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November 4, 2011 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? The New York Review of Books has a lengthy review of several books about problems in higher education, pulling together the various causes that ultimately lead to universities failing to educate students.
Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect...And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.
posted by missix (80 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA.

I did not expect this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:21 PM on November 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Glad I went to prep school...
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:24 PM on November 4, 2011


I did not expect this.

Did not expect what?
posted by daniel_charms at 12:27 PM on November 4, 2011


> The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years.

Film Studies grad, here. When I was in school I made as many "would you like fries with that?" jokes as the next disaffected '90s student and bitterly condemned most of my coursework as mental masturbation, but with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight I now see that developing critical thinking and complex reasoning skills was the whole point and more important than, say, the comparing and contrasting of Italian neo-realist films and Fellini's latter works. The only problem is that you can't really put "critical thinking and complex reasoning skills" on your resume.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:30 PM on November 4, 2011 [21 favorites]


Great article, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 12:34 PM on November 4, 2011


There is though one problem with this:

Why are so many students from so many different countries continuing to come here for their education?
posted by Postroad at 12:34 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not in the slightest surprising that business and communication majors would score worse than those in the liberal arts and sciences.

First, the worst students -- those with zero intellectual interests, solely checking a resume box -- invariably elect to major in business, communications, and other "practical" majors that don't have "engineering" in their names. (Which his not to say that those majors are all bad students, by any means, just that bad students are overrepresented in them.)

Second, elite schools either don't offer practical majors, or limit them to the upper division (e.g. undergraduate business majors at Wharton or Haas). A significant chunk of the best students are excluded for this reason.
posted by MattD at 12:37 PM on November 4, 2011 [17 favorites]


Second, elite schools either don't offer practical majors, or limit them to the upper division (e.g. undergraduate business majors at Wharton or Haas).

Ironically, some consulting companies and banks barely even hire undergraduate business majors.
posted by atrazine at 12:41 PM on November 4, 2011


This is a great article. As usual, though, the question arises with such multidimensional problems: What is To Be Done?

Also: for those of you interested in differences of US vs UK universities - especially when it comes to teaching and bureaucracy, this makes excellent reading.
posted by lalochezia at 12:41 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


My univercity not fail me.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:46 PM on November 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


This thread inspired me to look up a Commerce major I knew in university, the guy who told me "I don't care, I just want to make lots of money" when I asked him what he wanted to do after he graduated (literally the last time we ever spoke). His LinkedIn profile includes the phrases "investment marketing," "$60 Million in Sales " and "promoted debt and equity securities," so it looks like he made it. Good for him. Not bad at all for a guy who once took a leak in my kitchen.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:49 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Look, the students are completely broken before they even get to me. I'm trying to help them develop critical thinking skills, but once you're 18 and never once had to think about anything ever, you're not going to get any of these skills now.

As an example of a helpless case, consider a recent quiz question which involved exponential decay, and the half life of polonium-210 (which is 138 days). Suppose we're starting with 4 mg. The question involved figuring out how much is left after 100 days or something. The student writes
"After 138 days there is 2 milligrans. [sic] Full life is 276 days."
I have no idea what "full life" even is. Some other student gets a negative amount of polonium. These people need to be thrown out of college, but instead we keep them around so we can take their money until they realize they stand no chance.

Universities are failing because they're being run too much like businesses, and their general business model is not sustainable.
posted by King Bee at 12:49 PM on November 4, 2011 [42 favorites]


I have no idea what "full life" even is.

Read the answer again: "Full life" = 2 x "half life." Duh.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:59 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, right. But at what point did this student pick up a concept of "full life"? I've certainly never said it. It certainly doesn't appear in the text. What is this person even thinking about? That's what I can't suss out.
posted by King Bee at 1:00 PM on November 4, 2011


The only problem is that you can't really put "critical thinking and complex reasoning skills" on your resume.

Yes you can - it goes under "Education" where you list your college degree.

The real problem is that businesses are demanding that colleges be vocational schools for middle-class office workers.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:01 PM on November 4, 2011 [23 favorites]


I'm going to propose that one part of the problem (and there's dozens of parts to this problem) is that many universities have admissions processes that are disconnected from the goals of the University.

To whit, critical thinking skills, complex reasoning, creativity, and other so-called '21st century skills' aren't the thing many admissions departments are looking for. They're looking to see if a student hit a certain number on the SAT (which can be gamed to some extent), to see if the student reached a certain GPA (which could have been reached through grade inflation and/or doing the work without retaining the information) and interviews or letters (which can be coached, fluffed, whatever). Since parents and kids get it in their heads that all they have to do to get into a good college is to reach certain numbers and be minimally charming (which is often, though not always, true), the pressure on high schools isn't to make students better critical thinkers; its to help the kids achieve the numbers they need to get into college.

If we're just grinding kids through high school so they can get into college, colleges are receiving tons of kids with virtually no higher order thinking skills. Change the admissions policies to favor critical thinking skills, creativity, collaborative skills, and real communication skills and, perhaps, more high schools will change to focus on those things instead of "drill and kill" style instruction.

Bah, sorry, this is a sort of derail, but many admissions processes are screwed up and don't do universities and colleges any favors.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:06 PM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


There is though one problem with this:

Why are so many students from so many different countries continuing to come here for their education?

Everything looks better at a distance.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:06 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


King Bee,

I don't know about American universities, but boy, can I attest to Canadian colleges being run for the profit of the college and not for the education of the student.

Plagiarism? Wave it away. As an instructor I got read the riot act for having the temerity to actually catch students who just ripped things off websites and signed their own names to the papers.

Original research? Who needs to perform such a silly task? It's too much work, you know.

Deducting marks for atrocious spelling and grammar, as per the course syllabus written by the department? Again, how dare I not give everybody a perfect mark, and how could I even have the nerve to take off marks when names and words were completely misspelled and when sentences followed sentence construction patterns that may have worked in Martian but certainly weren't acceptable in English?*

What kills me is that I was teaching in one of those "professional" departments -- you know, the ones that are supposed to prepare the students for the working world -- and during one of my discussions with the dean, I stupidly said, "I'm treating them exactly as they would be treated in the real world. I'm trying to teach them to produce work of the same standard that is going to be expected of them once they get out there." He answered me by saying, "this isn't the real world." It was one of the most frustrating moments of my life.

