Saturday, January 22, 2011

Critical reflections upon the apparent lack of critical reflection in college classrooms

News Flash!: Students now learn (almost) nothing in college!  In their book Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa PROVE that academe is failing our kids!  More evidence, if you weren't already convinced, that the U.S. is sinking fast!  Ohhhhh when will it all end...?!

I'm being sarcastic, but that doesn't mean I'm not also concerned and perplexed.  I could SWEAR my students were learning something, including critical thinking skills.  Hmmmm.

Below are some bullet points posted on the Chronical of Higher Education website, followed by my comments:
  • “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students”
OK, yikes! But I have to say I don't see it.  There are some dullards, yes.  But there are relatively few.  Of course, it is harder for me to tell about change over time.  Perhaps students have been becoming lamer and lamer at such a slow rate that I never noticed!  And now I am giving out As to students I would have given Cs to in the early 90s?!
  • less than one-half of seniors had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester;
Ummmm.  OK, guilty on this one.  I have a 50-student class (a few years ago it would have been a 35-student class).  I am NOT going to grade 1,000 pages of student-generated writing.  Unless you count essay exams, in which case I guess I WILL grade close to 1,000 pages of student writing (and it will seem like 100,000 pages).  My other class has about 70 students--they write two 5-6 page papers plus an essay midterm and essay final.  But still not 20-pages really.  And I have a TA for that one.
  • scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning;
In terms of effort spent, I have no idea.  But it is a scary thought.  Here is where I'd really need to see a specific school (like my university) compared over the years.  Are students at MY university significantly lazier compared to ten or twenty years ago?  Or can this trend be explained by the steady increase in numbers of students into higher education--more students, but on average less prepared students? Or....?

Inside Higher Ed's article summarizes some findings pointing to "best practices":
  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
My hatred of study groups is finally validated!
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
Geeeeez! OK, who is assigning less than 40 pages of reading per week?  I am embarrassed when there is a week on my syllabus that is less than 80, and I aim for 100 pages.   Of course, we all know that 40 pages in one book is the same as, say, 80 in another.  This especially true for big textbooks (those can sure take me a long time to read).  And who can't read contemporary fiction faster than, say, a calculus textbook?  I'm not sure I like this measure--danger of comparing apples to oranges across disciplines.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)
As a professor in the liberal arts, I'm a bit relieved by that last finding.   I can't comment on those other majors, as I know very little about them.  Though anecdotally,  I can say that I sat on an MA committee in one of those schools/majors and watched them vote to approve an embarrassingly bad thesis, reinforced by an even worse defense.

Finally, as I touched on above, if we stick to this notion that everyone should go to college and continue to move in that direction, wouldn't that predictably lead to results like the one in this study?  One of my ex-grad students is now a professor at a university most people in the U.S. will have heard of.  State school, good football, but not exactly known for its academics.  He told me that he has had students who are mentally retarded--he clarified that it was beyond a learning disability; they were actually mildly mentally retarded.

Let's just leave it at that for now--at least on my end.  What do others think about this?


    1. "Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students."

      I dunno. Calling this "high expectations" seems a bit misleading and judgmental. I would argue that assigning less reading and asking them to read VERY closely--even read something more than once, gasp--can yield stronger results than making them jam through a big chunk of text.

      But that may be because I believe, for example, that teaching poetry is not only difficult but important and worthy of slower movement. So there are weeks when I've only asked them to read, say, 10 pages. But covering, say, 10 pages of TS Eliot's poetry and theory and *understanding* those 10 pages? Or 10 pages of Derrida? Or Foucault? I think "high expectations" is a fitting description there.

      Certainly I think there are courses where lots of reading has to happen: in the novel course I'm teaching right now...we're reading well over 200 pages a week! Though frankly I'm secretly regretting those 200 pages because I need to read 100 myself before tomorrow. ;)

    2. Poetry is a great example! I'd say 40+ pages of most poetry would be way too much. But good poetry would certainly generate critical thinking, right?

    3. Basically, and as you might guess, I put no stock whatsoever in students' self-assessments of learning or anything else. It looked to me like there was way too much of that in the book. Even external studies are suspicious (who sponsored it?) unless they're designed extraordinarily well. Seriously, who gets to decide when learning has happened? That's the real issue underlying these books, teaching to the test, etc. Heaven forbid teachers get to decide...

      Also, I don't give a damn what anyone thinks profs should be assigning until it is acknowledged that the current job description contains a untenable number of demands. If people want better teaching, universities have to stop putting research first. Period.