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Instructionally Adrift? Are instructors letting their students down?

July 19, 2011, 8:06 pm

At ALA 2011 Steven Bell turned me on to the book Academically Adrift. He wrote a thoughtful piece on it back in January— I’m a little slow getting a response out.

The gist of it boils down to the notion that students don’t appear to be learning much (academically speaking) during their time away at college—and hence there is some question about the value (and investment) of a college degree.

This is largely based on findings reporting that when students were tested before and after their college years there was little progress in standardized scores, suggesting that the college experience (which of course encompasses more than just courses) does little to advance intellectual development.

Bell points out that there is a lot of finger pointing and I tend to point mine at the K-12 system, which doesn’t prepare people (myself included) for college. However, while watching my wife make oatmeal this weekend I had another thought.

Instructionally Adrift?
I took an English Lit survey course (the early stuff like Beowulf) that was dreadful. It wasn’t the content, nor was it my lack of interest; it was fully the professor and his teaching style. Oatmeal triggered this thought because everyone joked that he looked and sounded like
Wilford Brimley. This was his final course before retirement and many of us struggled through it. His style consisted of beginning each class with short introductory remarks, then going around the room and having people read the poems/text—with a few multiple-choice pop quizzes tossed in for good measure. Not much opportunity to develop critical thinking, conversational, or writing skills.

The following semester I took a Shakespeare course and it was a totally different experience. We read several plays and watched clips from some films to analyze different adaptations— but the classroom experience was very different. On the first day the professor demanded that we rip out the introduction to our textbook claiming that it doesn’t matter what “experts” think and that he didn’t want is to be distracted with the academics—all that mattered was our personal relationship with Shakespeare. His classes were very interactive—he would randomly select people to act out scenes and the class centered on discussion and interpretation. I hated being “on stage” but I learned a lot; it challenged me. It took me out of my confront zone and encouraged me to think (and learn) differently.

As I think back to my undergrad and even high school years I tended to earn either A’s or C’s. Again, it wasn’t the content or my motivation. An example, I love Ancient Rome but ended up with a C in the course. I did poorly on multiple-choice tests, but I could talk all day about Julius Caesar’s military prowess or Augustus Caesar’s political genus. The Roman economy. Roman engineering. The Rise and the Decline. I love that stuff but you would not be able to tell based on how I fared on standardized grading.

For me it all boiled down to how the material was presented and how the grade was assessed. That’s the difference in me performing like an A or C student. And that’s a big difference.

So let’s say that there is a very average engineering student out there. He goes through the program—struggles but passes calculus, learns about thermodynamics, manufacturing, systems processing, and a touch of economics. He knows the basics of MATLAB and perhaps picked up some AUTOCAD along the way. Is he ready for an entry-level position at an engineering company?

Engineering is about problem solving and the creative application of science. If he were given a standardized test after graduation would I expect him to jump leaps and bounds in the reading and writing sections? Probably not. College prepared him for an engineering career, not to improve his SAT scores. Give him a design problem and he’ll probably do ok. Give him The Odyssey and he’ll probably struggle like the rest of us.

Obviously everyone gains some exposure to arts, humanities, and social sciences during their undergrad program, but I don’t expect our engineer or a biology major, or an art major, or a finance major to have improved their ability to take standardized tests. That’s not the goal of college. (That’s K-12, right?)

Evolution of Learning Styles
Every time someone argues that
the kids today are dumb I feel defensive. It’s my natural reaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. What if the web has altered how we learn? What if chronic exposure to the gaming, social media, and mobile devices has created a generation of students who excel in tactile learning, but when they go to school they are largely bombarded with auditory teaching? Are we failing to teach in a manner that would make the learning exchange more fruitful for them? Are we relying on the classic teaching methods that we were exposed to rather than employing mixed methods that might be more effective for reaching students today? Give me a multiple-choice quiz on Roman aqueducts and I’ll probably answer 75% of the questions right, but give me a broader platform (written, oral, 3-D model, whatever) to explain how they transformed society and I’ll be one of the top performers in the class. Of course, there are those students who are brilliant at taking tests—they are the lucky ones! The system is designed to reward them.

An observation: On my way to work everyday I walk by an econ class. Each quarter there is a professor or TA up front lecturing and the students are scribbling notes, typing on laptops, or looking out the window —today I overheard the prof talking about dividends.

I took Econ101 seventeen years ago it was pretty much the same as today: Listen to someone talk. Read a textbook. Take a test. On to the next course. Back then the web was in its infancy; I didn’t even have an email address. But these students are different and deserve (would benefit?) a more interactive learning experience. Or rather, if the prof approached his material differently, I’d wager that the students would get more out of the course.

What if along with lecturing, the professor included some videos of experts talking about the content in the textbook. What if when learning about dividends you looked at press clips from CEO’s from companies like Exxon who always pay strong? Why do they perform so well?

Or this– break the class into small groups and give them each a pile of fantasy money and have them each invest according to different economic principles or set parameters: group one is focused on the Asian market, group two is energy, group three has to short sell everything, group four is looking at long term stable growth, etc. Once a week a representative from each group reports out what happened over the last few days and the class talks about strategy or ramifications together. Maybe some of this can be conducted online via the course mgt software? Bring the textbook into the real world.

Don’t just give me a definition of dividends, but let me see how they play out in the marketplace and then let’s talk about why some companies pay well and others don’t and how do dividend-price ratios factor into the overall health of the company? This type of framework could potentially impact more students and inspire them to actively learn instead of just learning enough to pass a test. It could also teach them to present, argue, articulate, explore, and converse. (I earned a C in Econ.)

In closing – I don’t believe that the web has made students dumb; I think it has changed the way people learn. Instructors who rely on lecture and multiple-choice tests might be failing to bring out the best in their students and confusing poor performance with laziness or disinterest, when in reality it is ineffective instruction.

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