*Of course having complained about other people's spelling and grammar ensures that I've made at least one silly error in this post, but I can live with that and accept corrections when offered.
posted by sardonyx at 1:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I know it sounds a bit trite, but I look at college as a place that exists for two reasons: to be an avenue for the mastery of skills, and to be a place to develop and reward mature behavior.

As for skills, college shouldn't be teaching skills that kids ought to be developing in later years of middle school or earlier years of high school. It's a place for someone who already has a foundation in those skills to fine-tune their mastery of critical thinking.

And as for maturity, we could launch into a long discussion of how helicopter parenting and an overemphasis on self-esteem has led to generations of younger people who are unable and unwilling to confront their own faults and take concrete steps to fix them (or focus their energies elsewhere). It's okay to tell someone that they're bad at something. It's okay to admit that you have faults. Maturity exists in the ability to tell it like it is, and to be constructive in addressing problems you find. Nevertheless, "college" seems to be moving away from that. Let's make everyone feel involved and give everyone a shot.

Again, it sounds inconsiderate and trite, but I think the uncomfortable truth is that college is not (and should not be) for everyone, and that sums it all up.
posted by Old Man McKay at 1:12 PM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


@King Bee

Nobody had to teach the student about "Full Life" for him to figure that out on his own. Everybody taught him/her to think that way. Up until exponentials, almost all the student saw was linear functions and proportions (with the occasional polynomial for variety). The "Full Life" answer is just basic linear thinking that the student has been practicing for years.

138 days lose two milligrams. Twice many days, lose twice as many milligrams. So at 276 days, 2 milligrams have been lost twice, all the milligrams are gone. The isotope is completely gone. Full life.

It's not correct, but it is consistent with nearly everything the student has been taught in the years leading up to this moment.
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:17 PM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


yeolcoatl: Yeah, I get that much. But have the discussions we've been having about exponential functions gone completely ignored? Like, "Yeah, that professor guy is talking about stuff, but there's no way this is different from what I've seen before, so I'll ignore it"?

Is it maybe that the students think they already know everything there is to know, and that they're just gaining more "details" maybe? And that these details can be largely ignored?
posted by King Bee at 1:21 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The real problem is that businesses are demanding that colleges be vocational schools for middle-class office workers.

I'm not sure this is even true now. I've worked at retail places where nearly everyone had at least a BA, or more. The smartest one when back for an associates degree to be an electrician.
posted by drezdn at 1:22 PM on November 4, 2011


There is though one problem with this:

Why are so many students from so many different countries continuing to come here for their education?


Addressed in literally the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, of the link.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2011


King Bee - as a fellow math teacher, may I suggest that the flaw in your logic is the assumption that the students in your classroom are actually listening to what you are saying...
posted by wittgenstein at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


What I liked about the review (and what made me think it was worth posting in particular) was that the author didn't just complain about how lazy students are, or how badly prepared they are by high school, but rather looked at how the modern university environment and higher education system sets them adrift.

His point (I think) was that educating and guiding students appears to be far down the list of priorities for universities, and all the manifestations of that, plus the burden of tuition and loans, work together to send the message to undergrads that college is a place where learning doesn't matter, being a student doesn't matter, they don't matter-except as income generators for the university.

I do feel like the value of a U.S. education (at most universities, anyway) for international students is going to drop as the lower quality and standards become more more and more obvious.
posted by missix at 1:32 PM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


There is though one problem with this:

Why are so many students from so many different countries continuing to come here for their education?


Because our system of higher education is still *relatively* good, and you can obtain a quality education from it if you come in well-prepared and are ready to work. I live near an elite university, and the number of foreign-born students is amazing. It's easily 50% of the student body.

The problem is that many of these people will take their degrees and go home, either to work and then teach, or to teach. So you might expect in 15-20 years the quality of the higher education systems in places like China, India, and Korea will begin to consistently equal or surpass the quality of the US higher education.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 1:33 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


The real problem is that businesses are demanding that colleges be vocational schools for middle-class office workers.

I'm not sure this is even true now. I've worked at retail places where nearly everyone had at least a BA, or more. The smartest one when back for an associates degree to be an electrician.


Hot Damn, this. I've actually been quite tempted, as a MSc student in biochemistry, to drop everything go to a vocational school and learn to weld... everything. On top of there being work and decent pay I'd have a super cool hobby making deadly art.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:35 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Old Man McKay that is astonishing.
Ya know no matter how much I read about the helicopter parenting and the self-esteem generation and all that I find myself trying to dismiss it from a place of not wanting to fall into the classic trap of deriding the next generation down.

But I'll be damned if I'm not constantly running into data supporting it all being true. From friends that teach, from hiring and knowing people that hire, from just existing in the workplace.

I really did think it was going to be a false meme grounded in at best selective memory but it keeps proving itself.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:38 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


"After 138 days there is 2 milligrans. [sic] Full life is 276 days."

My 8th grade science teacher made this same mistake. I was aghast, but managed to correct her diplomatically. I hope.

I guess my point is that there are idiots everywhere and everywhen, but I agree with your final point that schools run as a businesses is a very bad thing.
posted by DU at 1:39 PM on November 4, 2011


Sorry I meant to address my comment to sardonyx
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:41 PM on November 4, 2011


The review, as well as this thread, are full of good points, but the one that always sticks in my craw is the trope "that colleges [should] be vocational schools for middle-class office workers" (as Slap*Happy put it upthread). The evidence is abundantly clear that "practical" curricula and programs in universities aren't as good as the liberal arts and natural sciences in helping students gain critical and analytic thinking skills, as well as a healthy dose of intellectual independence -- and these are, of course, the skills that are most important in almost any field. But it seems like no one -- university administrators, politicians, business leaders, media observers, you name it -- has the incentives or the inclination to actually stand up for the liberal arts and sciences; instead they get trashed as "impractical" in favor of things like business and communications, which don't even deliver the product everybody claims they want. It's maddening.
posted by a small part of the world at 1:52 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's maddening.

