College Teaching

As long-time readers of this blog may have discerned, I have quite a few links to higher education, including a three-year stretch as a college lecturer. I’m anything but pleased with what I perceive as the trends in so-called higher education, because in areas outside the hard sciences, what I’m seeing in the vast majority of universities and colleges is the unbridled growth of “consumerism,” where institutions are competing for the favor of students and where numbers rule with little understanding of what those numbers really mean and what the result of chasing them is turning out to be.

Right now, the big push is for student retention, but in all universities, the results are dismaying, because teachers are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, pressured not to flunk non-performing students. In the more “competitive” institutions, grade inflation is rampant. The average grade point average at highly selective colleges is now right around a B+. The national average GPA is slightly above a B, a full grade increase over the average GPA a generation ago. Part of this grade inflation is the result of student evaluations being factored into the performance evaluations of college teachers, because teachers who are demanding and who don’t give “easy” grades get lower evaluations, and that jeopardizes their being able to hold their jobs – no matter what administrators claim.

Students apparently now can’t even calculate their grades. My wife the professor provides the formula so that any student can calculate his or her current grade at any time in the semester. So do most professors at the institution, but the students at her university, and indeed, throughout the country, are pushing for real-time current grades being electronically available. Even with computers, this takes a considerable amount of time, because the grades have to be entered into a separate system, whereas under the old system a professor only had to enter and calculate periodically, rather than continuously.

These days, a course syllabus resembles a legal contract, partly because of federal regulations, and partly because of student pressure, but what’s ironic is that most students don’t actually read the entire syllabus, and some don’t read it at all and don’t listen when a professor tells them the important parts. Then they complain that they didn’t know something that was spelled out in the syllabus.

Students are also demanding multiple choice tests [imagine that]. That just might be because there’s only a small percentage who can actually learn material and accurately synthesize it, and then write a logical and factual essay test or paper, despite all the administration and educational rhetoric about teaching “critical thinking.” I’m sorry, but if a student can’t frame and write a logical assembly of facts to support or rebut a point, that student’s critical thinking ability is limited.

As for studying… that’s suffered as well. A generation ago, the average full-time student spent 28 hours a week outside of class studying. Today, it’s less than 14 hours, and tests have shown that 46% of students learn almost nothing in their first two years of college [and most of the drop-outs or failures fall within this group].

Then, there’s the problem of student comfort. Most students today don’t really want to be challenged intellectually, even though learning new things and ways of looking at them is one of the necessities for really learning. Learning new things makes most of them uncomfortable. You think not? Then why all the problem over trigger warnings and the like? They also have a very limited attention span, except, apparently, for video games and cell phones, which may be why some education gurus are suggesting curriculum revamping based on video games. Imagine, learning based on what students find interesting rather than learning based on making necessary knowledge interesting, but apparently little that isn’t electronic is interesting to this generation.

Too many of today’s students don’t like to learn basic facts, and they don’t seem to understand that without knowing basic facts, they can’t progress to understanding the more complex features of the field in which they’re studying. Not only that, but the majority of them take little personal responsibility for learning. Both the students and the administrators are requiring teachers not only to teach, but to motivate all the students. I’m obviously old-fashioned, but it seems to me that students need to motivate themselves.

The more dedicated college teachers are struggling with how to deal with these issues without dumbing down their curricula or succumbing to grade inflation, but their creativity in dealing with this is hampered by ever more prescriptive requirements from administrators, ranging from more and more regulations impacting every aspect of their job to actual instructions to emphasize teaching to the “various student learning styles.” Teaching to a variety of learning styles effectively means teaching less content because it requires presenting the same material in different ways. Add to that the recent requirements for dealing with student psychological difficulties, effectively requiring professors to be psychologists as well.

To all that, add the fact that, over the last generation, cost pressures have resulted in university faculties shifting from roughly two-thirds being full-time to less than a third now being full-time with benefits. Since part-time faculty don’t have benefits and are paid poorly, they often have to take adjunct positions at more than one institution. This isn’t conducive to getting the best teaching or teachers.

It’s almost as if administrators have decided that college teachers are essentially intellectual factory workers whose job is to process “X” number of students per year and pass them through, keeping the students happy, whether they learn anything or not… or whether they can use facts, think, and analyze the elements of a complex problem or situation.

Welcome to Higher Education: 2018.

7 thoughts on “College Teaching”

  1. Lourain says:

    A question I would like to see addressed is “Are the majority of college students deficient, or are the majority people who would not have attended college, a generation ago?”

