Colleges need to make sure students are actually learning – latimes.com

February 2, 2012 at 6:59 am 5 comments

I’m pleased to see this question being raised in the national media, but I’m not sure that we have any way of answering the question. Do most Americans care if students learn in higher-education? Or is certification enough, and is flexibility and cost (what the non-profits excel at) more important than quality of learning?

But look again at Obama’s criteria for “better”: holding down costs, graduating students and helping them get jobs. There’s no mention of whether the students are actually learning anything.

At most institutions, including my own, we have no idea if they are. Sure, professors assign grades in their courses, and students are asked to evaluate the classes they take and the professors who teach them. But neither measure gives us any real answer to the $200,000 question: What knowledge or skills are students acquiring in exchange for the skyrocketing tuition they pay?

And we now have some alarming national data to suggest the answer: not nearly enough. My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn’t significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas.

via Colleges need to make sure students are actually learning – latimes.com.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  February 2, 2012 at 9:17 am

    And their future employers will notice this, how?

    Reply
  • 2. richde  |  February 2, 2012 at 9:27 am

    The Arum/Roksa data is devastating and there are other studies that put Mark’s question into even sharper focus. Grade inflation is rampant for example (nearly two-thirds of all grades are As and Bs). So not only are students not learning anything in their gen-ed courses, they are rewarded for it. I’ll have a post at

    http://innovate-edu.com

    to talk about it.

    BTW I have to assume Darrin is joking — employers have already noticed.

    Reply
    • 3. Darrin Thompson  |  February 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

      I’m half joking. I suspect if you fed the employers a group of employees with super powers and a group of controls the employers’ hires would be a random selection from both groups.

      My experience has been that most employers can’t distinguish between problems with the systems they create and geninue problems with people.

      Systemic problems in business require systemic changes. Employers only ever cajole and/or set finanancial performance goals, which make their systemic problems better and worse essentially at random.

      So even if the student quality problem was fixed, the current leadership and mangement pratices of business, at least in the US, would waste their efforts.

      It’s good news for the colleges. No hurry. You can take your time on the fix.

      Reply
  • 4. Bonnie  |  February 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Most employers of software developers, at least in the NYC area, give pretty extensive technical tests to job candidates, largely because they don’t trust that candidate HAVE learned anything, either in college or on the job. Because hiring managers have no background in test development, the tests are often pretty ridiculous – but the practice does tell me that employers care. These days, it is common to have to take a screening test of, say, Java skills before even getting invited in for an interview.

    Reply
  • 5. Mark Miller  |  February 6, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Interesting criticism.

    I think there’s a disconnect, though, between his use of CLA test results and his data about how many students have written papers more than 20 pages long. It seems to me he’s making the same mistake he accuses Obama of making: confusing input and output with learning. Yes it matters how long students spend studying, developing the capacity to go in depth. It also matters that they develop different ways of thinking and perceiving. Even if the same students that took the CLA had gotten high stats in reading and writing, that wouldn’t necessarily correlate with them being able to write a report for an executive that had value (which does not necessarily go with length). The students are given documents for the test, but in real life I think these students would be expected to perhaps research these documents on their own, and find more information not in the set to create a competent report. Research is itself a skill. I didn’t see Zimmerman talk about that.

    His argument would’ve been worth more consideration had he looked seriously at what skills and thinking are necessary to do the kind of work he says higher education is supposed to support. Perhaps he would’ve come to different conclusions either about his own role, or about the goals he thinks universities are supposed to support.

    Reply

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