One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! Brand New National Crisis!! (Part 1-The Students)

It’s time for another shocking report on higher education.

Students are lazy.

Colleges and universities are failing in their jobs.

That nation is in a serious crisis which we mush absolutely, positively do something about right now.

Tell me, did I hit all the high spots?

Let’s have a look at our newest national educational crisis.

From CBS Money Watch –

A new study suggests more than one third of parents aren’t necessarily getting a great return on their investment in their kids’ college education. Two college professors tracked more than 2,300 college students at 24 colleges and universities from their freshman year in 2005 through senior year, testing them along the way to gauge their critical and analytical thinking. According to the authors of a new book based on the study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 36 percent of college students did not learn much in the way of those cognitive skills.

But at least that was an improvement over the learning curve through sophomore year: In the first two years of school, 45 percent of college students had no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Now, let me rattle you.

There isn’t any crisis. Are the results discouraging? Yes, absolutely. But as a college teacher, there is nothing there that is even remotely surprising.

This is how it is supposed to be. There is no accident that these scores are the way they are. This is the results that were intended.

Let me explain.

Let’s begin with the students. They have been trained now for about one decade under an interesting program called No Child Left Behind. This took a complex multifaceted  phenomenon  namely our first twelve years of education and decided we could measure its success or failure based entirely on testing.

These students now entering our colleges and universities are superbly trained beyond any possible expectations … in testing. These guys are test takers par excellence. It’s incredible, amazing. When I am teaching, I can at any point say the word, test and every head in the room comes up. In some students you can see an adrenaline rush as the fight or flight reaction kicks in.

As a nation we can be proud of our test takers but there are a few hiccups here and there.  For one thing, anytime I ask a student their opinion, they become confused. No one has ever asked them that before. Why would I want to know their opinion? It’s not a test question.

Sometimes, I ask them to write five sentences giving me their opinion on a single subject during class. I have had students come to my desk and tell they were unable to think of more than three. These were not dumb students. They could write a hundred sentences if I asked them to recite facts. They could write thousands of sentences, if I sent them to the library to accumulate some facts and on a good day, somebody else’s opinion.

But by God, they can take tests. We made them that way. They have no opinions of their own but they can remember mine just in case it’s on the test. They can’t write or think with understanding but they know when confronted with three multiple choice questions to mark off the obviously wrong one and guess between the other two.

Why should they do well on measures of critical thinking? We never asked about that.

Their school system does not get one thin dime from whether or not they can appreciate a symphony, avoid a business scam, live like patriots or obey the law. They get money for high test scores. So, that’s what we get, students highly skilled at taking tests.

Why should you expect American college students to do well in critical thinking when it has been of little or no importance during all the years of their previous education?

James Pilant

(For Part 2, go here.)

7 thoughts on “One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! Brand New National Crisis!! (Part 1-The Students)

  1. Andrew

    I am in the same generation as your students, and I have to agree with you. You are spot on in identifying the problem.

    I have an analogy for you. My wife is a dog trainer. Her business usually revolves around basic canine obedience and correcting behavioral issues. With her personal dog, however, she trains in a sport called Schutzhund. Essentially, it is the sport version of K9 Police Work. The dog is trained in advanced obedience, tracking, and protection (bite) work.

    The problem that my wife and I have noticed is that, for the most part, the Schutzhund community has lost sight of its purpose. Most trainers do not train their dogs with utility in mind (the dog being able to actually work and protect his handler/property). What most trainers have done is to learn the tests that the dogs must pass for their titles, then they train the dog to pass the test instead of how to work in a real life situation. Without going into the sordid details, what you end up with is a dog who may look like a champion out on the competition field, but who must spend most of the rest of his life in a crate due to the dogs inability to live peacefully in the house and around the people that he was bred and “trained” to protect.

    This is analogous to the system of education that we are moving towards. Our system of education is losing sight of its designed purpose and is moving towards a mechanical system of pushing out students who have learned nothing more than how to adapt to take tests.


    1. That’s a good analogy. I have a son who is seventeen. Sometimes he comes home from school angry and he tells me they are going to be drilled in what to expect from the test. I have no doubt the moral lesson he derives from this.


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