17 May 2011

Lack of Quality in University Education

Over the weekend Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa has a provocative, and I think spot on, op-ed in the New York Times on the poor quality of university education in the United States. They write:
Over four years, we followed the progress of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities. We found that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.

In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
The op-ed summarizes arguments found in their recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Inside HigherEd provides some more details:
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.

The research then goes on to find a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:

Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.

Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.

Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.

Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

In section after section of the book and the research report, the authors focus on pushing students to work harder and worrying less about students' non-academic experiences. "[E]ducational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not . . .
Meantime, and perhaps paradoxically, the US is facing a shortage of highly skilled workers:
Even with unemployment near 9%, manufacturers are struggling to find enough skilled workers because of a confluence of three trends.

First, after falling for more than a decade, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs is growing modestly, with manufacturers adding 25,000 workers in April, the seventh straight month of gains, according to payroll firm Automatic Data Processing Inc. and consultancy Macroeconomic Advisers. The Labor Department's jobs report on Friday is expected to show moderate employment growth in the overall economy.

Second, baby-boomer retirements are starting to sap factories of their most experienced workers. An estimated 2.7 million U.S. manufacturing employees, or nearly a quarter of the total, are 55 or older.

Third, the U.S. education system isn't turning out enough people with the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment, jobs that often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits. Manufacturers say parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.
There is a lesson here, are universities listening?