‘Academically Adrift’: Helping College Students Learn

Eric Gorski, in “Students Not Learning a Lot in College, Tracking Study Finds” (denverpost.com, 1.19.11), reviews Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 1.15.11). From the perspective of a K-12 educator who has done some work at the post secondary level, this study brings to mind a number of scattered thoughts that I will hopefully bring together at the end of this article.

Let’s start with a key quote from the review:

The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

One problem is that students just aren’t asked to do much, according to findings in a new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

I don’t see anything in this review that I would not have predicted based on my experiences decades ago while working as graduate teaching assistant in a major competitive university. While I was there, the chancellor emphasized that the faculty was to focus our time on research, not teaching. Teaching was something to do in one’s spare time. The required reading lists for courses generally focused the research area of the teacher and often had little to do with the title of the course.

Our local newspaper ran a story on this, citing a freshman English course called Major American Writers, a course that did not include a single author I had ever heard of, and I had by then completed my course work for a PhD in literature. Another course featured nothing but books written by other college professors, all of whom were part of a co-op with the professor teaching the course. The obvious purpose of the co-op was to help members sell their books by requiring each other’s books in whatever courses they happened to be teaching.

One of the courses in which I assisted was a science fiction course. It required a total of 10 pages of papers, a fraction of what I was later to require in any of my high school courses. One of the students who came to me for help told me that when he heard there were so many required pages, he tried to drop the course but couldn’t — he needed it to complete his graduation distribution requirements. He was a second semester senior math major with a 3.2 GPA, and he had only written 2 pages of papers in all 4 years of college combined. He was illiterate. I was later only rarely to see a high school or even middle school student in a remedial writing class with such poor writing skills.

Several years later a friend of mine on that faculty was warned that it looked as if he might be named teacher of the year by the students in the department, and he was told to do what he could to avoid that distinction. Being named teacher of the year was apparently taken as a sign that one is not devoting sufficient time to research. He was indeed named teacher of the year so the department took him off teaching altogether for the next year and put him on a pure research project so he could get his act together.

At a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the keynote speaker pointed out a fact that I thought should have seemed obvious. High schools are under tremendous pressure to educate and graduate anyone who walks through the door. Colleges take the cream of that crop, selecting only those who should be able to complete the level of work at their schools — and yet they graduate less than 50% of those students. He then gave a statistic most people did not know. Under the state’s system, each college is allowed to take in a percentage of applicants who fall below their admission guidelines. Those unqualified students, surprisingly enough, have a significantly higher graduation rate than the qualified students. He attributed that statistic to the fact that these students are often put into special programs as freshman, programs that focus on effective teaching. He wondered what would happen if the rest of the school ever decided to focus on effective teaching as well.

So what can be done, and what has this to do with educational technology?

Online education has the potential to create a real improvement in this situation. We can create online courses that are well designed, courses that utilize best practices and that actually teach the subject matter in the title of the course. These courses would be created by course design experts and offered to the faculty for their use. This will free the faculty up from the time required to create a quality course and allow them to pursue their all important research goals. Interactive diagnostic tools could be designed that will help spot student learning needs and help address them without the need for individual attention that is impossible in a 400 seat lecture hall.

You will not believe that an English teacher is going to say what I am about to say here, but essay grading software can be used to great effect. A few years ago I evaluated the 3 top brands of grading software. I went into that evaluation with a bias against them, but I was amazed at the quality of a couple of them. One of them failed my nonsense test — it accepted any good looking sentence, regardless of whether it made any sense, but two others did a surprisingly good job. These programs should not replace the teacher, but they can do a good job of helping with the drafting process, giving students pretty decent instant feedback on rough drafts. I would not hesitate to use one of them especially in a course I taught.

Of course, it would also help if there were some kind of education standards in place or a sense that college is a place for instruction more than faculty research, but we have to stay realistic in what we can hope to accomplish.

3 Responses

  1. Hijacking grading software for students’ use is a great idea, John.

    The same could perhaps be done with plagiarism detection software? At times, people don’t attribute correctly not because they don’t want to, but because they forgot to add the reference in their notes about other people’s works.

    But as to your general proposal of letting course design experts design really educational online courses and let faculty offer these products and go on with their research – isn’t that an ad absurdum provocation? I.e. aren’t you perhaps trying to rile academics into realizing that they must get involved in the educational aspect lest they lose control on their teaching – and hence of a precious feedback on their research too?

    • An ad absurdum provocation? Could be. I have been an educational reformer for decades, at all levels of education. That is not because I think everything is hunky dory.

  2. My experiences as a chemistry professor mirror what John says. I taught chemistry at the largest private university in the country (according to them). We had a PhD program in the chemistry department.

    I’ll begin with the comment on English composition. I was expected to produce a cumulative exam every so often. These are essays that I graded. One PhD candidate (not a random undergraduate!) was completely unable to form reasonable paragraphs or create any flow in his writing. His grammar and spelling also were poor. The essay was so bad that I finally stopped trying to intuit what he meant and just failed him.

    You can see the lack of literacy every day on billboards and in magazine advertisements as well as in headlines for online newspaper pages. Headlines!

    Moving on to the remark about research and teaching, I have to say that I had to create and teach all new courses every year, an impossible burden if you wish to do a decent job at it. I did manage to get some research done, but it was slow and difficult and lonely work. In the meantime, I was involved in things such as teaching a 350-student lab course and managing 22 teaching assistants.

    I was the second-highest rated teacher in the department. Both of us (the two top teachers) were denied tenure, but it was not due to lack of research but to lack of tenured positions, a very limited resource. We had two open in our department.

    I have a basic problem with our university structure. Universities get lots of money and fame from research grants. They then use their fame to get more students to come and pay outrageous tuition for poor teaching. Where’s the balance? After seven years, if you get tenure, then you can stop research if you choose, and the school can do nothing about it.

    However, most who do receive tenure love research and view teaching as a necessary evil. I know of many exceptions where a great research professor has also be a natural teacher, but they’re not a majority.

    The lecture norm is just putting out lots of stuff to memorize, answering a few questions and heading back to the lab where the real exciting stuff happens. Never mind that most professors will produce little or nothing of use to mankind with all of that research.

    John may be right about online courses helping to fix the problem. Yet, there’s something about interacting with a mentor that’s special. I cannot say whether or not that interaction can take place as well in web space. But I’m not an 18-year old student either. Used to interacting through text messages, etc., they may find it works just fine.

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