MADDENING? THIS ISN'T MADDENING! THIS IS SPARTAn philosophy that suggests its better to save money following a business model proposed by people who know nothing about education.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:05 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


My univercity not fail me.

That's unpossible.
posted by roquetuen at 2:18 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Change the admissions policies to favor critical thinking skills, creativity, collaborative skills, and real communication skills

If all we can do is take smart and critical people and certify that they are smart and critical, then we're not adding much value. This is what most of the top schools in the country do: selection and certification of the best and brightest.

But that's not education! If input = output, there's no value added! There's little evidence that students who go to Harvard are demonstrably better off than they would have been at a state school. So the test has to be: what can we do for the students who don't start off "Harvard-ready"? If we can't teach a student to be more critical than she already was, we're wasting our time. If the only students we can teach are the ones who are already smart and critical, then we'll never know if we're only sorting, selecting, and certifying: finding like-minded nerds and giving them good grades.

Even math classes don't measurably improve critical thinking, at least in the general population. That's because the teacher is the only one thinking critically, trying to figure out how to convey information to the bored, clueless students. That takes tons of creativity, critical thinking, and "collaborative skills." The students, on the other hand, just apply mechanical operations that have been drilled into them, and complain when there's a problem that requires creativity or insight. Of course, this doesn't apply to the people who love math, but the students who love math are already critically-minded.

What Arum and Roksa have shown is that there's only one kind of class that measurably INCREASES critical thinking skills: courses with high expectations from the professor, 40 pages of reading a week, and 20 pages of writing a semester.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:18 PM on November 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


As an international student, I came here for a liberal arts education. Most universities around the world still require you to declare a major when you're applying and only take classes that pertain to that major for the next four years. Two classes I'm taking are Astronomy and International Relations, a combination I would have never been able to apply for back home. (And both are blowing my mind!)

I know that most universities in the US are "failing" their students. A few of my friends are studying in huge state schools, and their comments mirror the article's. But I believe that a few places (and I'm not only talking about the Ivy League/Little Ivies) offer a far more academically stimulating environment than any college in all the other countries.

re: anotherpanacea

That's why I am an annoyingly insistent critic of Ivy League myth. When only already-gifted students attend a college, is it any surprise that they will remain gifted when they leave? That reflects nothing on the quality of the professors/TA.

I think one answer would be to look at the colleges featured on Colleges That Change Lives. Reading the descriptions of some of the colleges is like watching the Food Channel - this is what Plato's Republic must be like.
posted by facehugger at 2:25 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


If the sad student loan protests connected with Occupy ___ have reinforced anything, is that the higher education system, or much of it, is predation on the ignorant.

There were never "rules" or terms of social contract in the economy that said you should borrow $50,000 or $80,000 in pursuit of a non-STEM degree from a third-rate college. Any person who was remotely familiar with the job market would have told you at any point in the last 50 years that this was a fabulously stupid idea for the student, and the lender. The only beneficiaries from this is the school and its employees, who get the juice.
posted by MattD at 2:33 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


If the sad student loan protests connected with Occupy ___ have reinforced anything, is that the higher education system, or much of it, is predation on the ignorant.

This canard, or series of canards, has been dealt with elsewhere (even on MeFi!) so please stop repeating this nonsense when it has been thoroughly debunked. Based on your profile, you attended college two decades ago. The circumstances for current college students are demonstrably different, and radically so.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


joe lisboa: Sources, please? My perception is also that the higher educational system preys on the ignorant(/gullible/desperate) and I'd be interesting to see evidence to the contrary.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:47 PM on November 4, 2011


"Ironically, some consulting companies and banks barely even hire undergraduate business majors."

A lot of top law schools are pretty uninterested in pre-law majors. because it's not a real major

I teach community college, which is open access, and a lot of my students are motivated 2+2 students, or returning "non-traditional" students (that means full-grown adults), and are hardworking and determined. But a not-insignificant subset of my students have a butt in the chair to get passing grades to check off a box on a resume, and BOY HOWDY DO THEY GET UPSET when I ask them to do any real work. I had a student complain just last week that I was "going too fast" through some material that I had warned them the week prior I was going to whip through at top speed. I urged them to number their paragraphs because I put paragraph numbers on my slide-set with the pictures and diagrams and discussion questions and so forth so they could mark down where a particular idea came from if they wanted to go back to it later as I lectured on the general themes. Everyone else in the class was following just fine, and either jotting main ideas next to the paragraphs in question, or noting the paragraph number in their notes. He interrupted me mid-sentence to demand I slow down and explain exactly what was in the paragraph in question, etc. I told him to note the paragraph number and he could look it up after class. He said he didn't know what was in the paragraphs and I needed to explain them. I snapped that if he had done his reading before class as required, he'd know what was going on. HE LITERALLY STOOD UP AND WALKED OUT because he was so angry I expected him to do the reading, saying something about how he didn't have to read "boring shit" and it was unfair to expect it of him.

And the thing is, as much as I just want to relate that appalling behavior because it's appalling, he isn't really there to get a college education; he's there to get second-level retail or call-center jobs that, for whatever reason, are demanding college degrees instead of just experience. Which is aggravating. Making college second high school isn't doing anybody any favors -- taxpayers, students, professors, high schools -- anybody. Well, I guess it lets very lazy HR departments be very lazy.

From the article: "urban community colleges that run twelve hours a day" ...

Twelve? We now run 24/7. A couple years ago we added midnight and 3 a.m. classes for students who work second shift or whatever and are trying to get a welding certificate. I teach philosophy Sunday afternoons as part of a program for students who can only take classes on weekends -- two Saturday and one Sunday. Mostly parents who work two jobs during the week. Also a significant number of stoners. It's such a brutal schedule, my Sunday attrition rate is nearly 50%, but if you work two jobs to put food on the table AND have kids who need your time, it's damn hard to also give time to school. But an amazing number of students do, and they can get an AA in three years, I think, I don't only weekends.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [15 favorites]


The optimal solution for students presently is not a Liberal Arts degree, because they know that makes them unemployable (the common perception to the point of "fries with that" jokes), and they know they'll be exiting college with a ton of debt.

