A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education

The Chronicle for Higher Education has released a fantastic article (which looks to be the first of a series) on the current issues surrounding the undergraduate education system. What has prompted such an article? In addition to the ever-present statistics that Americans have more college degrees and perform more poorly on math/science exams than their foreign counterparts, and the statements by President Obama that the time has come to revamp and renew our education system, there is a recently-published tell-all book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Written by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (members of the sociology departments at NYU and the University of Virginia, respectively), this book analyzed over 2000 students at more than 20 undergraduate institutions; taken into account were the transcripts, entrance tests scores, and writing samples of the students. Additionally, a test created by the authors was administered at the beginning of the students’ first semester, with a follow-up exam at the end of their second years.  While certainly more specifics would be nice and relevant,

“45 percent of undergraduates demonstrated ‘no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills in the first two years of college,’ and 36 percent showed no progress in four years.”

“For example, they found that 32 percent of the students whom they followed did not, in a typical semester, take ‘any courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week’ and that 50 percent ‘did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the course of the semester.'”

The Chronicle ran with this, and offered their own list of reasons why the undergraduate system is so terrible. Below are some comments on the items on their list (I would include my own items in addition; however, this article will be long enough):

1. Lack of Student Preparation. This is abundantly clear. Many college students are not fully prepared. Certainly maturity has always been an issue (there is frequently a steep learning-curve when it comes to development of effective study-skills); in addition purely-educational deficiencies are present (see some of my previous articles on remedial classes and the University System of Georgia).

2. Grade Inflation. This is a scary one–and is a problem in more places than just colleges. Let’s take, for example, the 4.0-grading system. This is a very simple system:

  • 4.0=A
  • 3.0=B
  • 2.0=C
  • 1.0=D
  • 0.0=F

There is a problem with this system; specifically, it no longer exists. Many high-schools award points higher than 4.0, which seems completely worthless, “made-up,” and arbitrary. Moreover, many colleges are now adding +/-‘s to this system–which of course just makes things like state-wide scholarships (see HOPE comments) much more difficult to dole out in a “fair” manner. As will be mentioned in later bullet points, colleges are also running more and more like businesses. Ergo, in order to keep students/parents (aka customers) happy, colleges must make sure the kids keep their scholarships, and stay on track towards graduation.

3. Student Retention. This goes under the category of “regardless of whether it’s right or not, colleges run like businesses.” Colleges do not make money if they do not have students. Colleges cannot attract “desirable” students if their statistics show they cannot keep them, or carry them through to graduation. This is actually where liberal arts colleges have the advantage; many liberal arts colleges have core curricula comprising of 8-16 COURSES that all students regardless of major must complete. These classes can be so specialized, and so “personalized” that they will not transfer. So, what ends up happening? The freshman who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up is encouraged by their advisor to get their core credits out of the way; if by the end of that time the student decides he wants to go to an engineering school instead, TOO BAD! He has just taken 1-2 years of courses that will not transfer. At all. Really, it’s a brilliant system; too bad it sometimes does not work to the benefit of the student, and too bad it sometimes does not work towards an overall “positive educational experience.”

4. Student Evaluations of Teachers. I don’t really think students realize how much colleges really take their opinions to heart on this one. Sites like “Rate My Professor” in general are not taken seriously (such sites were created specifically for the angry and vindictive); however, most colleges have an anonymous system for evaluation offered to every student in every class. The evaluations of a teacher could make or break their career. Especially if they do not have tenure. Especially if they are teaching courses that traditionally have low teacher evaluations. If you can teach a class that typically has pitiful teacher evaluations (usually it’s a “service course”; i.e., a course taught by one department specifically to satisfy the degree requirements of another department, like “business calculus”) and get something other than drastic evals, CONGRATULATIONS–if in addition you have published 1-2 articles a year for 2-4 years, you may be eligible for tenure!!!! Otherwise, you’re just like “everyone else” or worse. So, what frequently ends up happening–specifically with grad students, and post-docs, and pre-tenure professors (essentially, anyone who doesn’t have a “real job” yet)–is teachers will pander to the students. Let’s drop the lowest grade on (fill in the blank). Let’s make office hours at 10PM-2AM the day before the test. Let’s (tacitly) say we’ll never give a grade below a 6 out of 10–just to make sure no feelings are hurt. It quickly becomes ridiculous.

5. Lack of Uniform Expectations. This is certainly a problem. The idea is that the “service courses” are frequently taught by graduate students, and instructors, and post-docs, which makes the turn-over rate for instructor-on-record rather high. Therefore, it is quite possible that one person one semester will teach a course completely differently than another person in another semester. What do I mean by “completely differently”? In courses like math and foreign languages, it could mean different number of tests/quizzes per semester, and different grading systems, and (maybe) different emphasis placed on different sections of the textbook. In courses like English or psychology, I shudder to think of what this means. Essentially, it all comes down to a lack of consistency, primarily due to the fact that people a department doesn’t care about are teaching students a department doesn’t care about. But this is just the problems within a department. Take any two departments at a given university and the grading systems will be incongruous. For example, I have heard through grapevines that while a certain English department shudders at the prospect of “awarding” a student a grade below a B, a certain math department still functions under the assumption that a C is an “average” grade.

6. Enrollment Minimums. Since this is traditionally a problem for tenure-track professors who have not achieved tenure, I thankfully have not had to deal with this issue yet. Essentially it is a special case of “pandering” aka “colleges run as businesses” aka “student evaluations.” The idea is that if students do not have the desire to take the courses offered by a given professor, then what good is that professor to their program? In order to keep your job, you must fulfill some teaching requirement; to fulfill a teaching requirement, you need students. If because of your grading reputation, or your teaching reputation, or the general reputation of your sub-specialty students are not excited about the courses you teach, then you’re screwed.

7. Time Constraints. Despite all the pandering (or maybe because of it), time can fly really quickly in courses. Frequently, there are “departmental syllabi” for a given course–this is especially common with the service courses. Theses departmental syllabi discuss what topics and/or what chapters of what book should be covered in the semester. If they are more automated, they may also specify the minimum number of tests must be administered on which topics. If the course is EXTREMELY automated, the exams may be written by “academic professional” (i.e., someone other than the instructor-on-record) to be taken in computer labs outside of class. In either case, there is little freedom to spend gross amounts of time on a given topic. Material must be covered, and it must be covered yesterday. This is clearly also a problem with pre-college classes, so perhaps it’s like 1. and 2. in that sense.

8. Curricular Chaos. Assuming the institution/course in question has a uniform syllabus or any kind of “outside” structure, this is basically a rewording of “the intersection of #7 and #5.” For the complement of this set….brrrrr….it gives me the chills.

9. Demoralized Faculty Members. Not too much more needs to be said at this point. Anyone who’s been in this system for more than a year or anyone with half a brain is going to become depressed and demoralized rather quickly by these truths.

==============

References

  1. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Perfect-Storm-in/126451/
  2. http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/academically-adrift/
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