Friday, January 21, 2011

What Did You Learn at University?

What did you learn at university? Not much, it seems, according to the data in a new book titled Academically Adrift. The book is reviewed in the latest issue if Inside Higher Ed [Academically Adrift].

The data aren't surprising. The authors of the book show that 36% of students failed to learn anything after four years of college. Of those who did learn something, the gains were very modest.

Why don't students learn?
The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.
Who's to blame for this sorry state of affairs?
Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs of AAC&U, said that she viewed the book as "devastating" in its critique of higher education. Faculty members and administrators (not to mention students and parents) should be alarmed by how little learning the authors found to be taking place, she said. Humphreys also said that the findings should give pause to those anxious to push students through and award more degrees -- without perhaps giving enough attention to what happens during a college education.

"In the race to completion, there is this assumption that a credit is a credit is a credit, and when you get to the magic number of credits, you will have learned what you need to learn," she said. What this book shows, Humphreys added, is that "you can accumulate an awful lot of credits and not learn anything."
None of this is news my colleagues and me. Problem is, there's not much we can do about it. If we increase the rigor of our biochemistry courses and start demanding more of our students then the result won't be increased learning. It will simply mean that undergraduates will avoid biochemistry courses. In fact, that's already happening since the University of Toronto has developed dozens of new programs that will award degrees in the biological sciences without ever forcing students to take a rigorous course.

This brings up a question that I often ask my students. If university is supposed to be difficult (rigorous) then it's likely that some students won't be capable of completing a degree. In an ideal setting with expertly taught, challenging, programs, what percentage of the incoming class of students should expect to complete a degree? Clearly the answer can't be 100% because that bar is way too low. Should it be 50% as it was in many universities in the past? Lower?

The graduation rate at the University of Toronto has been pretty constant over the past decade at 73-75%. I assume that many of the students who drop out do so for reasons other than the rigor of university courses (e.g., personal problems, financial problems, transfers, changing goals etc.). Let's assume that this accounts for 15% of the drop-outs.

[Hat Tip: Uncertain Principles]


  1. I learned that trying to increase rigor in your classes results in complaints to the dean, waves of students dropping my class, poor end of semester reviews, and colleagues telling you to not rock the boat so the department can keep its admission and retention numbers up. Of course, that was at a small, state school where I had to teach algebra to non-science majors just so they could follow along in my chemistry class.

  2. Interesting. I will say that greatest thing I learned was how to learn independently. I know I was learning to learn before university, but this is where the techniques became mature.

    I also know that I have continued to learn to learn.

    The second thing I learned was great deal of context and history for my field - microelectronics / solid state electronics - okay physics. This the single most valuable knowledge that my professors imparted. It gave me confidence to apply what knowledge I learned in industry. In industry, there are those who, especially when you are young, want to snow you. I know, shocking!

    Third, I learned that to keep learning. That I would be most valuable to an employer if I could do do things outside my 'box". And that this would make a career much more interesting as well.

    Lastly, I learned to teach - an important skill.

    I am sure others learned something too.

  3. 1. Why don't students learn?

    Because there are too many students admitted that are simply not capable of learning at that level.

    2. Who's to blame for this sorry state of affairs?

    Blank slate egalitarians, chiefly among politicians and academics.

  4. Even worse is that most jobs don't require people to have learnt anything. So what's the point wasting time studying in undergrad?

  5. I know that I learned a great deal; then again I was a mathematics student and it is impossible to pass an advanced mathematics class without learning anything.

    But your comment on what happens if one raises standards is spot on. I know that if we toughen our calculus sequence, the engineering college will scream bloody murder.

  6. 2. Who's to blame for this sorry state of affairs?

    Blank slate egalitarians, chiefly among politicians and academics.

    I think you're off-base here. The culprits you finger really don't have that much clout, even if such people actually exist in any significant numbers. What I see, and have seen in universities over the past 30 years that I've seen of them, is administrators, high up administrators, who are chasing numbers because they're chasing money and promotions. Fewer grads overall, and esp. fewer grads compared to enrollment, means people think those administrators aren't doing their job. So you make easier classes -- more grads overall, and a higher percentage of enrollees graduate.

    Follow the money.

  7. There doesn't seem to be anyone inside the system with both an incentive and the ability to change it: student want their credentials, parent want their children to get their "degree", and faculty and administrators want their jobs. The institution is rewarded by the number of students who "succeed" (i.e., get a degree, any degree).

    About the only thing I can see that is helping, and only marginally, to counter this is the college ranking services, which at least have as a component a measure of the quality of the education; although even there it is quite indirect and attentuated, and dominated by advantage the top schools have of attracting the top students, who naturally will perform better.

    I suspect improvment can only come from pressure from the outside, but I don't know what that might be. I think DK hit on the big problem: the view that all people are equally capable, if only the university does it right. If that is the view of society, then any university that improves it's rigor to the point that it culls students will be viewed as a place that doesn't do it right.

  8. I agree with anthrosciguy. In my much less than 30 years in academia, I have seen all the administrative emphasis on "retention", graduation rates, and pass rates. A low pass rate is interpreted as poor teaching rather than rigor (note that either or both is possible!). Of course, money is the key, in a bunch of ways.

  9. One semester, while working as a TA, my PhD supervisor once quipped

    "We used to only have 20 or 30 good students a year in this course. We still have 20 or 30 good students. But now there's that extra 300 that bring the class down."