That's why so many students are in advanced vocational programs like medecine, engineering, law, pharmacy, business, communications, etc. These are all work training. Comparative Lit is not obviously so (even if it is excellent training for one who wants to work at a job that requires a fine mind).
posted by zippy at 3:21 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


An interesting article on education by Paul Tough that seems at least somewhat applicable. Pull quote:
As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:30 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


> The optimal solution for students presently is not a Liberal Arts degree, because they know that makes them unemployable

I beg to differ. Liberal arts includes both mathematics and sciences, both of which are quite employable. In particular, a math degree is in demand almost anywhere.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:34 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


college shouldn't be teaching skills that kids ought to be developing in later years of middle school or earlier years of high school.

How can they develop it when teachers are required to teach the answers to the state test?

What schools are turning out are little boxes that take information in and spit it back out on command. When these little boxes go to college, they do the same. When I see them in law school, ask them to do research and come up with an answer, they get frustrated. They can read information, but they don't know how to use it.

The cynical part of me wonders if that isn't exactly the point. Learning has become so distrusted in the US-- if it doesn't come from the gut, it's from the ivory tower liberal intellectuals who just want to see America fail. How better to control the population than by training them to take in what they're given and parrot it back? Rows of neat little educated boxes who all think alike.

Never before has The Wall seemed so apt.
posted by cereselle at 4:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Two things:

(1) The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years.

That looks bad -- really bad, actually. But is it? In the first place, if 45% made effectively no progress (does that mean they progressed but not to statistical significance or what?), then that means 55% (more than half) did make progress. That is, more than half of students learned or improved their critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills. That seems to tell against the idea that universities are just filtering out the poor thinkers. In the second place, we need a contrast to know whether this is really bad news for U.S. pedagogy. How do foreign universities compare (or is there even a comparable measure)? How did U.S. universities do in previous decades?

(2) I disagree with an unstated premiss of the discussion: namely, that universities succeed or fail by educating or by not educating. Rather, I think, universities are supposed to be primarily research institutions. Universities are places where researchers have absolute freedom to think about and investigate whatever they want to think about and investigate. Universities are primarily about discovery, not pedagogy. So, a university might be a horrible place to get an education and yet not be "failing" at all. I would like to see evidence about the research output of U.S. universities before saying that the U.S. university system is in serious trouble.

(Full disclosure: I am a professor, so I suppose the last point might be seen as a bit self-serving and defensive. On the other hand, my view of the university has been one I've had since high school, not one I developed after becoming a professor.)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:25 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


The further I get the more grateful I am that my parents and my high school curriculum made me think. It gets to be a habit. In undergrad, at a middling state school, the coursework wasn't easy for me but from my vantage closer to the end of my engineering career than the beginning, the value of being able to think critically and synthesize a conclusion from disparate points of view is obvious.

It's not at all clear to me that it's the university failing the student. You're supposed to get there armed with some critical thinking skills and then take what you can from the classes. Those critical thinking skills have withered or not been developed in far too many of the more recent graduates I have worked with, but it might not be the fault of the university. Instead, I suspect critical thinking isn't instilled early on in the majority of high school or even grade school students. Everything I read and most of what I hear from high school teachers tells me that critical thinking is disruptive to the vast majority of K-12 classrooms and there's the real sin. When thought is punished, kids quit doing it.

Waldorf, Montessori, some private school and home-schooled people seem to escape this trap disproportionately. The effects last. They're easy to detect. Ask someone to - for example - size the fuel tank for a 1 kW diesel generator set that will run for 20,000 hours without intervention. The really clever people will question the premise - 20,000 hours is more than two years and won't you want to change the crankcase oil before that? The answer you generally get is a little engine next to a huge fuel tank.
posted by jet_silver at 5:08 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Second, elite schools either don't offer practical majors, or limit them to the upper division (e.g. undergraduate business majors at Wharton or Haas).

I have had the "privilege" of teaching lower-division courses that are taken by the students who are trying to get into Wharton and Haas. It's "fun". (Seriously, though, for the most part they do a decent job of either having or faking something resembling intellectual curiosity. It's only at the end of the semester when they're not happy about their grades that it gets ugly.)

Oh, and I graded exams today. There were plenty of moments where I wondered how I could have said something ten times in front of the class and yet nobody remembered it. Why am I up there talking?
posted by madcaptenor at 5:10 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


What is the motivation to coerce educators into being lenient and give passing grades to failing, unwilling, crappy students?

It makes sense in public schools where there are no resources to recycle kids who can't or won't learn, but at the collegiate and university levels it only serves to degrade the value of the earned degrees of hardworking, goal oriented students. Such a shame.

Also, what made "going to college" so compulsory anyway, when so many can't afford it without outrageous student loans? Reminds me of Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs spiel. Not everybody was meant to go to college.
posted by snsranch at 5:18 PM on November 4, 2011


As an international student, I came here for a liberal arts education. Most universities around the world still require you to declare a major when you're applying and only take classes that pertain to that major for the next four years. Two classes I'm taking are Astronomy and International Relations, a combination I would have never been able to apply for back home. (And both are blowing my mind!)

This is really one of the best things about the American university, something that happens almost nowhere else. And it's the direct result of the structure of the American educational system that everyone bashes: the lack of specialization in academic classes before college, and the enforced homogeneity of teenage students. All grade-school, middle-school, and academically-inclined high school students take the same courses: lowest-common-denominator general-education classes in English, Chemistry, Math, etc. Some high schools have advanced placement programs, but nobody does the sort of tracking and subject specialization that European and Asian teenagers get. (Typically the only "tracks" are things like "mechanic" or "secretarial".)

