Bad news/good news?

According to an “unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college,” students aren’t learning “the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.”  (H/t to commenter quixote for bringing this to my attention.)  How now? 

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

But, wait, good readers!  There’s an interesting small fact you find only when you read all the way to the end.  Dig this:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

I don’t have anything more intelligent to contribute here outside of “NO DUHHHHHHHHH!”  Funnily enough, the AP story the Denver Post ran yesterday didn’t include as much description as to why students in the Liberal Arts were actually getting educated.  (I guess no one wants to admit that what we do is labor, and that some of us work harder than others!  That would prevent people from dismissing us all as lazy and “only” working 6, 9, or 12 hours a week.) 

I’m bringing this article to my students’ attention the next time I see them.  They need to understand that I don’t make them read hundreds of pages a week and write weekly papers for my health.  It’s for their own good!  Message:  I care.   There is no clicker technology, no 600-students-in-a-single-class, no video download to improve people’s analytical skills, friends.  And, we’re crazzy if those of us in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences don’t each of us send a copy of this article to our Deans and to the Provost of our universities.

46 thoughts on “Bad news/good news?

  1. I kind of feel sorry for the “bad” students in this article. All through high school, they were bad because they didn’t know facts and figures for the test. Now that they spent years perfecting the cramming-info-for-the-test thing, the country raises its eyes to the heavens and says, “But why, oh why, aren’t they good critical thinkers?”

    I’m proud that I’m part of a discipline and a department that has held the line on this. But I’ll bet the students feel like they just can’t win.


  2. How can a person attend an institution where 20 pages of writing per semester is *not* required?

    If I ever took a course that didn’t either require 5 pages per week or a 10-20 page paper at regular intervals, I must have slept through it. And only 40 pages of reading? A *newspaper*’s more than 40 pages….


  3. I had read a bit about the study before, and I’m not entirely convinced by their methodology–they were ultimately comparing performances on a standardized test, which, like most standardized tests, is a flawed instruments.

    On the other hand, I had not seen the breakdown of majors of students who did better or worse, and that is indeed interesting.


  4. In the intro level history class I’m TAing, the students do 5-10 pages of reading per week, and write 8 pages total for the semester. Because we don’t want to tax the poor dearies’ brains.


  5. I am always quick to pat myself on the back, so let me say that I continue to assign whole monographs to undergraduates and require actual writing (Only in excessively large classes do I give exams). Also as a seemingly radical stance, I don’t offer downloadable outlines or lecture notes. It strikes me that learning how to organize information into note form is a skill itself.

    Nonetheless, such efforts come at a cost. Students frequently complain that the work load is too heavy and there is blow back in the teaching evaluations. This study, I think, also notes that students actively seek out classes with the least amount of reading and writing. So, in an environment where evaluations and bodies-in-desks have come to define our “success” as faculty, it is not surprising that many have decided to cater to these impulses.


  6. At my SACS accredited institution we are starting to document student achievement in critical thinking, technology, math, writing, and other skills. It’s all stuff that we basically do, and my students have a fairly heavy load. We just have to start documenting it.


  7. Long-time reader, first-time commenter weighing in on the “more than 20 pages of writing per class” thing.

    I wonder if the numbers would have looked different if the study asked about classes with *exactly* 20 pages rather than *more than* 20 pages. I was an English and Philosophy double-major at Hotshot Ivy about 10 years ago, and 20 pages was standard for upper-level classes. That’s 2 ten-page papers, one at roughly mid-term and one for finals week. Intro-level classes did more like 15-18 with three five-to-six-pagers. And, even if you were the kind of student who tended to write long (which I was) so that your “ten-page paper” was actually 11 or 12 pages, you thought of it as a ten-pager and thus thought of the total for the course as 20 pages. “More than 20” would have sounded outside the norm for anything but a senior thesis (which, depending on the discipline and topic, was somewhere between, what, 40 and 80 pages).

    Also, the focus on semesters makes comparisons with places on quarters or trimesters a little trickier. 20 pages in a semester seems normal to me; 20 pages in a quarter is pushing it. Three five-pagers or one 5- and one 10-pager seem more standard for Quarter-System Classes I Have Known. Maybe three 4-pagers for an intro class. And none of that (either quarters or sememsters) accounts for drafting, which, in Writing-Intensive Intro Classes I Have Known, gets taken seriously enough that it probably ought to add to the page count.

    The short version: “more than 20 pages” seems like a weird cut-off point to me.


  8. It makes me laugh because the number one thing that students ALWAYS seem to complain about on their student evals or on that horrible ratemyprof website is that they were required to “read too much” or “write too much”. I have always wondered, if reading and writing is something they find unacceptable, why they bothered coming to college.


