Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rarely is the Question Asked: Is Our Professors Teaching? Part III

Randall Stephens

Guess what? Many college students do not learn analytical and writing skills during the four years they spend in college. Students don't study. Courses are not demanding. Collaborative learning does not work like professors think or hope it does. . .

Or, so argues a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. More and more students--more likely parents--are throwing down the cash for college. But the authors ask: "are undergraduates really learning anything once they get there?"

Last week the Chronicle highlighted Academically Adrift and the authors' controversial findings. (David Glenn, "New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps," Chronicle, January 18, 2011.) Arum and Roksa tracked 2,000 students at 24 four-year colleges. Thirty-six percent of these students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment essay test showed no significant improvement from their freshman to senior year.

Arum and Roksa certainly have their critics. The study asked too few questions about collaborative learning, say some. Others say that the study, limited in scope, should not challenge the whole undergraduate enterprise.

But, overall, the findings should give us pause. "Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa don't see any simple remedies for the problems they have identified," writes David Glenn in the Chronicle. "They discovered more variation in CLA-score gains within institutions than across institutions, and they say there are no simple lessons to draw about effective and ineffective colleges." Still, Glenn points out that business and education programs in Texas colleges require that students "take only a small number of writing-intensive courses." The path of least resistance.

Are students today less likely to major in history when the workload is high and the perceived payoff is so low? ("So I'm going to spend all this time reading primary and secondary works just so I can be unemployed after four years of reading, writing, and reading some more?") Five years ago Robert Townsend noted in Perspectives that: "Information from the latest Department of Education (DoE) report (pertaining to the years 1997–98 to 2001–02) suggests that in the competition for students, history lost ground while the total number of undergraduate students at colleges and universities grew quite quickly." I haven't see more recent data, but I can't help but think that there are fewer majors today then there were 20 years ago.

Perhaps history departments could do a better job of emphasizing the portable skills students learn in the major. Why not stress in clear terms that history trains students to think critically and to write clearly? I have my students read Peter Stearns excellent essay, "Why Study History," for this very reason. They learn that history students gain: "The Ability to Assess Evidence. . . . The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations. . . . Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change." Stearns ably shows that "Work in history also improves basic writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential." I've also had students read Heather's excellent post on this subject from our blog. She noted: "History is the study of how and why things happen. What creates change in human society? What stops it? Why do people act in certain ways? Are there patterns in human behavior? What makes a society successful? . . . . When you study history, you’re not just studying the history of, for example, colonial America. You’ll learn a great deal about the specifics of colonial America in such a class, of course, but you’ll also learn about the role of economics in the establishment of human societies and about how class and racial divisions can either weaken the stability of a government or be used to shore it up."

Sounds like a cure for the "I-learned-little-in-four-years-of-college" blues.


Unknown said...

Interesting article. To bring it back to the post's title, the first thing I checked was the NYU Sociology Department website. To his credit, Professor Arum is listed as part of the instructor rotation for both the department's intro course and their research methods course.

Not that I think it the issue should be completely laid at the feet of faculty. A lot of the time, I look at students and wonder whether they realize that in a couple of years they're going to have to start supporting themselves. But fostering that sense of entitlement goes way beyond the classroom. As a parent, I'm a little put off by the fact that my kids are not even allowed to try to make it on their own. FAFSA does not give them that option. Unless they get married. Really.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

This is a discussion worth having regularly. It also seems that students need to be told "out loud" what they are learning. That's true for General Education history classes as well as for history majors. They don't realize the skills they are developing. If we'd be a bit more aware ourselves of all the ways our students can use their skills outside the classroom (which requires a bit of engagement with the non-academic world and valuing it), then we could just say a few times a semester "You're learning to read a text closely here, to see what isn't being said as well as what is, to judge the assumptions of the author" etc and to point out that this is a useful skill that many jobs require. Unfortunately, it's all about marketing, and I'm not sure we teachers are all that great at marketing.

Steve said...

I do not beleive that the students are the only ones at fault here. Most professors have the choice to either teach writing and do what high schools did not, or focus on developing historiographical skills reguardless of writing ability. Most of my professors chose to focus on historiography. I would have preferred writing. As I am going to be a teacher, I don't give a damn if my students learn historiography. I want them to put a verb in a sentence correctly. Besides, how much better off would the world be if people could articulate an idea clearly and intelligently?

Randall said...

I'm sure there are a combination of factors that go into this whole mix.

Are there generational issues related to student motivation or interest? Is grade inflation worse now than it was in 1990? Are students reading and doing less homework in general than they did in the 1980s?

hcr said...

Well, in response to Lisa and Steve, I do articulate why my students are studying the material I've chosen, and I do explain exactly why they need to learn to write a coherent research paper. And at my state university, my courses promptly fall into two halves: one that tries really hard and seems to learn, and one that blows off the class entirely.

It brings me back to the problem I was chewing on the other day: how do you reach the students who don't want to learn? Perhaps, in the end, you can't.

And Randall: I think there's something worse than you identify, and that's that anti-intellectualism became the establishment position in America in the 1980s. Now we have an entire generation that has no concept of the value of learning except as an entry pass to a job. It's now a huge deal to get a student who wants to make an effort just to learn, but in the rather backwoods town in which I grew up in the 70s, it was the norm. Not because anyone was going to be a professional, but because it was a cultural conviction that everyone had to be able to learn in order to have an interesting life and to contribute to town issues. I despair every time I hear "will this be on the test?"

Perhaps, as I say, there are some students you can never reach.

(It's gray and snowing here AGAIN-- maybe that's what's making me so grim today.)

Anonymous said...

Colleges aren't preparing students for the real world. Instead, they're "teaching" students about theories and trivial nonsense when they should be teaching students how to use Microsoft Office products and how to do stuff that they will actually do on-the-job. It's sad that colleges don't even attempt to prepare students for the workforce. Eliminate general education courses. That should be covered in k-12. Not everyone should attend college. I like this article because a lot of people only talk about how the cost is the only problem. Well, the quality of "education" is terrible.

Anonymous said...

where can I get one of these funny certificates?