One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! (Part 2-The Colleges and Universities)

Part 2 of my series on American Higher Education. (Part 1 is here.)

For those of you who are new to these postings, I include the brief recap below.

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.

Let us continue our search for answers. In part one we discussed why students have little experience in critical thinking. Now we take up the question of the colleges and universities.

A simple questions – How can we expect students to learn critical thinking skills in an environment where teaching undergraduates is often little more than an annoyance?

The contempt that universities have for undergraduates is legendary.

For universities, undergraduate students are unimportant. They are cash cows to be milked until due to lack of advisement or any other concern they flunk out or just get bored with being treated like a semi-useful farm animal. The comedic touch of repeatedly telling these students that they pay only a proportion of their college cost is one I particularly enjoy, that university administrators can say it with a straight face suggests thespian training.

To have a brilliant career in a university setting, a professor must evade teaching if at all possible. The university expects research, publications and grants. The professor gives the students who fall into his area of concern to his grad students, masters degree students who in almost all cases have no training in teaching whatever. There are many fine grad student teachers. I have done it myself. But some grad students are not that good.

I have sat with other professors while we exchanged our stories of worst grad student teachers. The stories usually revolved around those grad students inability to speak English, understand their subject or to act normally. The stories always ended the same way. We discuss what they said, how bad the grades were and how many complaints were made. Then the straight man of the group says, “What happened to the grad student after that teaching fiasco?” The story teller pauses for effect and then says, “He was back teaching the next semester.”

But if a professor should teach, industrial techniques are applied. If you can watch the spectacle of one professor teaching an auditorium of 600 to 1,000 students and then believe for one moment that the university has any concern for the teaching of undergraduates, you have a faith that I do not.  Do I have to bring up the cattle analogy?

Then we have the colleges. Intent on maximizing profit, colleges have embarked on out sourcing teaching away from full time instructors to part timers. This is very similar to the use of grad students and once again there are many, many fine adjunct instructors but the statistics are clear, full time professors do a better job of teaching.  (Confession – I am an adjunct instructor.)  This is another piece of evidence that teaching is not considered to be important.

And then there is online teaching. This kind of teaching is a blessing for those who cannot attend regular classes but there is a powerful temptation to use it instead of regular teaching. Why? No classroom, no facilities use, etc., it saves bundles of money. You almost don’t have to have a college.

What are the standards by which a class is determined to be necessary to be taught online? Obviously if you advertise that as many distance learning colleges do, you should expect online teaching. But where is the line when a class is being taught out of a facility with classrooms and facilities? When does online teaching move from necessity to cash cow? Once again, you have to wonder where the importance of teaching is in the calculations.

Universities insist on removing the best of their faculty from teaching. Colleges substitute part time instructors instead of full time. Online teaching is used not out of necessity but to save money. Everyone of these phenomenon makes student learning more problematic. It makes learning the skills of critical thinking and writing more difficult.

If teaching is not important in universities and is done only as much as necessary in colleges, it is inevitable that our students will not do as well as they might.

Next in Part 3: I will explain why our society is uninterested in critical thinking.

James Pilant

6 thoughts on “One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! (Part 2-The Colleges and Universities)

  1. Pingback: One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! Brand New National Crisis!! (Part 1-The Students) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  2. There is so much truth in these two posts that I have little to add except to say the implications for our ability to compete in a globally diverse environment against countries like China is at risk. We need a national debate on the important issues raised by the author.


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  4. Pingback: One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! (Part 2-Our Society, Business and the Liberal Arts) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  5. Pingback: What Do Our College Students Learn? « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

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