  9. note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

    This bit made me laugh, throwing the engineers and business majors a bone.

    More seriously, I would have thought that critical thinking is an occupationally relevant skill. Perhaps only amongst the ruling class.


  10. I’m going to second A1066 here. My lower-division (non-major) classes require about 12 pages (total) of writing a semester, and I get roasted for it. Likewise with the upper-division (for majors) class, which requires a total of 15-18 pages.

    It’s down to the culture of the institution — but also of the school system the students are coming from. If our students come out of high schools where there’s little to no writing requirement outside their English classes, then is it any wonder they react the way they do? And yet the solution is not to beat up on the high school teachers who are more overworked every year.

    I hate to be gloomy (I’m generally a very positive person), but we seem to be in a race to the bottom, and I don’t see how we’re going to stop it.


  11. And anecdotally, building off GayProf’s comment: last semester I stepped up the research/writing/analysis requirement for part one of my two-part upper-division field survey. This semester, for the first time ever, part two of the course was canceled due to catastrophic under-enrollment. The parallel U-Div courses of my department nemesis, by contrast, require no papers and rely on 3 essay exams. His courses are full to the rafters, and he tells me that I need to not work the students so hard if I want to be viable. ::sigh::


  12. A popular complaint in the one gen ed type class I teach is that I expect students to learn science. The horrors. The complainers like dialog and we engage in a lot of it but what they really seem to want is unevaluated dialog. They want to chat.

    Every year I dial it down a bit and every year the complaint is the same. Where is the river’s edge on this? It must be down there somewhere, titans and earth giants lurking about, but I’m not sure I want to see it.


  13. I think TSS makes a good point. How exactly was that question phrased? Even students in my senior seminars don’t write papers that are longer than 20 pages (standard is 15-18, notes excluded) but they do write a number of other, smaller papers. I’m wondering if they understood the question. After all, if they have problems with the critical thinking, they might also have problems with the reading comprehension.

    And I too get dinged all the time on evaluations that I’m making them do too much. Fortunately, I’m tenured, so I don’t lose any sleep over it.


  14. In my science department, it is rare to assign ANY writing. Twenty pages per semester? Never heard of it.

    But I have a background in humanities (double major), and I have always credited my humanities profs and their writing assignments with any critical thinking skills I have. So I do require a series of short writing assignments They have to answer big, complex questions in a very short amount of space (1-2 pages). It falls way under the magic 20 page limit, but that kind of telescopic writing style is standard in science so I hope it is still effective. Plus, I think it buffers me from bad evaluations – a lot of students never figure out that it is in fact really hard to write well in a short space.


  15. I don’t know jacke dicke about whether this fucken survey is meaningful or not, but I do know that the more you read and write and thinke and work problem sets, the more educated you become. Learning facts doesn’t mean jacke fucken dicke.

    Like those stupid fucken surveys where they ask people simple “facts” about science, and then wring their fucken hands at how no one knows anything about science. Science ain’t fucken “facts”. I personally don’t know if Uranus or Saturn is closer to the fucken sun, and I don’t fucken care.


  16. We assign a lot of writing in my (science) department, starting in the junior year. The majors all get it drilled in from the very first term that writing matters, style matters, and that those of us who teach in the undergraduate core are paying attention to it. They chafe against the formality and expectations at first but persistence pays off for all of us.


  17. “And, we’re crazzy if those of us in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences don’t each of us send a copy of this article to our Deans and to the Provost of our universities.”

    My dean sent it to us!


  18. “I personally don’t know if Uranus or Saturn is closer to the fucken sun, and I don’t fucken care.”

    Simple mnemonic device — think “where the sun don’t shine.”

    I always tell my students (especially grad students, but others too) that writing is thinking.

    I wonder what the marginal gains are with more reading and writing. I suspect that I over assign reading … I tend to assign (in mid-to-upper level history classes) 70-100 pages a week, and sometimes over 200 if it’s a single text that’s an easy read and I can maybe give them a week and a half to do it… but I’m not sure that this is actually beneficial. I’m pretty sure that a well-chosen and exhaustively analyzed 50 pages would be more helpful to students, but that’s more easily said than done when constructing a syllabus that makes sense, balancing coverage with depth, and selecting texts that you’re happy with — they just don’t always break up that way.

    I have also found that students are less able/willing/interested in the tried and true “read and discuss” seminar than they used to be. I’m not sure this is a weakness on their part, though. My default mode (both as a student and as an instructor) has always been, let’s read something (or things) cool and talk about it. Maybe write a paper on it. But my students demand (or respond better to) more frequent feedback and to classes where we “do” stuff rather than just talk about stuff.

