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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Saturday, November 05, 2011

OW! Learning can hurt

Two good articles on the state of higher education. The first dares broach the "higher education bubble" question.

NY Review of Books: ... In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.

Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.

... Is this a crisis? Arum and Roksa say no, since students and their parents continue to seek and pay for places at colleges and universities, and government and graduate schools continue to accept their products, and corporations continue to hire them (and to spend more than $50 billion a year to train their employees in the skills they need). But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact. [italics mine]

This NYTimes article notes that, gee, STEM majors are hard and have high attrition rates. Readers immediately point out that the incentives for slogging through a difficult science or engineering curriculum aren't great. Better to work on your "soft skills" and leave the hard stuff for the suckers.

It's also about career path. Why bust your hump in engineering, when a degree in finance will land you a 6-figures job on Wall St., and a shot at 7 or 8 figures, for about the same effort? Especially knowing that corporate America considers engineers to be discardable, and does not hesitate to offshore engineering jobs to India or the Philippines. Some of the CEOs who whine the loudest about shortage of STEM graduates are the biggest culprits in making engineering an undesirable profession.



I am a foreigner. I have gone to undergrad back home for a Computer Science major. I have then come here to the US to get my MBA - at what is considered a top level institution.

What I saw among my fellow students who were American- those purported to be the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop - shocked me.

Grown men and women who are incapable of doing simple fractions, or understand the concept of percentage increase; let alone integrate a function, or indeed, understand what an integral is.

"Science is hard"? Well, Tough Luck, kids. Life ain't easy. The reason that people drop out of science classes is because they're spoiled brats, who, at the age of 18, lack the willpower to actually pursue something that pays off later. I endured 400 person Linear Algebra lessons in which I understood not a thing, calculus classes that made my eyes bleed, and final exams in which I got the grade of 13 out of 100.

Did I drop out and go study English Lit, or Poli Sci? Did I go and complain that "math is too hard"? No. Like the Indian or Slovenian kid that's busy kicking your American tush in the "Getting stuff done" department I grit my teeth and persevered.

The problem is not so much that kids drop out of math, it is [where they] drop out TO. American children are coddled, and told that it's confidence and people skills that matter, and that's what gets you through in life, and it's OK if you can't tell me what a common denominator is in fractions, because someone else is going to do all the "hard stuff".

Don't get me wrong: Soft skills and people skills matter a lot. They do. They really do, that's why American business culture is still among the top in the world: But make no mistake, the pendulum has swung so far towards the "soft skills" side of the equation that "hard skills" are simply impossible to come by.

See also psychometric thresholds for physics and mathematics and data mining the university.

27 comments:

Sam H said...

Can someone please tell me why your typical biology or computer science or engineering major needs to learn calculus or differential algebra or other high-level types of math? I know lots of people who are now engineers, doctors, and scientists and they never have to use any of it and it was all a complete waste of time. Perhaps if someone actually works in physics (and how many physics majors actually do) would need high-end math but for the majority it's useless knowledge. 

Seth Stafford said...

You might be right that many people use less math than they are required to study in college.  But there's a lot of meaning packed into your phrase "useless knowledge".   American culture applies that label very ... "liberally" ... shall we say.  

LondonYoung said...

I am far from convinced that lacking hard-skills doesn't handicap one in the pursuit of seven or eight figure pay.  Scanning across "the one percent" I would guess that hard-skills are disproportionately more common that among even the 95-99th percentile ...

tc_2 said...

Calculus isn't really "high-level" math. Or maybe it is nowadays, I don't even know anymore. Since when is a knowledge of differential equations not relevant to engineers (real ones, not software engineers)? 

Nano Nymous said...

Generally

Guy_Brodude said...

I took one of these standardized tests of reasoning ability as an undergraduate and found it extremely odd. Every question required a written response (no multiple choice), and because I wrote an overly-expansive response to the first question I didn't have enough time to fully answer the subsequent questions and had to paraphrase my initial response. I don't OK score, high 80th percentile I think.

Why not have college seniors retake the SAT? Granted, many students might suffer in the Math portion for having forgotten their high-school-geometry lessons, but scores in the Reading and Writing sections should provide an interesting contrast (for humanities majors, at least).

Guy_Brodude said...

Also, does anybody have access to the exact numbers from this study?

"Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors."

steve hsu said...

I don't know what study this is, but IIRC pre-meds do not actually have the strongest SAT scores or HS records among science majors. At UO it's the physics and math majors.

David Coughlin said...

Apropos of nothing, 'the pursuit of seven or eight figure pay.' hits my sensibilities hard.  That one could be employed in a 'job' where there are at least several years where one could collect that as a compensation package as a 'system guy' [apart from the media and sports type systems] is weird.  That kind of money, even in the inflation adjusted now, feels like it should be a payoff, not 'pay'.

Sam H said...

"Generally speaking, there are a lot of things in biology that require calculus (e.g.: how do you think is diffusion described? what do you think is used in ecological models such as prey-predator?"

So why not just have this type of math at the Phd level for biology? There are the ones who get to be biologists and actually think about that stuff -- and most Phds in biology aren't even "biologists."

"Plus, there is a selection factor: on average, those who do better on calculus (or whatever), tend to be better engineers, doctors, and scientists overall."
But what evidence is there that learning many years of math that is going to be useless in one's life is a better predictor of ability and more efficient in terms of time than a 10 minute Wonderlic IQ test?

Sam H said...

Well I know many engineers and none of them had to to anything of the sort for their jobs. 

5371 said...

Soft skills and people skills matter a lot. They do. They really do, that's why American business culture is still among the top in the world
Legacy effect, more likely.

