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Research Review: College students not learning?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 19 January 2011

I just finished reading through this brief review of some studies about how much college students are learning.

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/18/study_finds_large_numbers_...

The main point of the review is that college students aren't learning because college classes have become much less rigorous. To me, this is one of the most serious problems in higher education along with the budget of course. But there are links to the budget here, because most legislatures and higher university admin want to maximize student throughput.

This problem has solutions, although some of it is outside the scope of a particular university policy, for example the "everybody deserves an A" mentality that suffuses all of US education policy ("No child left behind"="Every child left behind" when the educational bar drops to the lowest common denominator). But in terms of university policy, the two most important reforms are not using student evaluations to gauge performance, and not using student credit hours as a major part of the formula for returning resources to individual university departments. Student evaluations are generally negatively correlated with course difficulty, so professors have an incentive to water down curriculum with less reading and homework. Of course we don't want to give professors a excuse to be lazy and not try to keep students engaged; hence some type of performance evaluation is needed but it probably needs to be done by external auditors of some sort rather than students. Student credit hour formulas reflect the drive to make most state-run universities the "WalMart" of education. We don't get departmental resources in return for teaching; we get them in return for butts in seats. We are constantly pressured to grow our majors and class sizes. Doesn't this seem strange, when the whole debate about quality education in K-12 is about REDUCING class sizes to improve education? Suddenly you get to higher ed, and you have to INCREASE class sizes. Go figure....or not as the case may be...

I sent this message to the students in my Department as well, because it is important for them to recognize how student evaluations are functioning in the broader scheme of university administration. When filling out teaching evalutions, recognize that most professors take them seriously (especially the comments) and they have an influence on personnel decisions like promotions. So I ask my students to please take them seriously; they are not just red tape. Also, when filling them out, you should try to avoid the temptation to "like" a class because it is easy. Rather, rate your professor high if you are challenged, if you learn something, and if the material is delivered in a way that is engaging. If you read a lot, or do a lot of homework, while it may be painful at the time it means you are learning something.

For ESP students (and many other environmental studies programs are like this) in particular, you should congratulate yourselves on picking a major that is fairly rigorous in comparison to other options on campus. That is why our majors are successful at getting jobs and graduate school admissions. If anything, when choosing classes, pick the hardest ones you can that teach you the most technical skills. You might miss out on a little bit of beer drinking, but in the end you are in college to learn.

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