    Maybe this is because my institution just has different students from the elitish/ist places where I was trained, but I think it’s also a shift in culture. I still assign a lot of writing, but I’m making a concerted effort to do more frequent, shorter pieces, more in class writing and collaboration (which I loathed as a student), and more interactive, exploratory assignments using web databases of primary sources … quick exercises to have them see what they can find by using different search terms (and speculate on why) or simply pick cases out of a larger database or list and use what they know to hypothesize about context and possible meanings.

    So I get to my 20+ pages of writing with usually two 4-5 page essays on reading, a 6-8 page take home essay exam (usually divided between two questions), and five to ten 1 page or 1 paragraph assignments.


  19. And isn’t it lucky that we are careful readers! I’ve been trying — adjusting a bit each time — to figure out what skills my students need to to do the work I expect of them. Because, as Notorious suggested, many students come to us from high schools where they haven’t had to read all the time, or write much. So, in fact, 150 pages a week (which was normal in upper division classes when I was in college) is a lot….


  20. I wonder what the marginal gains are with more reading and writing.

    I am convinced that the marginal gains are extremely high. Reading and writing are like practicing a musical instrument or a technical sports motion (golf swing, baseball pitch, gymnastics maneuver, etc): becoming a true expert is all about *volume* of practice. For skills like this, I have heard the number bandied about that it takes 15,000 to 20,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert. Note that this represents *years* of nearly full-time effort.


  21. Part of the problem, IMO, is how easy it is to dumb-down our classes, and how little incentive there is *not* to do so. (I’m speaking from the perspective of a large state university, not a SLAC.) In fact, the incentive goes the other way. Our “business model” administrations want $$ and warm bodies (who generate $$). Our departments and administrators require that we keep certain enrollments high and our evaluations likewise high, especially for the untenured, especially at any non-R1 place. If students slam their profs for requiring reading and thinking and writing, then there is all kinds of institutional pressure on them to step DOWN to the students’ expectations rather than say, Well, sorry, that’s what higher ed is. That, to me, is the biggest problem with the way student evaluations are used at most universities. Where my partner teaches, he will never qualify to be in the top-tier “merit” raise pool no matter how amazingly productive he is, because he will never reach the level of all 5 student evals that some of his senior colleagues have perfected. His courses are hard and require thinking. He’s constantly strategizing on ways to dumb them down, as sad as that makes him. But he needs tenure. And a raise. I decided this semester to rely less on lecture and more on discussion, and now I’m wondering if that decision is going to really cost me in terms of evals. (I’m a good lecturer, but get tired of how disengaged it makes students. But I tend to get good evals in mostly-lecture courses.)


  22. Hi all–sorry to be tuned out yesterday, but Thursdays are my long teaching day.

    I think reading is important, but what’s equally important is holding the students accountable for the reading. In my undergrad (and grad!) days, I absolutely let my reading attention and focus slide if I didn’t have to write a paper or fear being called to account for it otherwise. I’ve always assigned a 1-2 page weekly response paper, which I think makes my students take the reading assingments seriously. (Not in all cases, of course, but I’m not in complete control of that.)

    This means that my students probably write 50 pages over the course of the semester in most of my classes. As JJO said, “writing IS thinking!”

    The points many of you have made about maintaining rigor are well taken. I think departmental climate is key: if faculty are rewarded by their peers for maintaining rigor, then we can keep our standards high. If departments reward the highest numerical scores on the teaching evals, then it’s a race to the bottom, as truffula’s and Perpetua’s comments suggest. Quite frankly, in my current department, I think the T & P committee would look askance at evaluations that DIDN’T include comments about how hard a class was or how much reading and writing there was. We aren’t in control of much, but we can foster (and if need be, impose) our shared values on the regular faculty, at least.


  23. I should have linked to this discussion at Inside Higher Ed earlier, but the comments section (last time I checked, anyway) had a good discussion going. Several scientists pointed out how discipline-specific the reading and writing measures were, and I agree that those aren’t the *only* way to measure the value of every class. I wonder if the equivalent hours in lab and the writing of lab reports wouldn’t produce the same gains in learning.