So Universities are the first time students even start to think of different majors, fields, or interests. There's a message sent down from the college administration: don't specialize yet! Take lots of different classes, explore your interests, and become a well-rounded person! Between the actual for-credit courses offered in departments, and the smorgasbord of clubs, activities, cultural festivals, resources, and programs promoted by the North American university, the whole experience can be like an intellectual Disneyland with four years of tickets. Sure, you have to pick a major, but truly single-tracked specializing for your career can wait until graduate school.

(Another way to put this: primary & secondary school in the US is more like a minimum security prison, and your actual education, including basic critical thinking skills and essay writing, is supposed to begin at age 18.)

I don't think many students totally take advantage of those opportunities. As the article points out, a lot of people drink and play video games for four years, and a lot of the others (maybe the savviest ones) ignore the siren song of college "exploration" and focus on their adult futures. Many are there, as Arum and Roksa write, to act out "cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House," but just as many are there for the cultural script that involves sitting in jazz cafes wearing black and bloviating about Thomas Pynchon and indie art-rock; the latter thrive in the encouraging college environment, and even the former have more intellectual curiosity than they did in high school or will as working adults.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:18 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


As an example of a helpless case, consider a recent quiz question which involved exponential decay, and the half life of polonium-210 (which is 138 days). Suppose we're starting with 4 mg. The question involved figuring out how much is left after 100 days or something.

2.42 mg? It's been a while since I've done problems like this.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:30 PM on November 4, 2011


Hmm.

I'll bite, as without resorting to Wikipedia, I cannot remember how Half-life works (I have a vague notion that it works like Xeno's paradox, but I'm fairly sure that's incorrect, and my mind is saying "remember molar chemistry" but I've no idea why). Last time I studied physics / chemistry was in my teens, and I was well aware then that science is taught as "levels of lying". i.e. You'll be taught a schema that is an approximation of 'what really goes on'. Then you'll be taught another. Then another. Then another. Then, finally, when you're studying for a PhD, you'll realise that people are still firing particles in CERN because no-one really knows. As a student, it was both insulting, and lead to cynicism (I'm old enough to have been taught 'light is a wave and a particle' by using wooden trestle tables filled with water). Whilst I understand that this is a 'building block' type of learning, to allow the student to get onto the next plateau, it makes the entire process one of answering questions that you're being examined on, rather than actual learning. I made the mistake of learning a higher level of biology than I was studying at, due to interest, and got a 'B' grade due to it.

So, firstly, can a scientist come up with a way of teaching science that isn't constantly forcing students to forget what they just so patiently learned? Because it is not the way to get creative / intelligent students to stick with it - they stick with it despite the way its taught.

Onwards...

Why students aren't good at research, making notes and critical thinking?

They don't write essays. They're not taught to write essays, and they're not taught to organise information into a logical argument, with references / quotations to back up their ideas. They're not taught how to take notes properly, other than rote-learning linear reams of text. I happen to think that multiple choice is a scourge and a terrible way to learn anything. There's also a major problem that young adults are reaching University without necessary skills - I can remember (and this is at a top level university) the first year being more about making sure the 2:2 / 3rds were up to speed than actually engaging the 1st / 2:1 level - which lead to obvious ennui & drinking - because you could cruise.

They also now have the internet which is misused; rather than providing resources, it is treated as providing the answers (in many cases through plagiarism). Which is fine, if you've a high level of critical thinking and are able to pare apart language and writing to analyse the possible flaws and bias an author has, but if you take it as gospel, well.. you're stuffed.


The point of this? I don't understand Half-life at this moment in time (I've no need to) - but give me about 20 minutes, and I will. What's more worrying is the class of thought that can never understand it. That's the more worrying, and far more pertinent question.


Oh, and Jet_silver, that's a terrible trick question. You're taking a theoretical knowledge question [pure maths] and demanding it be resolved through physical "real world" modeling. Your answer has more valid answers than "change the oil": one could be "why would you require constant power for two years solid?" another could be "What happens in winter when the pipe freezes?" another could be "And who is checking the engine for wear & tear?" another could be "And if there's a tsunami, is the tank / engine situated in a place that isn't going to flood? If so, can we make it water-proof?" Terrible, terrible, terrible question.
posted by Cheradine Zakalwe at 5:40 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


you can't really put critical thinking and complex reasoning skills on your resume.

No, but if you can demonstrate it to me in a practical setting I will likely hire you on the spot. You have no idea how much those two things are lacking in the general workforce today.
posted by tgrundke at 5:43 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


You have no idea how much those two things are lacking in the general workforce today.

Not to mention the voting public...
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:56 PM on November 4, 2011


Sticherbeast: "I did not expect this."

Well, keep in mind that the worst prep program for the GMAT is ... a business degree. And that the "Collegiate Learning Assessment" is pretty much every assignment given to humanities students. It's not that humanities are more successful in life, just better on an arbitrary exam the author wants to heavily imply matters.
posted by pwnguin at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2011


Cheraldine Zakalwe, *any* answer that says the problem is stupid is the one I want. What I don't want, but what I get in at least eight cases out of ten, is such-and-such gallons. The other two get called back as long as there's (ahem) more interest in finding out how to get the desired result, than bitching about the form of the question.
posted by jet_silver at 6:43 PM on November 4, 2011


It's a problem of the times. Distraction is easy to come by and discipline hard to teach.

Now we have the infinite beck and call of the internet and video games and 500 channels of tv. In 1988 maybe you had a few nintendo games, 4 channels of prime time and a daily news paper. Ample time to get bored enough to study for your history final or practice scales on your guitar for a few hours.

Schools and parents need to teach discipline against the epidemic of distraction in modern times. And if someone has a minute, teach it to me too.
posted by j03 at 6:53 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]



The problem is that many of these people will take their degrees and go home, either to work and then teach, or to teach. So you might expect in 15-20 years the quality of the higher education systems in places like China, India, and Korea will begin to consistently equal or surpass the quality of the US higher education.


15-20 years?
My parents went to college in India (including graduate work) in the late 60s and early 70s and came here and have highly skilled professional jobs. My mom had to do her residency over, but that was because of US doctor accreditation rules, not her education.

