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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.

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