  24. I teach a class that is always full of students looking to fulfill a particular General Education requirement–“Regions beyond Europe”–and the students I get have a really hard time with basic writing skills. In addition to that, they have basically no relevant factual knowledge whatsoever about the region we are studying. And by no knowledge, I mean none, zippo, zero, nada. After a few years of trial and error I’ve found that it’s best to try to maintain a balance between factual knowledge and critical thinking. I think in order to be able to think critically and creatively, you do need a certain baseline of factual information in order to conceptualize the particular problems in the region. So the first thing I have the students do every year is take a map quiz–which they have to pass–and then we go from there. My lectures are actually not very heavy on “facts,” moreso on themes, but I want them to have that factual baseline from the beginning, so that the thematic material will make more sense throughout the semester.


  25. I personally don’t know if Uranus or Saturn is closer to the fucken sun, and I don’t fucken care.

    Really? I would think that, mundane though it may be, at a certain point that kind of information is pretty important.


  26. H., do you mind if I ask a specific question about your 1-2 page writing assignments? Is the main purpose of the assignment to keep the student reading? (As opposed to expecting them to craft some kind of argument.) What expectations do you have for the content/quality of the assignment when grading it? (Or is it more of a “check! you did it” kind of grade?) I’m asking because all my experiences with weekly short papers have been low quality work and little improvement over the semester for the amount of work that they are for me to grade. But I’m trying to figure out ways of keeping them reading and thinking and writing and improving. I’m constantly tinkering with the assignment structure in my classes, and now I’m wondering about paper-per-week versus 3 essays in a semester.


  27. I wonder if the equivalent hours in lab and the writing of lab reports wouldn’t produce the same gains in learning.

    Prepackaged lab exercises with predetermined outcomes are worse than worthless. They teach students exactly the wrong lesson about what the pursuit of scientific knowledge is like, and reinforces the stereotype that science is mechanical, repetitive, and painfully boring. And the lab reports associated with such exercises are absolutely *nothing* like any of the real writing that scientists do.


  28. Really? I would think that, mundane though it may be, at a certain point that kind of information is pretty important.

    It’s important if you are a solar system planetary astronomer. Otherwise, it’s completely meaningless.


  29. Perpetua: I just give them a check-mark, because I don’t want them to be stressful, just an incentive to read carefully and think about the ideas in the book/articles. I give them a weekly question (or set of questions) to prompt them and perhaps help inform their reading, but so long as they show that they’ve done the reading and have thought about the ideas a bit, I give them a check.

    Some students have complained about this, but most seem to appreciate the fact that it’s a way of helping them organize and recall stuff they’ve read that they need to get back into for their longer papers and the final exam. I find that most students do a pretty good job–and when I withhold full credit, I do see them step up their efforts.

    And CPP: I didn’t realize that there were such things as prepackaged labs. Don’t some STEM faculty make up their own lab assignments? (Sorry–it’s been 23 years since I took a college lab course. . . )


  30. We make our own labs in my department and they evolve over time. Those of us who teach in the undergraduate core classes meet regularly to discuss the issues we see with every cohort moving through and tweak with the goal of addressing deficiencies. This is really only possible when you have buy in from the TAs and good communication. This may be discipline specific (though I doubt it by the upper division level) but a lab report should have the same basic structure as any well written analysis paper, just perhaps also with equations and figures.


  31. I didn’t realize that there were such things as prepackaged labs. Don’t some STEM faculty make up their own lab assignments?

    It makes no difference if they are prepackaged by some third-party provider or by faculty teaching lab courses. What I mean by prepackaged is that these labs have a preordained outcome. Students know that there is a “right answer” and this is what is so grossly different from real science, and makes students think being a scientist is boring and mechanical. In my opinion, undergraduate lab courses should all be scrapped and replaced with seminar courses in which students read and dissect primary peer-reviewed reearch articles.


  32. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Comrade PhysioProf! I’ve always been baffled by the point of labs with predetermined outcomes. I’ve been taking a chemistry class at the local CC (long story…) that has a lab component. Going into it I had hoped that the pedagogical power of labs would be clearer to me than it had been in required H.S. and college classes, that after years of college English teaching I might be better able to discern the point of that kind of “hands on” class work. But, no–I STILL don’t see the point. And it’s an online class so the labs are, indeed, prepackaged, quite literally.


  33. On “critical” thinking even more important than reading or writing, I think, would be pure socratic dialogue. Relentless in-class questioning and answering with the compulsion to defend or repair weak points in the answers. But that would require resource commitments that even many of the better schools are unwilling to make, and most of the rest effectively unable to.