5371 said...

Berezovsky had some hard skills, but they had nothing to do with how he made his money. Probably not a unique case.

LondonYoung said...

I wouldn't so quickly conclude that the hard skills had nothing to do with how he made his money.  Hard skills exist is a world where you are taught there is a right answer amidst a sea of wrong ones.  Where if A=B and B=C, you dare to say A=C even if it is impolite ...

LondonYoung said...

I agree with your sensibilities.  I would add further that just a few decades ago you wouldn't have been numbed-up to the point where you accept this even of media and sports types.  Ty Cobb, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, played for the modern equivalent of $250k per season (give or take a factor of 2 depending on your inflation measure). Television came along and brought sports and entertainment closer to a winner-take-all world.

5371 said...

It's more about being able to sucker punch your best friend, I fear. Not everybody has those skills either.

tc_2 said...

Regarding the incentives for hard engineering courses.  The returns to a CS degree suffered for a while after the dot com bust but now we seem to be in another mini bubble driven by social and mobile apps. This post just appeard on HN:
"Programmers Salaries at google $250k (and up)" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3202661  
Similar things are probably going on at Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc.  It's not seven figures but the official barriers to entry are way lower, the number of people the field can support is way larger.  It sure beats the debt-ridden liberal arts sob stories you see on the OWS tumblr.

Guy_Brodude said...

I know for a fact that starting software engineers at Google/Microsoft make more than their counterparts in management consulting. For a 22/23 year old, a CS degree with a high GPA from a reputable school/program can be parlayed into a damn good job...initially. 10, 15, 20 years down the road though, it's a different story (relative to other opportunities for somebody at a given ability level, natch).

esmith said...

I don't buy the claim about the lack of incentives in STEM, and especially that prospects of 7 figures in finance matter for anyone but the tiniest majority. Attrition from STEM occurs towards majors in humanities, which tend to pay less and make one's employment prospects worse.

Guy_Brodude said...

Three further thoughts:

1. My first reaction to this article was to blame the high attrition rates on lack of adequate preparation at the secondary and primary level...but how accurate is this? I remember an old Chemistry professor (started teaching in the late 50s/early 60s IIRC) say that modern students, on average, were better-prepared in terms of knowledge, lab skills etc. than they had been in his era. The vast majority students entering an elite university (HYP etc.) will have studied Physics, Chemistry and Biology and either Calculus or Statistics, made high test scores and done quite well overall. That was not the case 40 years ago, or perhaps even 30 years ago.

2. Obama's push for [i]more[/i] STEM majors and graduates...well, we already have more than there are jobs for, or so I'm told. And really, isn't it more an issue of quality rather than quantity? Does this get back to the oft-lamented Wall Street brain-drain? Or is society just getting stupider and lazier top to bottom?

3. STEM is such a broad term. Reflecting on my own experience, the Biology department was always packed; it was consistently one of the 5 most popular majors. Chemistry was also very popular. Math was very popular. Physics was not that popular. But the least popular of all the STEM subjects was definitely Computer Science. And yet, CS was probably the most marketable, most "useful" (in the immediate, practical sense) course offered, since we had no engineering. A shame too, as CS had one of the best, most intelligent, most engaged faculties.

esmith said...

"well, we already have more than there are jobs for, or so I'm told."

We have more _doctoral_ students than there are jobs for them, because the private sector has virtually no need for individuals with doctoral degrees in STEM (no one, except taxpayers, will pay you to model the expansion of the universe or prove the Riemann hypothesis.)

At the bachelor level, the situation is opposite - we don't produce enough to satisfy the needs of the private sector. In a given year, American 4-year universities produce 50,000 to 60,000 bachelors in computer science, math and statistics (combined). On top of that number, the private sector spends big bucks on lawyers and fees to bring 100,000 skilled foreign workers on H1B visas.

MtMoru said...

Steve doesn't need the money. He says teaching is like push ups but he likes it.

His father was a professor.

Steve "teaches" because he gets recognition of a kind he cannot get elsewhere. What is that? Maybe he thinks of professor as a "high-class" occupation. Just a guess.

MtMoru said...

Right!

The category STEM is "useful" only to mush brained journalists and politicians none of whom were themselves STEM majors and none of whom have any idea how things work. 

MtMoru said...

"no one, except taxpayers, will pay you to model the expansion of the universe or prove the Riemann hypothesis."

Good on ya!

But there is plenty of applied research going on at unis. All of the research at med schools is applied, and I suppose almost all of the research in engineering departments. The NIH has a budget 10x the NSF's. As it should be.

MtMoru said...

You are a "system guy" are you not LY? But you make 8 figures per year or at least make much more every day than the median household income in the US?

I'm sure you are a very clever and hard working guy, but are you that much more clever and hard working?

MtMoru said...

I think the nerd is an Anglo-American invention. Perhaps it originated in the class prejudice of Britain's public school men.

Do Koreans and Germans talk about engineers without people skills? By US standards S Korea is an entire nation of social retardates.

Angela Merkel has a PhD in P-chem.

The closest the US has come to a technical prez are Hoover and Carter.

The importance of "people skills" and what "people skills" means varies from one society to another. Whatever it means in the US its importance is exaggerated.

LondonYoung said...

I think I am in the top 1% of clever and hard working.  I would guess that you are too.  How is this relevant?

Do you have a preference for how to map income to percentile of "clever and hard working"?  If you do, I respect it.  I don't claim to know how to do it myself.  But people here in the U.S. of A. in the 50th percentile sure seem richer than elsewhere ...

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