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24 Jan Posted by in Academics, Guidelines | Comments

The recent study, widely publicized, on the apparent failure of college education to effect much improvement in the capacities of many students has created an understandable stir. There is certainly reason to worry about students who may slide through without much effort and without much gain. A historian might note of course that the problem is almost certainly not new. Just a few generations back a “gentleman’s C” was regarded as respectable in many quarters, denoting fairly modest intellectual commitment along with lots of recreational activities. But this perspective is hardly a justification; and quite probably the demands of global competition call for more these days.

An obvious response to the study risks sounding excessively defensive, but there are a number of reasons to be somewhat skeptical. The book relies heavily on a particular type of test – which we considered using at George Mason, but rejected as inadequate – which seeks to measure the results of college education by comparing to student capacities on entrance. The most obvious problem with the test is that the juniors and seniors who take it have no particular reason to want to do well – it’s a “low stakes” exercise. Indeed, it’s often hard to induce them to take the test at all. The result: real lack of clarity on what achievements, if any, are actually measured. The researchers seek to embellish the test data with observations on the many students who are not assigned long papers – but there’s actually pretty good research that suggests that a series of short papers improve writing and reasoning more, for many students, than the 40-page assignment the authors apparently prefer. Claims about small amounts of reading assigned are perhaps more troubling, though they don’t correspond to most of the course requirements I know much about. Finally, even the data cited suggest some real gains by many students, if not, usually, transcendent intellectual transformations. It’s not clear we face the problem, in many colleges and universities, that the authors claim.

Still, the call to take some stock of what’s being achieved is never entirely amiss. At Mason, using somewhat different data, we were startled a few years back to realize how many of our undergraduates claimed they were not being adequately challenged. Quite possibly, some of us, as instructors, had not reacted to the improvements we’ve been experiencing in student quality. Attention was warranted, and more recent surveys suggest in fact some noticeable gains in student perceptions that they were being stretched a bit. We still have some ground to cover, particularly in providing our students more uniformly with opportunities to participate in a meaningful project. One hopes that our developing Quality Enhancement effort, in focusing on undergraduate research and creativity, will move us forward on this front. And of course we now routinely seek to assess more fundamental areas, such as writing skills, where we so far gain some sense of student progress.

And I do think there’s at least one other area that warrants attention, one that relates a bit to the recent commentary but has additional dimensions as well. We still face too many classes, mostly the larger ones, where student failure and dropout rates are unacceptably high. Some of these results surely reflect inadequate student commitment, the kind of effort to sail under the radar that might produce a sense of little ultimate gain from college overall. But some are a result of deficient teaching structures that we really need to work on – and here too we are seeing some new commitments from a number of our key academic units.

If the evidence of a real crisis in academic outcomes is a bit dubious, a certain caution is timely in a period when there’s pressure to assume that resources can be cut or graduation accelerated without damage to student capacities. And many universities, like George Mason, can and will take a look at more careful studies to see where teaching and learning can be improved, where local deficiencies can be addressed with measurably, if sometimes modestly, beneficial results. Most of the faculty I work with are truly committed to advancing student learning and reacting creatively when assessments suggest gaps in results.