    CCP’s point about prepackaged labs resonates with my longtime thoughts about “document readers.” They’re overwhelmingly predictable in their trajectories. Primary sources that connect squarely and illustratively with some embedded term or concept in the literature. There’s the one that shows “artisan republicanism.” There’s the one that shows that slaves were listening too when the plantocrat revolutionaries were talking about liberty and oppression. And so on. This is all good, but the one I’d like to see is the one for which someone in the class says “professor, what’s going on here” and the instructor has to say, “don’t quite know. Give me a second. This situation is pretty bizarre…”

    Maybe an interactive reader in which the instructor has to punch in a new code as the class begins, and only then gets the document revealed and we go from there. Just like in the archive, or at the research bench in CCP’s “real science.” But try selling that concept to an academic publisher, or, for the most part, to us scholar-teachers.


  34. On “critical” thinking even more important than reading or writing, I think, would be pure socratic dialogue. Relentless in-class questioning and answering with the compulsion to defend or repair weak points in the answers.

    This is exactly how I run my small-group medical physiology tutorials.


  35. @Perpetua. If you are giving them feedback on the writing try this trick that a colleague learned during her student teaching. They write a response paper every week but you only grade one element which you give feedback on. Thesis statements one week, use of evidence the next and so on. They don’t know which one you’ll grade on (due two in a row one time in the first couple of weeks – I suggest thesis statement). Then the last three weeks grade the whole paper. You’ll see improvement. And if you can take some class time to model good and bad thesis statements (anonymously of course) that would help. If your campus has turnitin, the comment function works great for this type of thing for speeding grading.


  36. Pingback: Weekly Superlinks « The Wool Laboratory

  37. re truffula’s comment about how far do we dumb down expectations to meet what students feel is the right amount of work. Where’s the edge of the river? she asks.

    Wrong question. It’s not a river, but a horizon. It can’t be reached. Or, put it differently, students will always do about half of what the teacher requires. Pissing and moaning the whole way. And in these days of tenure-by-evaluation, that means we have a problem. When meeting students’ receding expectations is a condition of continued employment, well, then we get studies documenting the slide, like this one. (To borrow CPP’s language: I don’t fucken care about their methodology. A fucken blind bat — at least a fucken blind bat who teaches — can see the process in every class.)

    Re the purpose of pre-packaged labs in STE(not M): it’s to teach the techniques and use of equipment: how to pipette, how to calibrate a pH meter, how to find a given nerve in a rat dissection. Pretending that’s about any kind of “discovery,” or even thought, is an insult to the student’s intelligence.


  38. “Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.”

    If we exclude the students who majored in natural sciences and math – how is the liberal arts doing? Did all those classes on feminist marxism improve their critical thinking?


  39. @Anonymous:

    In my science department, it is rare to assign ANY writing. Twenty pages per semester? Never heard of it.

    In my science classes, the labs required quite a bit of writing. Every week we had to write up whatever experiment we’d done in the style of a journal article (but without the abstract): with an introduction where we explained the theory behind whatever we were doing, a materials and methods section, results and discussion.

    These lab reports would usually be 2-4 pages long, IIRC. I think having to write them — particularly the more theoretical sections, like the introduction and discussion — really helped deepen my understanding of the techniques we were using, what kind of information you get from each one, when you’d use one as opposed to another, etc.


    A class on evaluating journal articles would be really useful for most STEM majors, I would think.

    Ooh, what a great idea! I wish I’d had a class like that, it would’ve been really helpful.

    (I especially wish I had more background in statistics, now that I’m reviewing so many psych studies for my blog; I have to figure out what the difference is between all the different measures of significance they use, and what it means that they chose to use one over another, and it’s just really bringing home to me the inadequacy of my lone, one-semester Intro to Stats class!)


  40. Lindsay,

    I think writing essays as a means to teach “critical thinking” is wildly over-rated. Studying math (and I mean math proofs), understanding physics and engineering seems to me a much more reliable method of improving one’s ability to analyze facts.


  41. Well Hyphenated, perhaps you didn’t have good essay assignments. Math did really help me write better papers in the humanities, but the math people say writing humanities papers helped them get more analytical for math, so…

    Anyway now I assign undergraduates something like 15 pages a semester to write in formal writing, and then other informal writing. Seniors read about 1,000 pages in a semester which is about 75 a week or so I guess.

    Freshman year I wrote all the time. In a quarter, we wrote about 30 pages for English comp. But I was also in French comp, which had about 15 pages, and Danish comp, which had a term paper of about that length, and history, which also had about 15 pages, so that was 75 pages in a quarter, so that was about 7.5 pages a week. It seemed like more because they had to be very good, logical pages, but I guess this is where I got my theory that you should write just over one good page every day and you would do well and still have time for life.


  42. Pingback: Which Students are ‘Adrift’? And why? « Speaker's Corner

  43. Pingback: Which Students are ‘Adrift’? And why? « Speaker's Corner

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.