I have a lot of family members in college in India and it's incredibly hard work to even get in. I think there have been recent articles about Indian students coming to schools in the US because they couldn't get in in India.

Also, a lot of people come here for education in part for the same reason people do anything, because our schools have brand value now.
posted by sweetkid at 7:56 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


By "here" I mean the US.
posted by sweetkid at 7:58 PM on November 4, 2011


I did not expect this.

Your bosses did.
posted by mobunited at 8:12 PM on November 4, 2011


I went to a fancy expensive little private liberal arts college; I got so much more practical science education than many of my peers who went to big-name huge-class-sizes universities. I also got the opportunity to have mentorship in learning more about philosophy, history, religion, and literature. I'm not intentionally a snob, but my grad school peers use TV/movies the way I sometimes use my classical education, and it's annoying when they have no idea what I'm talking about or misunderstand (because the allusion was bastardized by pop culture) and take offense.

What one gets from a post-secondary education depends a lot on what you put in, too.

As for "big name" schools; it's the opportunity to network, not necessarily the actual quality of education. As a foreigner who goes to an Ivy, one benefit is the perceived prestige of having gone to an Ivy when they return to their own country. Like one of friends observed; being a shy smart Asian at an Ivy is pretty much useless - the people who are good at being social and bullshitting will just use you to seem like they have skillz and parlay that with the being social and bullshit to succeed.

re: "practical" majors. Average LSAT Scores for 29 Majors with over 400 Students Taking the Exam.

The worst two performing majors were 29: Criminology and 28: Prelaw.

The top two were 1: Physics/Math and 2: Philosophy/Religion.
posted by porpoise at 8:46 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ok, after looking more closely at the numbers and thinking about it for a bit, the discrepancy is not that significant for a number of reasons. First, the spread in average LSAT score isn't that big (I'd like to see the standard deviation/gaussian distribution - and if there is a correlation with SAT/ACT scores with the LSAT score), and a lot of people who want to be lawyers but aren't cut out for it would be over-represented in a "practical" major, and that physics/math and philosophy/religion are typically more rigorous majors with strong focuses on logic, reasoning, and deduction and the ability to retain knowledge/memorize stuff is really useful for excelling in those fields.

But it's an amusing observation to me, nonetheless.

posted by porpoise at 8:57 PM on November 4, 2011


There's implicit selection in some of these statements: for example, of course students who have "courses with high expectations from the professor, 40 pages of reading a week, and 20 pages of writing a semester" will improve dramatically -- that workload indicates that they're in a seminar, or at least an upper year course with a small enrollment.

I teach between 90 and 120 students a semester, and I have no TAs. I cannot have each of these students give me 20 pages of writing a semester, because I would drown, or go mad, and I wouldn't have time to make any corrections, commentary and feedback. As it is, first year students do one midterm in-class essay, two or three short 1,000 word assignments (performance reviews, bibliography assignments, article summaries, book reports), one 5-7 page term paper, and a three-hour final, usually containing one or two essay questions and a bunch of shorter stuff. That's about 15 pages, tops, and it reduces me to gibbering. The upper year courses do more (10-15 page research papers, seminar papers, editorial exercises, annotated bibliographies, etc) but are often less onerous because they're self-selected and better prepared: these do meet the "40 pages of reading/20 pages of writing/high expectations" benchmark.

The LSAT measures a specific set of skills, not 'innate intelligence' or quality of prior education. Porpoise is right: any student who is taking philosophy has taken logic, and that's a necessary background for the law. And theology usually requires multiple ancient languages, which are equally structured. But engineers are well below History and English majors on that list and engineers are obviously well taught. Maybe only weak engineering students decide to try law school, or maybe engineers just don't think the way physics or philosophy students do, or maybe the exam implicitly requires information that they've never absorbed, or skills they've never exercised.

Also, two more things. I'm currently on sabbatical (Calloo! Callay!) and am luxuriating in idleness, research, and Not Marking! (*happy dance*) so this is backseat driving -- but we can't legitimately expect high school teachers to have taught students basic reasoning skills, because not all students are ready to make that leap before they hit adulthood. I'd love it if they'd teach them how to write, read, spell and punctuate -- or at least to teach them that writing, reading and mechanics are necessary skills that they can improve with practice, and then show them how to do that. But people take years to develop the ability to synthesize, analyze and think critically. Some students never get there, but I'm pretty sure very few get there before age 17.

And privileged doesn't equal smart: several of these books teeter on the edge of assuming this, and it's wrong as hell. Students from academic families and from 'good schools' often succeed, because they know what to expect and are very well prepared; others, from the same background, bomb. Too often we assume that poor or working class students who wind up in community colleges and for-profit schools aren't capable of learning what the students from private schools already know, or don't have intellectual curiosity or can't/won't benefit from purely academic studies. This is profoundly stupid. One of the things that has made the US college/university system so rich and successful is its openness: students traditionally did not need to be a member of a certain class or ethnic group to succeed.
posted by jrochest at 11:06 PM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


Sorry about the enormous rant!
posted by jrochest at 11:07 PM on November 4, 2011


Anecdotal point:

This is my first semester teaching at a community college. We're given great flexibility in designing a curriculum. I'd been tutoring at a writing center at the same institution for a time, so I'd seen all the assignments for Composition classes. So many of them were "write a three to four page paper analyzing two stories and using five research sources." FIVE research sources for a three page paper? Using academic sources, meaning PhD-written journal articles? Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. And the kids would do maybe three or four of these papers throughout the semester, and the ones who made it to the writing center were lost, lost, lost.

So here's me, the eternal idealist and full of the belief that I'm the smartest person in the room. So I assign 1 research paper, with a min of four research sources, it is a minimum of eleven pages, and they have the whole semester to do rewrites rewrites rewrites rewrites (I have some spare time and am only teaching one class, so what the fuck, I was determined to teach these students HOW TO WRITE in a reasonable way).

