After yammering previously about a study that indicates college students are not learning to think critically, among other things, I ran into a blot by Chad Orzel, “Uncertain Principles”, [Link] that expanded the scope of the consideration. My take is a bit different – but not completely orthogonal from Chad’s.
In addition to the study (studies? the web site is ambiguous here) there is a book, which suggests that the information is considerably more dated given the latency of publishing a book even in these days of electronic publishing. Not surprising, those of us who watch over Ishrael have known the place has been rotting for a long time.
Anyway, my tendency is to take some snapshot quotes (so I can maunder about thing out of context) and then make outre comments afterward, usually of chaotic direction and incomprehensible substance. I see no reason to alter that behavior here, so in media res:
“The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.”
(This quote refers to the underlying study/survey.) The sticking point here is whether students are having to read at least 40 pages of text and/or (?) write twenty pages per week. Is there some standard of what a page is? And is it defined in characters, area covered, or information? And is the information considered in terms of encoding (ASCII characters ala Shannon) or in terms of concepts/ideas/memes?
As I recall, I took very few courses that consistently required me to read ~40 pages per week. The ones that come to mind are the english courses, four in total mandated by some authority, two courses in philosophy, and two anthropology courses. Taking each in turn, the reading in the english courses was either poetry, usually less than 40 pages per week because the information (as in concet/idea/meme) density of poetry is pretty thick, or ‘classical writings’, mostly antiquated fiction that tended to greatly exceed 40 pages per week but had mind numbingly low density of information. Overall some of the poetry was worth reading (to me) but essentially all of the ‘classical writings’ were lacking in worth. It was not helped that english professors, in those days, thought science fiction trash, at best.
The reading in the philosophy courses was brutal since there was a lot of it, and it had either been translated into the american version of english (or the english version of english) from some furrin tongue, or was written very turgidly in english to begin with. The information density was low, but what there was tended to be of considerable attraction so that if one were not an asentient bog – we had a few who wandered into the courses by being asentient bogs – it engaged the mind and forced one to think and learn. The anthropology writings were of similar length and information density but much better written. There is evidently some causation between being an anthropologist and being able to write in a communicative style.
Using Chad Orzel’s excellent dichotomy of educational modes, all of these courses were of the mode where one reads before lass and then in class discusses. All of the other courses I took and remember were of the type where one goes to class, the lecture illuminates, and then one reads the book. In all of these courses the information density is high and the number of pages is low and fraught with many equations and graphics. Regardless, I will argue that the real measure of these (nerd) courses is not how many pages must be read but how many problems must be done.
This brings to the writing assignments. I avoided mushy, fuzzy writing assignment courses. Yes, I had to write papers in the eight reading courses but the writings were limited to semester papers and maybe some essays. And none of these taught me much of anything except that it is very hard to write about stuff you are not intrigued with. On the other hand, many of my nerd classes had laboratories and one had to write lab reports. These were graded for syntax, content, and accuracy and while they would likely be dismissed as irrelevant to the fuzzy 20 page criteria I will advance that there was more interest here than in some essay on some boring novel. Certainly one had to think to write a lab report because one had to explain and justify one’s conclusions. Heck, one had to form conclusions which was a term never used by the fuzzy course instructors.
“Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.”
At last! This is something nerds have known but have had to comply with the social demands of the authority figures. If you’re going to understand and cogitate you have to do it solitary. The only benefit of group grope is to get started, and that is unnecessary if the lecturer does a good enough job.
“Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.”
It’s Newton – action and reaction – if we can apply physics to humans. Or call it survival, but if the students know they have to perform, they either will or they will invent a way around, and both call for effort, don’t they? And I still think the page thing is whacked. It ignores the metrics of nerd courses.
“Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.”
Certainly, time spent partying and hung over aside, greek life is not conducive to cogitation and learning, except maybe learning of how to cheat and slide by. I belonged to a professional (discipline) fraternity in graduate shul. I have yet to find any benefit from it other than learning that once one joins a fraternity one is stuck with time wasting obligations and diversions from learning.
“Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.”
Again, if you aren’t thinking about the stuff you are supposed to be learning, you ain’t learning. Now I have to admit to being able to think about solving problems while I was on dates but I had to cease that if the activity went down the gratuitous reproductive activity azimuth. Although I did solve some very nasty integrals during orgasm.
“Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.”
This is back to last time, and I reconfirm that if the discipline you study doesn’t demand you think and reach conclusions there is no reason, other than random human desire, to learn how. So if you take crip courses you get crippled in the head.
I have to agree that the difficulty lies in society and the shul. Simply put, a lot of students and a lot of disciplines – business, for example – are not going to make critical thinkers. So own up to the idea that most need to go to trade or craft shul and not to college. And trun the colleges back into elite foundries and not plastic molding factories.