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?


  1. At this very moment, across the nation, university after university is preparing a detailed, poorly-reasoned reply to this editorial.

  2. One major problem is our lousy approach to evaluation of faculty teaching. We base it heavily on student evaluations of faculty, which punishes demanding teachers and encourages feel-good, dumbed down teaching. Junior faculty who graduated from elite schools in highly competitve educational systems already think American students are lazy and stupid. Then we encourage them to treat our students as lazy and stupid.

    But also, the US needs to move towards a nationally standardized system of student assessment, K-16 and even beyond. And we won't.

  3. I would like to point out that your last item (about a shortage of math and science skills) isn't directly related to the study you're discussing. Reading 40 pages a week and writing 20 pages are not typical of most science and mathematics courses, in my experience. Rigor in those courses may be declining over time as well (I don't know), but quantity of reading and writing are not good measures of the rigor of science and math courses. I can tell you that it can be quite difficult sometimes to read just a few pages of a complex mathematics or physics text.

  4. We used to start in High School separating students into groups headed for specific career goals. At least for the schools my children attended that has largely ended.

    It was quite common for someone to graduate high school prepared for an exciting career in Automotive Repair, Carpentry, Plumbing or Masonry.

    But alas, we largely abandoned that in favor of an almost universal goal of having our children prepared to do absolutely nothing upon graduation from high school other then go to some college or university to get a 'post high school' vocational education.

    As more and more vocational education gets shoved into the university systems it's not surprising that the core curriculum begins to resemble the core curriculum of the vocational high schools of 40 years ago.

  5. Following on Mike above: Why am I not surprised this editorial was written by two sociologists? No mention of math or science. How many courses that depend entirely on reading are truly rigorous? It can be done, but how common is it?

    Calculus is rigorous. Organic chemistry is rigorous - and P-Chem more so. Nothing involving Ernest Hemingway or Napoleon or MLK Jr is rigorous. I got my degree in 1995, and the only courses that were rigorous were my science and math courses.

    And needless to say, no women's studies course - however 'rigorous' - will prepare you to program and run a CNC milling machine.

    You want more rigor on campus? Dump the Sociology dept. It's not a solution, but it's a good start.

  6. It should also be noted that more and more students are going to college, which pretty much necessitates watering down the curriculum.

  7. Re: rigor; the parallels between the Thayer method, and Ericsson's work on developing expertise through deliberate practice (which requires critical feedback) are interesting.

  8. Well, let us see...

    A) We have administrators more interested in "retention rates"" than education,

    B) We have students graduating high school and coming into college without many basic skills,

    C) We have college professors who have little or no interest in being glorified high school teachers imparting the basic skills the students should have mastered years earlier,

    D) We have fewer students, seemingly, mature enough to take their own education seriously,

    E) We have large sections of the university community (particularly the humanities) having a hard time coming up with reasons why it might be important to learn what they know...

    Other than that things are hunky dory.

  9. Gerard Harbison #2, the UK has something rather closer to the "nationally standardized system of student assessment" which you suggest than the US does. It doesn't help: dumbing down has been quite extraordinary over here.

  10. In the last year, the University of British Columbia held an experiment. Two sections of a first year physics course were both given instruction on the same material in electromagnetism. One was given in traditional lecture form by widely recognized effective lecturer. The second was given a novel interactive method of instruction. The student were placed in small groups; asked to read the material and then given access to exercises and instructors to ask questions of the material. The interactive course method provided much better results. This was regarded as novel.

    In my physics course work in the 60s, courses normally had three parts. We were given traditional lectures, labs and problem sessions in which we could interact with TAs. Even then the TAs told us that the interactive sessions were the most important part of the course. The lectures were pointless and tedious. The material was in the text book anyway. The labs were fun and not much more. In the problem sessions, we could learn how to do physics from the TAs, They were by far the best.

    So I find the emphasis in the report on reading to be surprising. The best way of learning a subject is to do it. The best way to learn how to do proofs in math is to do proofs. The best way to learn physics is to do physics.

  11. I read a book a year or two back called "The Ego Boom" that I don't remember as being necessarily great but it made some interesting observations. It was making the case that the education system has moved away from a focus on achievement and towards a focus on self-esteem. The problem with this is that it isn't inculcating self-esteem, it's inculcating narcissism, though I'm sure that has plenty to do with other cultural/media factors as well.

    Forty years ago if you asked a kid what they'd be when they grew up they'd say "Fireman" "Nurse" or "Pilot". Nowadays the most popular answer is "Famous".

  12. Matt @6 makes a good point as well. Here's an interesting article by Richard Vedder from the University of Ohio: http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/the-great-college-degree-scam/28067

    "approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. "

    As a columnist at the Reason magazine blog put it:

    "...the stats show people who probably wouldn't have gone to college in another era, responded to incentives like cheap loans and went to college in the '90s or '00s, graduated at 22- or 23-years-old, and then got the same gigs they would have been qualified for at 18."

  13. I have two children at university in the UK, and oddly (against my expectations) they work harder and do more complicated work than I did at Oxford 78-81. All reports from my contemporaries at Oxbridge (ok, the elite end) whose children are now there confirm this.