I started with 23 students. I now have perhaps ten. Two guys (they had been hating on me for a while in various ways, so it wasn't a surprise) revolted in my class yesterday after I asked one of them to stop talking while another student was answering a question. One stormed out, declared "THERE IS NO WAY I AM GOING TO PASS THIS CLASS GOOD LUCK" and as everybody froze. the kid said to his friend and other hater, ARE YOU COMING? and the two of them marched out.

tldr: The Shit that is Wrong with Education --- look not just to the universities, but to the public schools. These students have very little idea how to cope when they get past high school. At least, the kids condemned to failing public schools.
posted by angrycat at 6:29 AM on November 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oh, to add: There were a few students who were coming to class every day but not turning in a single piece of work, and obviously not doing the reading. I spoke to these folks, sent them notes a la WHERE IS YOUR WORK and most of them ignored it or assured me that it would be in next week, then nothing.

This one guy told me something I think I wasn't supposed to know: He said that he'd been planning to drop the class for over a month (and hence not doing the work) but his advisor had told him to wait until the absolutely last day to drop the class.

Why? If the student had dropped sooner, he wouldn't get as much financial aid money.

When I heard this I had a slightly queasy feeling. I felt like I was working in some weird foreclosure-crisis like scheme. So -- the students are getting money for classes that they are making no attempt to pass? And their advisors are telling them to do this?

Shiiiiiiiit.
posted by angrycat at 7:23 AM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I teach between 90 and 120 students a semester, and I have no TAs. I cannot have each of these students give me 20 pages of writing a semester, because I would drown, or go mad, and I wouldn't have time to make any corrections, commentary and feedback.

I fail to understand how this is evidence against the claim that you are not teaching those students critical thinking. This is an article about what's wrong with the current organization of the university. It's quite possible that part of what is wrong is that we are teaching 120 students a semester.

any student who is taking philosophy has taken logic, and that's a necessary background for the law.

And yet logic and critical thinking classes DO NOT MEASURABLY IMPROVE CRITICAL THINKING. That's the problem: the evidence doesn't always support our biases. And this isn't just armchair sniping: lately I've been teaching a lot of logic (though it's not my AOS) and I can't help noticing that there's a big gap between what we want students to learn in logic (identify assumptions! test validity! catch fallacies!) and what they actually pick up in the class, which is basically more linear rule-following and LSAT heuristics.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:29 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


jrochest: "But engineers are well below History and English majors on that list and engineers are obviously well taught. Maybe only weak engineering students decide to try law school, or maybe engineers just don't think the way physics or philosophy students do, or maybe the exam implicitly requires information that they've never absorbed, or skills they've never exercised. "

Given that the cited rankings are from 1994, and that the 2007-2008 numbers paint a different picture, I think there's some selection affects here. One way to figure that out would be to measure scores over time among programs, and see which ones correlate with GDP, growth in jobs for their sector, or other economic indicators. Or just compare the variance among programs and see if practical degree programs have more variance and attribute that to cyclical factors.
posted by pwnguin at 8:01 AM on November 5, 2011


Perhaps some of those who write seriously about universities could stop worrying so much about who gets into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and start worrying about the much larger numbers who don’t make it through Illinois and West Virginia, Vermont and Texas.

This section of the review bothered me, because it's the only reference to Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which I'm not sure the reviewer has even read. (Full disclosure: Karabel was the husband of my dissertation advisor, so I know him personally.) Anyhow, if the reviewer had seriously engaged with the Chosen, he would have learned that many of the practices that modern universities (including lots of public universities) still use as standard admission practices (e.g., alumni interviews, seeking "well-roundedness" in applicants for admission) were actually devised almost a century ago as mechanisms to reduce the number of Jews and other "undesirable ethnics" admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. This is still definitely relevant and indicative of how admissions practices are often not aligned with the goals that public and public-spirited universities should have.
posted by jonp72 at 8:20 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


angrycat, from experience, if you're going to get first-year community college students to turn in an 11-page research paper without major attrition, you're going to have to break it down into steps and make them turn in pieces over time. I require a research proposal by October 1 with a list of 3 possible sources. By the end of October I ask for an outline and a one-page summary of one of their sources. By Thanksgiving they have to give me a rough draft. Etc. In a different class I have them do a short paper on factual research relating to their topic before I have them start drawing out an analysis. Sometimes I have them do a two-page analysis on the first point in their outline. Anyway, the point is, if you don't have required assignments that FORCE them to turn things related to the paper in over the course of the semester, a HUGE number of them will just not do it until the last second, then panic and either not do it, or do it all in a night or two. You literally have to break down "how to write a research paper" into very small bites and walk them through every single one, as many of them have never done it before; students who went to challenging high schools and elementary schools probably started with the idea in fifth grade or so and gradually wrote their way up until this is just one more step, but a lot of my students have NEVER researched before, not even for, like, a diorama report on Florida. My assignment and tips/guide/help packet is seriously longer than the paper they have to turn in.

(Also, yes, one big grades tends to make students panic. Made students panic at my top-tier law school. Once you get used to it it's fine, but if it's their first one-big-grade class, they'll panic.)

"This one guy told me something I think I wasn't supposed to know: He said that he'd been planning to drop the class for over a month (and hence not doing the work) but his advisor had told him to wait until the absolutely last day to drop the class. Why? If the student had dropped sooner, he wouldn't get as much financial aid money."

The rules changed in the last couple of years. There's actually LESS gaming of the system under the new rules. But you just gotta let it go. The kids who are showing up to a class they don't intend to do anything for to get financial aid have a LOT going on in their lives that puts them in a position where "scamming" financial aid seems like a good idea. (And dropping below the hours threshhold only works once or twice, and they can't just drop all their classes -- usually they discover they've taken too many classes and can't pass them all, but if they drop one, they can't afford to pay back the tuition and books because the money's already been spent on things like food.)