    1. Tim says:

      In the UK, it is the latter. It was a stated Government target two decades ago to see 50% of young adults go into higher university education.

      The impact has been that a lot of universities were created from technical colleges (which used to offer technical diplomas) and these are not considered to be of the same quality as the older universities. And employers know this.

      And yet students still go to them and incur up to £50k debts for a degree which is essentially not that useful for getting a job.

      I saw a report which stated that 40% of student debt will likely need to be written off as the students will never earn enough to pay it back. Not sure if the US has a similar defaulting system.

    2. In 1940, in the U.S., only about 40% of the population completed high school, and about 4% had an undergraduate college degree. By 1960, 55% had completed high school, and about 10% had a college degree. Today, 30% of all U.S. adults over 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, and close to 60% of high school graduates pursue some form of higher education.

      1. Lourain says:

        My high school received scores for various ‘accomplishments’. A major source of points was the number of students who graduated, and then went on to college or trade school. The school’s certification depended on those scores.
        The consequences? Young adults who were encouraged to attend college, when they were actually unsuited. For some trade school was a much better fit. For some time away from school to mature would have helped. For some…?

  2. Asaf sahin says:

    These problems are world wide and I don’t foresee any change in the near future. Test oriented high school education leaves the students that arrive at the electrical engineering dept at which I teach almost incapable of analytical thought processes and system design. Most of all, they are not curious about what they will do after university. A graduate student in my radar course was surprised to learn about speed radar gun, he was assuming that motor dept was recording locations for cars and calculating speed. Admin is also a problem, lecturers are told to go easy on grades and not to teach a lot. Most of my colleagues are waiting for the perfection of AI and robots so we can have decent students.

  3. Robert says:

    For medium and large universities teaching to a variety of learning styles can easily be done by having multiple classes which specialize in particular learning styles. Now granted, students may not get the time slot they prefer with the learning style they prefer, but this happens anyway often enough.

    And then for tutorial sections you can divvy up the learning styles such that they’re evenly distributed. This may actually facilitate tutorials as all students can bring parallel insights on the material.

    (I think learning styles is less “verbal, kinesthetic, etc…” and more the process by which the material is taught. Organic Chem, for instance, can be taught as reaction categories, underlying electromagnetic and weak force quantum interactions, and possibly a few other ways.)

    As a person who dropped out multiple times, I ask how many “psychological difficulties” could be handled simply with some good advising which takes into account the student’s background and desires a bit? Because if there’s one thing typical high schools and college suck at, it’s good advising. At best the advising is of a transactional nature of “you had trouble here, so take this and take that to finish your degree”.

    I’d also like to see apprenticeships more consistently brought back down to the high school and undergraduate levels from the graduate level. We had thousands of generations of apprenticing at a younger age until some ‘geniuses’ thought the Roman idea of the liberal arts should be browbeaten into everyone for 8+ years to make them fit subjects for a graduate-level apprenticeship. Thus reversing the standard style of teaching. It’s no wonder people are unprepared. Real work (not make work) and learning need to go hand in hand, and not everyone is scholastically inclined (I’m using “scholastic” in the sense of researching what others did previously and then writing it up – Einstein, while he know what others did, certainly didn’t waste effort referencing them in his early work; he clearly and concisely made his novel points).

    Bringing back the apprenticeships would show the students, in a personally compelling manner, what’s ahead for them in their chosen career. It would also show them how they can get there, instead of leaving it as a vague haze (1-Study, 2-?, 3-?, 4-?, 5-Chosen career).

    I’m smart enough to have had a Ph.D. in the sciences by my early/mid-20s if I had received the right guidance and hadn’t felt alienated from my chosen profession during the educational process. Instead I’m pushing 40, will likely never have a Ph.D. (I can’t afford the pay loss, and am leery at the possibility of graduating if courses are required, as they are in the US). My bosses love my work, think I’m capable of doing science, but none of that matters. I’m consigned to the equivalent of being enlisted in the sciences (which is really technical – the T part of STEM, for most of those without a Ph.D., though my boss says some actual science is open to a B.S.-level career path with the appropriate promotions).

    Because the US educational system sucks at approaching students as individuals with varying formative experiences.

    So yeah, grade inflation sucks. Catering to whims and wishes sucks. But there’s far more screwed up with education, and there has been for a long time.

  4. Tom says:

    I have not come across “Trigger Warnings” so I looked it up. I cannot find a specific answer as to how a professor is supposed to identify the triggers to the challenged individuals who might read a required text and come to an upset state of mind? Does anyone know of an article dealing with this in a critical manner?

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