Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Failing to challenge or playing a bad hand?

I'm late to the party with this.  There have been some very interesting discussions about Academically Adrift, particularly the primary recommendation of more rigor.  See, for example, this post at the Duck.

Now, I'm not generally inclined to disagree that higher education needs more rigor.  I think if you look at the way I teach my undergrads (see here), I'm not very shy on that front.  Whatever else my student evals say, they never indicate that my expectations are too low.

But nonetheless, if only because I'm a congenital contrarian, I can't help but wonder if this is the wrong diagnosis.   I know well the challenges associated with trying to force the average student to think critically, and how woefully unprepared many of them are to do so.  Even so, I found this NYTimes story just stunning.

I wonder if we might profit from asking ourselves whether the problem is that colleges and universities are doing their students a disservice, or whether the move towards a belief that every student should go to college despite the fact that in some cities, such as Rochester, less than 5% (!) of high school seniors are prepared to do college level work, has forced most universities to lower their standards.

This is just one little anecdote, that perhaps means nothing.  But I once gave a pop quiz that consisted of one MC question.  It was designed to be free points for showing up that day, when so many students had cut class to start the holiday vacation early.  The question was something like:

In article "Some Title", Author x argues:

a. some independent variable is positively associated with some dependent variable.
b. this is not the answer.
c. seriously, this is not a trick.  You should circle option A.
d. this isn't correct either.

I don't remember the title of the article, the argument of the author, etc, but options b - d appeared in pretty much exactly that language.  Of the 20 students in attendance that day (out of 50), 2 got this question wrong.  That's right.  Fully 10% of my students could not identify the correct answer to a question that, in no uncertain terms, told them the correct answer.

Maybe this isn't a problem at the Ivies.  I don't want to overgeneralize.  But a lot of colleges and universities rely on tuition dollars and government assistance more than endowments and alumni donations, and so face very real pressures to provide a college education to every taker.  Maybe my students are atypical.  Maybe NY state is atypical.  But maybe we need to consider that there is a fundamental tension between the desire to make college education accessible to all and the desire to preserve high standards in the academy.

But I would love to be wrong about this.

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