Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Weird Article on College Education in the New York Times

While I agree that trying to impose the business model on academia is wrong and that high standards of education should be maintained at all costs, I am often baffled by how people go about defending these useful ideas. Take, for example, the recent article in The New York Times titled "Your So-Called Education." After reading it, I realized that, according to the article's authors, the greatest problem in higher ed is me. Let's look at some of the points the article makes.

The quality of college education is slipping because:

1. "In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week."

I must be a real underachiever because in my undergraduate courses, I never assign more that 30 pages of reading a week in any given course. I teach literature and culture, so reading is pretty much all we do. However, my goal is not to get the students to skim through as many pages as possible. I want them to read critically, to engage with the text, to try to go through it slowly. If you read 3 pages a week but manage to come up with some analysis of it, it's a lot more useful than gulping down 100 pages of a text just to fulfill some silly requirement.

2. "50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester."

In my trademark course on Hispanic Civilization, students write several short essays that come up to less than 20 pages per semester. The writing component is crucial to that course. (Because I decided that it should be.) However, I don't see how it helps anybody to get the students to hand in reams of poorly written garbage. If a student manages to produce a single beautifully written page at the end of the semester, I will believe that my goal in the course has been accomplished. Students come to this Freshman course with no understanding of what distinguishes good and bad writing. Giving them humongous writing assignments will only lead them to reproduce the same horrible writing techniques they brought to college from their high schools.

3. "The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying."

I wonder if anybody has counted how many of those hours a student in the 1960 spent hunting for information and doing manually all those things that today are simplified to an incredible degree by the Internet and text processing. If we take into account how much faster the writing becomes thanks to text editors, I'm sure we will arrive at a conclusion that today students work more.  

4. "Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college."

I must have poor critical thinking skills myself because I truly fail to understand how critical thinking and complex reasoning can be measured on "a traditional 0-to-100 point range." The authors of this article bemoan the fact that the business model has been imposed on academia, but they fail to notice to what incredible degree they have been infected by this very model. Good reading and good writing for them are about a number of pages. Complex reasoning is about a number of points. In short, numbers rule supreme.

5. "Expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude."

The idea that educators would somehow benefit from having even more helicopter parents buzzing around them is bizarre. Has anybody ever developed their critical thinking skills because they were afraid their parents might scold them in case they didn't? 

6. "Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades."

The idea that professors who demand little and hand out easy grades are the ones who get good student evaluations is completely misguided. If I told you what percentage of students I fail each semester, I think you'd agree that I'm anything but an easy grader. My evaluations, though, have always been fantastic. Students actually don't like professors who ask too little of them. In my teaching experience, the only way to get students to evaluate you highly is to demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter is profound.

7. "And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education."

Given that primary and secondary education in this country have gone completely to the dogs in the past couple of decades, this suggestion really mystified me. "Longitudinal data on learning outcomes" is the bureaucracy-speak version of teaching to the test. This model inflicted untold damage on our secondary education on a daily basis, but now we are to inflict it on higher education as well.

In short, even when The New York Times is trying to do something good, it ends up  producing the exact opposite.

6 comments:

GMP said...

Students actually don't like professors who ask too little of them. In my teaching experience, the only way to get students to evaluate you highly is to demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter is profound.

I completely agree with this. Students are not all lazy procrastinators -- I find that many (perhaps most?)of them appreciate being held to a high standard, as it's a sign that you respect them and believe in them. High standards are not a problem if the teacher is knowledgeable and the course is structured so as to give the students the tools/skills that will help them rise to the challenge.

50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester
a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing

I teach classes in the physical sciences and engineering. Our students have a number of liberal arts/humanities/social sciences requirements, and I presume they do most of their essay writing in these courses. However, once the students start taking more technically-focused courses, the amount of writing in the traditional sense certainly drops, but there is plenty of problem-solving and calculations (analytical and numerical) and challenging technical projects (group and individual); these are all critical skills for scientists and engineers. It looks like the authors dismiss any aspect of education that does not directly improve "analytic writing" (GRE speak) as a measure of critical thinking or complex reasoning.

profacero said...

OT ... or maybe on critical thinking skills ... cf petition to remove Stalin bust from D-day memorial: http://stalinstatue.com/

profacero said...

In a junior level course in a foreign language, they can read 7.5 pages per class period, if you want them to actually read it, look up words, etc. And discussing references and context for 7.5 pages is as much as I can get through in 50 minutes at that level.

profacero said...

And, continuing on re the junior level -- I might assign 15 pages. More, and you just get padding. I insist on well written, well wrought pages, not just random dumping of words -- that is why.

Clarissa said...

"these are all critical skills for scientists and engineers."

-This is exactly where the problem lies. The article's authors have a very narrow understanding of what critical skills look like and what college education should be structured around. Lots of reading and tons of writing is too simplistic a recipe for something as complex as higher education.

Clarissa said...

"And discussing references and context for 7.5 pages is as much as I can get through in 50 minutes at that level"

-That's exactly what my experience is, too.