymous, I needed to hear these kind words on another difficult Monday.

Anonymous said...

AMEN, SISTER. I taught in a certain European country last year, and dang was I not impressed. I LOVE the fundamentals of American education. Nice to hear someone agrees -- thanks for posting this! Let's hope that education just keeps getting better, rather than worse.

Another note: I've been observing in an American middle school, and while the teachers I work with are not pro-NCLB, they have appreciated that the act has pushed them to hold weekly "intervention team" meetings to discuss individual students who are lagging -- and consequently, students are not getting left behind.

That said -- I think they'd be happy to keep that procedure but ditch the tests.

Anonymous said...

I think we takked about this in the past. I'd agree with you, but let me mention the following:

1) Discretionary credits are mandatory in CEGEPs. Every CEGEP student must take literature, philosophy, and second language courses, and the requirements in many of these courses are equal or superior to those of many university courses I teach in an Amercian Liberal Arts College. There may be major disparities in terms of quality and rigor among CEGEPs though. I went to a good, public CEGEP, and education I received there was superb.

2) Discretionary credits are also mandatory in many of Québec's universities. Many universities in that province also offer majors and minors.


Clarissa said...

Yes, my friend, but what about all those students who didn't go to a CEGEP? Students from other provinces, international students, immigrants?

As for minors, even if you manage to cram 2 minors into your program, it still isn't the same as the GenEd requirement in the US. That's a lot broader than 2 or even 3 minors.