The Learning Gap

College professors today are facing an ever-increasing number of students who seem either unable or unwilling to learn.

In practical terms, there are only three basic ways to learn: reading, listening, and doing. All learning comes from these, either separately or in combination with the others.

The current generation entering college has grown up with computers, cell phones, Google, and social media. They’re a Google away from any specific fact. Their attention is fixed on their cell phone, and they’d rather be on the cell phone than doing almost anything else – even sex, according to some studies. And fewer and fewer of them read, either for school or pleasure.

The result of this devil’s brew is that the majority can’t read or write that well. Because of social media’s constant interruption and attraction, they also can’t focus or concentrate that effectively, and more and more of them show ADHD symptoms. They’re so used to visual or audio-visual stimulation that they can’t listen well enough to process information aurally. Nor can they concentrate enough to remember anything that the cell phone or social media doesn’t pound into their skulls.

All retained skills or knowledge require memory at some level, and STEM fields and music, as well as others, simply can’t be mastered without learning and retaining facts and procedures. A number of professors have remarked on the inability of students to retain knowledge and mental process skills. On one day students show they understand the matter or skills being discussed or demonstrated, but within a day or two, they recall or retain little, even when they’ve demonstrated the first steps the day before.

What’s missing? The ability to focus for any period of time and concentrate on material and skills one doesn’t know. That ability is also required for actual thinking.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that the United States, despite its wealth and size, can’t produce enough high-level professionals in STEM fields? Or that the drop-out rate in music and other information intensive programs has increased over the years?

Or that more and more people in the United States believe simplistic slogans that can’t be supported by facts.

5 thoughts on “The Learning Gap”

  1. Pekka Mäkinen says:

    An article in NYT and discussion in Slashdot on the same issue

    …looking from Finland this feels quite weird

    1. KTL says:

      Thanks for sending the link. It’s rather amusing in a way.

      The topic addressed in the link is pertinent to me as I’m familiar with Maitland Jones. He’s been around for some time. While working toward my doctorate in Organic Chemistry at U. Texas, I became all too familiar with ‘teaching’ those pre-med students in the lab courses. Let me say right here that pre-meds from 35 years ago were just as bad as the ones cited in the article. They assumed anything short of an A was death to their careers.

      I do appreciate that there may be a continuing degradation of general abilities in any given generation, but I am not yet convinced there’s a perfect way to measure that. In the end, I suppose, life will weed out (many?) of those lacking the skills to compete.

      1. Lourain says:

        Pre-med students haven’t changed in 50 years

  2. Bill says:

    Everyone is enchanted by their portable computers. They do seem to have changed people’s ability to focus. As a teenager, I would have marveled at the internet and wanted the kind of computing power I have at my fingertips. But some days I look at my favorite websites and say nothing has changed in the last 30 minutes. I have gotten to the point where I want constant updates. This is not good from one perspective but often with the internet it feels like we are still doing what was done 50 years ago but online. We read articles and watch TV. The articles are webpages and there is video everywhere. But there is little transformation.
    In terms of education, I have sat through enough uninspired lectures that could have been given once by much more experienced teachers than the ones I had and watched in a time of my choosing. Questions could then be discussed in a different setting than a large lecture hall. It is great when you can sit and have a real conversation with a professor. But most of the time that never happened. Online lectures would wreak havoc with system but that seems to be happening anyway.
    The hardest part would be to get college freshman to participate. Too many would get distracted by their first experience of freedom. But if college changes so does its costs and when you need to attend. Over the past few decades many college professors have changed their preference from the 18–22-year-olds to the older students returning to college. It seems that working menial jobs and paying for your own education is a great incentive to be a better student.
    I don’t know the solution and in many cases one solution does not work for everyone. But there is validity to asking why I need to regurgitate facts on a test that I can look up. I do understand that it is hard to think with facts you don’t know exist. The work that students do in college should change from just answering questions though to being forced to use that data to solve real problems. I have done well in college level chemistry and physics, but rarely do I use that in life except to answer questions on Jeopardy. Couldn’t the homework be altered somewhat to apply the topics to other applications using the power of the internet and AI.
    Again, this isn’t a one-size fits all kind of situation. Students need practitioners to give them real examples. The most helpful professor I had in computer science was an instructor who worked for 20+ years as a software developer. The school brought him in to teach and helped him quickly get his masters. More videos of lectures that can be watched multiple times with discussions and “labs” with actual practitioners might work better than the current system.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Even before the Internet there were careers where becoming an information junkie was an occupational hazard. But the information was not nearly as wide-ranging, and for those dealing with immediate information rather than larger scope research, was mostly what came their way rather than something they chose to retrieve. So there was still a degree of focus that resulted from the natural workflow.

    However, some with that background may find themselves in retirement spending rather a lot of time on world news sites, esp. foreign ones or those other than the usual; Google Translate earns its keep then, as my foreign languages are few and rusty. So even isolated in origin from the Internet and if more useful habits were already established, there’s still an effect, if not so severe.

    Unlike kids now, it did take some time to learn to Google (or earlier search engines) early in contemplating something (together with how to tell serious sources from marketing or opinion), and that a smartphone can help in cases such as when one forgot to merge a recipe ingredient list into one’s shopping list; one can look up the recipe or a very similar one and avoid a 2nd trip. Even if Google doesn’t always help, with a bit of practice selecting search terms, if will sometimes be quicker than a trip to a library, or at least imply alternative search strategies that even in a library might increase the odds of finding an answer.

    But the social media addiction? Save for a few friends and a low single-digit number of others I follow closely, it’s a wasteland to me, and seldom takes much time; I may forget to check it at all some days. The biggest time-waster for me may be Q&A or technical information “exchange” sites, where on the former I’m tempted to prod people to think a little (some of the questions are very suggestive of not having made any effort to find out for themselves, or of having believed the first thing they encountered quite uncritically until then), and on the latter, I find myself answering far more than finding answers; nearly always, I have to find my own answers myself, the hard way. In the old days, narrowly focused Usenet newsgroups were better places for technical Q&A, although high noise level was characteristic of Usenet once enough people could access it, even in such newsgroups; but good reader tools could block selected subjects, subthreads, senders, or keywords, so it was manageable.

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