  10. As long as we're in hypothetical territory, how about this:

    And I agree with anthrosci - it's about money, not egalitarianism. It's amazing how prejudice blinds us to the more obvious and likely explanation!

  11. Indeed, very interesting. At Cornell the opposite trend has been going on for years, in virtually of the sciences. The students are coming in better prepared and are opting to take more rigorous courses. In fact, this year we did away with freshman year introductory biology. Instead, incoming freshman must choose one of three "core courses" – cell biology, ecology, or physiology – and then all must take biochemistry, evolution, and genetics. So many incoming freshman have already had two years of introductory biology (including a year of AP biology) that a decision was made to get them started in their concentrations/majors a year earlier. It makes our job as teachers a little more challenging, but so far it seems to be working.

    My own perception is that Cornell students will rise to meet the expectations of their instructors. The new "core courses" are definitely more rigorous than the old intro bio courses, but the test results, mean grades, and failure rates (very low) are comparable to those in the old intro courses. Admittedly this is may be due in part to the selectivity that Cornell can exert when admitting students (the ratio of applications to acceptances is somewhere around 10 to 1). However, in my interactions with students I have been impressed with how much they enjoy the challenge of a more rigorous curriculum. I think we may not give students enough credit for their engagement with their studies and their desire to become genuine scholars.

  12. Cornell can select its students, and then the students admire quality.
    In my university, we have to take all students that come along, administrators talk about the university's 'market share', or what the lingo is, of students, and the government funds the universities according to student number and / or course credits given out. Result: too many students, low quality, overburdened staff.

  13. I blame my parents. I'm in my 50s so that would be today's students' grandparents. So many of them worked as labourers and came from immigrant/peasant backgrounds and stressed the importance of having a university education so we wouldn't have to "dig ditches" like they did. They established the meme that we go to university in order to qualify for a higher-paying job. Over time this evolved into the idea that anything that isn't directly job related is a waste of time. Learning to think and do research and find out things for the sake of finding out things is a silly, 'elitist', non-productive pursuit.

    I know that's over-simplifying but I think it's part of the problem.

  14. I think the problem is in the teaching methods-- not enough research is put into higher education pedagogy. And the research that is currently done lacks a valid method for measuring the desired outcome.

    It would be helpful to know what these authors used to measure learning in university students- Was it the ability to remember facts and figures from courses- or the ability to critically analyze a piece of literature.

    Also, I don't think the problem is that we are admitting to many students- I believe, similar to Larry, students are scared off by harder courses. I believe this is a systemic issue.

    Take this Anecdote- I contacted a possible supervisor (a very good researcher in my field) about graduate studies- he took a look at my transcript and told me he was concerned with my grades on advance level neuro-pathobiology courses, and physics courses, and the overall level of achievement as indicated by my transcript in my senior years-- My overall GPA is first class standing, and I took those courses as extra credits- although I knew the grades would still show up on my transcript and count for admissions averages. I knew I did not have the required background to take them and knew they would be challenging, but more importantly I knew this knowledge would be helpful to me as a graduate student in my field. I was able to achieve an above average standing in those courses but not a first class standing. I am pleased with my results--but it is clear that if I chose easier courses my "level of achievement" would be much better.

  15. The problems are many. My undergrad group started at about 100 and only 15 got a degree. Of these, about 5 were students who entered the program before us and were failing. So they graduated one or two years later. Genetics was a big killer. They would put our class (future biologists) together with the future biochemists. The prof would sit at his desk after each test, and read the marks from bottom mark to top mark. "Mr Lopez! Zeeeeerooooooo!" He would draw smileys with the zeroes. Only a few had marks above 80.

    Anyway. Where I work now? No way I can do that. Not the reading aloud the marks (I know that is "politically incorrect"). I can't fail as many. The standards are much lower. No way around. I did not study at an elite university. The profs were undergrads over there. Here we have PhDs but we shall not fail too many students. What the heck? So, the math courses are forced to become easier, thus we inherit problems later on. Students complain if you ask them something that they "learned" two years ago (how do you expect us to remember? they say angry at our stupid expectation! Two full years? Who remembers anything after two full years?)

    Ahg! You get the idea.

    Who is too blame? A system dedicated to not "harming" little students feelings. You shall not make anybody feel inadequate even when they are. Here they start at a very early age. You can't tell a student that she did something wrong. No sir. So, how then are they supposed to build character and the discipline to overcome obstacles?

    ... ok, ok, I just shut up now.

  16. I'm 66 now. My first degree was an Honours B.SC in Physics in London, England. Depending on how well one did, one got a First, Second (upper or lower), Third Honors or a Pass.
    So more rigour caused lower grades or harder work (because class averages were published).

    Does that help nowadays?

  17. I'm just wondering...

    is the spelling mistake "What did you learn at uniVERITY?" an intentional joke, or just painfully ironic?

  18. Thanks for pointing out the typo in the first sentence of my posting. I fixed it.

  19. Did the authors compere the results of private institutions vs public institutions?

    I notice a reference to Cornell. Is that private?
    Is it going against the lowering standards?

  20. I wonder if the underlying problem is with public universities.

    If an educational institution is private, then perhaps they will have an incentive to uphold their reputation since their reputation directly affects their ability to remain in business as a private institution.