We have an "academic warning" system and when I have a student who's showing up and turning nothing in and never talking, I use the academic warning system to put them on warning for "has not turned in any work." Then the deans and advisors are responsible for chasing them down, and there's a paper trail that they were just putting a butt in a seat and doing nothing in case financial aid wants to come after them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:23 AM on November 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee, you're right about all of this. One note -- I completely did the 'break it into stages' approach. The research paper is huge chunk of their grade, but I've broken it down into maybe six different assignments, with rewrites possible on all. Freak outs happened regardless.

And you're absolutely right about the academic warning system -- you have to take advantage of it by a certain date, and I realized that I should have taken advantage of it post-knowing about it. Lesson learned, though.
posted by angrycat at 8:37 AM on November 5, 2011


Sorry, that's *post the deadline for using it*
posted by angrycat at 8:39 AM on November 5, 2011


I haven't seen mentioned yet one factor I think is HUGE in the declining quality of US university education: over 50% of instructional faculty are now adjunct/part-time. As a tenured professor I have no problem putting real rigor in my courses because I have significant protection (insulation?) from student complaints that--I assure you--can appear by the dozens when a General Ed-type class requires any real effort.

Part-time people have no such protection. In many places, the easiest solution for an administrator receiving too many student complaints is to not re-hire that particular adjunct. Adjunct and part-time instructors do not have the academic and pedagogical freedom a tenured or tenure-track instructor does, and that can definitely affect teaching negatively.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


(Also, adjunct/part-time faculty are often not invested in students long-term--how could they be?--like full-time faculty are. Mentoring students in my field over several years and multiple courses is a big part of my teaching work, and absolutely key to success for many of them. The long-term and institutional investment necessary for a really effective faculty can't really develop any more. This problem is epidemic: as an illustration, I teach in the largest public university system in the US, collectively enrolling over 350,000 students. Since 1998, our enrollment has increased by nearly 20%. Tenured/tenure-track faculty positions in that same time have increased ZERO PERCENT.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:04 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


jonp72, I don't think the reviewer's said anything about Ivy-League admissions - his argument is that, regardless of the unfairness of that particular process, there is a larger, still-untold story in the way many students at any big university get hosed by the system. Look at the sentence right before the one you quoted:

Still, the dark hordes of forgotten students who leave the university as Napoleon’s army left Russia, uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard.

The answer to this problem surely can't be just "let more people into Harvard".

A lot of people have personal horror stories about bad students, but what seems to go unnoticed is that the poor environment of US universities may be turning even good students into indifferent students or drop-outs.
posted by missix at 10:16 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


angrycat: When I heard this I had a slightly queasy feeling. I felt like I was working in some weird foreclosure-crisis like scheme. So -- the students are getting money for classes that they are making no attempt to pass? And their advisors are telling them to do this?

I may have a few students who have similar plans. It's hard to know. (I've given up on sending notes to the ones who don't hand things in. Invariably I get some sob story and promises that they'll start coming to class/doing their homework/coming to office hours/whatever and then they disappoint me in the end. It's much better for my sanity if I focus on the ones who are actually at least trying, and at least doing the assignments, however badly; they can actually benefit from a little extra help.)

On a slightly less scammy but still unsavory note: at my current institution I noticed that a lot of students, when they think they're not going to do as well as they'd like in a class, switch to taking it pass-fail. They have the option to make this change up until the end of October (and a similar date in the spring semester), so it's clearly set up to allow GPA-saving like this.

But then I realized that these students would stop handing in work. How do you expect to pass the class if you don't hand in anything?

It turns out that failing a class you're taking pass-fail doesn't count against your GPA, while failing a class you're taking for a letter grade does.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:13 AM on November 5, 2011


I'm a graduate student at a large midwestern state school, and I'm teaching an intro class to about 60 students. I've been generally impressed with the quality of their responses to questions in terms of their ideas - many of these kids are thinking critically and are intellectually curious. What has been disappointing is the tools they have to express these thoughts and gather information. Very few of them are good writers, or even competent writers. When I lecture, or we have class discussions, very few of them take notes beyond the heading of my powerpoints. They have interesting things to say! But they just don't know how to say it, or how to get the information to answer their questions. I do what I can to rectify that, but my main purpose here is to get them to understand human evolution - not make up for 13 years of education they either never got or didn't retain.

I'm sure I'm part of the problem when I stand up and lecture rather than immersing students in socratic dialogue or something, but it is unrealistic to expect classes of more than about 25 students to be taught in a totally interactive way. I have ongoing discussion boards that they comment on, and we do intermittent class discussions, but I'm just not sure how to make a difference in their actual ability to learn things at the same time as I want them to learn the specific things I'm teaching.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:15 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


To piggy-back on ChuraChura's comment, many of my students' ideas are AMAZING.

Also, not as a point to anything, but one of my students has this lovely habit of making his last lines of his essays into some grand statement about what he thinks of the text. On "The Yellow Wallpaper" he wrote, "I have no idea why such a crazy person would write such a crazy story. This is entirely a new level of disturbia." That line had me cackling for a while.
posted by angrycat at 12:15 PM on November 5, 2011


(but he also had the notion that the narrator was tearing off her own skin and making wallpaper with it -- I mean huh?)
posted by angrycat at 12:17 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


at my current institution I noticed that a lot of students, when they think they're not going to do as well as they'd like in a class, switch to taking it pass-fail.

Really?? That's too bad. At my institution, if the pass/fail option is not given initially upon registration, that switch is allowable later in the semester ONLY by instructor consent. Which I have yet to allow.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:36 AM on November 6, 2011


LooseFilter, why do you not allow that switch? The way I see it, the student still has the same opportunity to learn whether they're taking a class for a letter grade or pass/fail; the grade is just to communicate how the student did to people in the Outside World, and they can choose to interpret a grade of P however they like.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:46 AM on November 6, 2011


why do you not allow that switch?

For a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that all of the courses I regularly teach are upper division major courses, and so a letter grade does matter, especially for grad school applications. But also because almost every time this has been requested (happens very rarely, though), the student was trying to avoid a low mark on his/her transcript because of poor work in the class, and I have never found that a compelling reason to change the evaluation metric mid-stream.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:44 PM on November 6, 2011


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