    I'm sure the massive expansion of intake has dumbed down the 'bottom' end, how could it not but the top end is secure in my experience.

  14. As Jonathan notes, we do have a standardised system in the UK, with assessments at various ages. The problem with that, is that the original idea was to assess "core" subjects, eg Maths & English. This, however in the eyes of many educationalists, devalues other subjects, so they had to be added to the list of subjects to be tested on. This ends up with more teaching to pass the tests. However, the idea that one should actually "Teach" children is abhorent to the lefties who populate the education system. Run this alongside the idea that discipline needs imposing on children & you get the train wreck that it education in the UK.
    Dumbing-down is the name of the game, with a prizes for all, because competition is bad mentallity has infested the teacher training sysytem.
    Every year, we see the number of Grade A passes in our National exams increase, offered as evidence that our children are getting cleverer. Then you look at what subjects these are in. The number of children taking foreign language, maths, hard sciences (ie don't have the word "science" in the title! ;-) ) are falling, the numbers taking "Media Studies", "Social Science" and such are increasing. Schools are ranked according to how many children pass exams and at what grades. Thus the numbers taking difficult subjects fall, as they will reduce the overal scores that a school achieves.
    We've then had the idea that 50% of all children should go into 18+ education. This represents probably a 10-fold increase on the numbers 30 years ago. This lead to an explosion in the numbers of "Universities", many of which offer a dire range of courses, in the aforementioned "Media Studies". Interestingly enough, when I was applying for university to study Chemistry, over 30 years ago, my fall-back choice was the imfamous University of East Anglia. They let anyone in who could write their name in the correct box on the application form.
    Even when I reached uni, the lecturers at that time bemoaned the reduction in the mathematical abilities of the students. For many courses now, the first term at least, is spent trying to get students up to a level that they can start work on their degree, filling in the gaps that an inadequate 16-18 education has left.
    The latest brainwave, is that children shouldn't be allowed to leave the education system at 16, as they can now, but must stay on until they're 18.
    Yet more children who hate school and do all they can to disrupt the class they're in, will thus be kept in schools.
    Why? Well, it'll keep the numbers recorded as being not in work, education or training down.

  15. dljvjbsl -10,

    "I find the emphasis in the report on reading to be surprising."

    And how are you supposed to learn to read critically and write logically and understandably unless you read and write a lot? Entirely too many science majors dodge this part of their education.

  16. re 15
    DeWitt writes

    And how are you supposed to learn to read critically and write logically and understandably unless you read and write a lot? Entirely too many science majors dodge this part of their education.


    Science students are taught the necessity of rigor in their math and science courses. Math courses in the first two years were, in my experience, about teaching the need for and the methods of rigor despite their ostensible content. Science students receive much training in this form of critical thinking. They can gain exposure to other forms of critical thinking from their interactions in the intellectual life of the university and since there doesn't seem to be much intellectual life for undergraduates, they don't.

    So, it is my opinion that you are describing a much more serious problem for universities. They proclaim themselves as providing an intellectual life. From my experience at least, there is precious little intellectual life at universities for undergraduates. Critical thinking can come from intersections with others who have knowledge outside of one's particular specialty. One of the most interesting conversations that I had at university was in my fist year explaining calculus to a high school friend who was studying English. We both gained the insight that our subjects had different world views. English majors would not get that for a Rocks for Jocks course and physics majors would ot get that from being baffled when being presented 'The Waste Land" in a lecture with hundreds of other students.

    I remember in later life taking a brilliant engineer through the National Gallery in London. She had never been in an art gallery before. He eyes opened up like a little girl at Christmas. Maybe if universities would offer something like that.

  17. “The number of children taking foreign language, maths, hard sciences (ie don't have the word "science" in the title! ;-) ) are falling, the numbers taking "Media Studies", "Social Science" and such are increasing.” Yes, and that is why China and India are going to beat the Western World so badly in the coming years…..and I reckon that most of their students, who are so lucky as to get the opportunity to study, put in the hours as well :o)
    In Denmark, on the most sought after degrees (such as law and medicine) the government decide how many lawyers and doctors are actually needed and then create places at the universities according to this. So if they decide that Denmark need say 600 people with a law degree per year then they create 1000 places, the 1000 people with the best average score get in and they then get rid of the 400 worst performing students after a test that you take following the first year. In the UK law degrees seems to come with packets of cereal, which I personally think is rather cruel. A law degree isn’t worth much if you can’t get a trainee contract, which you can’t get unless you got a good degree from a good University so effectively loads of people waste their time studying law in the UK.
    Interestingly enough I had lunch with an elderly American scientist (physics) last Friday and he was very excited about mentoring two extremely bright young scientists, saying that it was frankly a joke that he was mentoring them as they were so much better than he was and that he was majorly impressed with the stuff that people were taught at University these days…..but then that is probably just evidence that the top end is doing fine.

  18. Roddy #13, what subjects are your children doing? In the subjects I am familiar with (hard sciences) the Oxford course has been massively dumbed down (from a peak difficulty which I guesstimate to have occurred around 1975-1980), reflecting the lack of knowledge of current students. Try comparing the old style entrance examinations to the new style entrance tests; the difference in maths and physics is incredibly obvious.