Field of Science

Lack of Rigor in Higher Education

NPR is rather late to the mark in continuing news about a study that found an awful lot of college students weren't learning much, at least as judged by some standardized exam, and that a lot of students found college easy and not much work. Now there are several thing the Phactor can say about this. One is the problem with student evaluations, one of those feel good, empower the people, ideas from the 60s, and who couldn't see or predict the problem with this. The Phactor had one particular faculty member for a course in his 1st and last semesters in college as an undergrad. He was an infuriatingly arrogant and a total curmudgeon, and he's still difficult to deal with on a good day. Given the opportunity to evaluate him, his head would have been put on a platter. But given the perspective of another 10 years in the business, and what a difference. He was a pain in the ass, but a brilliant instructor, years ahead of his time, and uncompromising in expecting your best. The basic lessons really influenced my thinking, although generally the Phactor is liked pretty well in comparison. In junior colleges, many small liberal arts colleges, and in parts of many large public universities, student evaluations reign supreme, and if you push students too hard, make them work too hard, and generally demand a lot, you'll likely be looking for another job because the lower-life forms masquerading as administrators place too high a value on student satisfaction. As noted by Richard Arum, "There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high." Duh! This is called pandering. Fortunately, and this is not to instill any complacency, but the study did find exceptions among the sciences. The biggest adjustment shock for junior college transfers into biological sciences is the amount of work we expect and how thoroughly we expect they will know the material. Q. "Will you give us a study guide for the exam." A. "You have a detailed syllabus of the topics we've covered, you have the reading assignments, and you have the lecture notes. Why do you need a study guide." Q. "To tell us what to study!" A. "All of it." Q. "All of it?" A. "Yes. See how simple that is?" This is a student who is used to teachers who say, oh, but you don't have to know that. Then why the hell did you cover it? This is a student who is not trying to learn, but merely studying to just pass the exam. A soft underbelly certainly exists in academia; low rigor people in low rigor disciplines. The Phactor won't point any fingers but studies at our institution showed that we had one department that gave an average grade of 3.88 out of 4 for every student in every course in their curriculum. And they were all from Lake Woebegone? A colleague from a prestige school in N. Carolina whose name rhymes with Luke, was called in to a dean's office where it was explained that all our students are above average, so why are you giving students Cs? They didn't do anything and richly deserved to fail, but I was a softy in grading them because I'm only a graduate student. So much for being impressed high GPAs from "elite" schools. At least at our big public U's students are still free to fail, but with so much emphasis on retention and graduate rates, expect push back. Dean: "We want to readmit student 824, and they got a D in your course." PP: "Correct." Dean: "Will you consider changing the grade?" PP: "What? Why would that ever be done?" Dean: "So we can readmit them." PP: "You mean to falsify their academic record so your decision to readmit doesn't look so bad?" Dean: "I can go to your dept. head." PP: "Can they change my grade for that student?" Dean: "No, but maybe they can make you change your mind." PP: "Not very likely." And you start nominating them for jobs at other schools so they can demonstrate the Peter Principle and become someone else's problem.
My upper division majors courses often average right around 3.0, a B, above average, which you might well expect among 3d and 4th year students taking elective courses, but they still must earn it. The bottom line is simple when faculty abdicate responsibility for standards the game is lost. And people, and here you may insert politicians/trustees/administrators, think perhaps tenure isn't important; maybe you can guess why.

3 comments:

Greensparrow said...

I was home schooled through high school, and when I started college I was shocked to find how EASY it was, how incredibly low the standards were. It was pretty depressing actually. I considered dropping out until I was able to mentally seperate the two tasks before me: One, jumping through the silly hoops required to get a piece of paper, and Two, learning. Sometimes, with a few marvelous teachers, the two overlapped. Mostly, I got the hoop jumping over with as soon as possible, so as to spend the rest of my time learning as much as I could. If you are motivated, you can learn a lot in college -- but college sure ain't going to give you much of a push in that direction if you aren't.

santi said...

nice post

The Phytophactor said...

Greensparrow said...
"If you are motivated, you can learn a lot in college." And that's always when it not only gets easy, in a different sense, but fun.