Are college students stuck on stupid?

8 Apr

In Critical thinking is an essential trait of an educated person moi said:

There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the state of education in America. A lot of that dissatisfaction comes from the belief that the education system fails to actually educate children and to teach them critical thinking skills. The University of Maine at Augusta defines an educated person:

An educated person exhibits knowledge and wisdom; recognizes and respects the diversity of nature and society; demonstrates problem solving skills; engages in planning and managing practices; navigates the on-line world; writes and speaks well; acts with integrity; and appreciates the traditions of art, culture, and ideas. Developing these abilities is a life-long process.

Essential to this definition is the development of critical thinking skills.

Scott Jaschik wrote an interesting review of the University of Chicago Press book ‘Academically Adrift’ for Inside Education.

If the purpose of a college education is for students to learn, academe is failing, according to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book being released today by University of Chicago Press. The book cites data from student surveys and transcript analysis to show that many college students have minimal classwork expectations — and then it tracks the academic gains (or stagnation) of 2,300 students of traditional college age enrolled at a range of four-year colleges and universities. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other “higher level” skills taught at college) at various points before and during their college educations, and the results are not encouraging:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

“How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much,” write the authors, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. For many undergraduates, they write, “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent…”

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.

The research then goes on to find a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • 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. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

In section after section of the book and the research report, the authors focus on pushing students to work harder and worrying less about students’ non-academic experiences… “Students who struggle to pay for college and emerge into a tough job market have a right to know that they have learned something, he said. “You can’t have a democratic society when the elite — the college-educated kids — don’t have these abilities to think critically,” he said.

The book rejects the idea of federal mandates on testing or the curriculum, suggesting that such requirements rarely work. And the book acknowledges that many college educators and students don’t yet see a crisis, given that students can enroll, earn good grades for four years, and graduate — very much enjoying themselves in the process. But in an era when “the world has become unforgiving” to those who don’t work hard or know how to think, Arum said that this may be a time to consider real change.

The culture of college needs to evolve, particularly with regard to “perverse institutional incentives” that reward colleges for enrolling and retaining students rather than for educating them. “It’s a problem when higher education is driven by a student client model and institutions are chasing after bodies,” he said.

The analysis in the book stresses that there is significant variation within institutions, not just among institutions, with students in some academic programs regularly outperforming others at the same campuses. Arum said this suggests that institutions can improve student learning by making sure that there is some consistency across disciplines in the rigor of requirements. “You need an internal culture that values learning,” he said. “You have to have departments agree that they aren’t handing out easy grades.”

Further, he said that colleges need to shift attention away from measures of “social engagement” (everything that’s not academic) and toward academic engagement, even if some of those measures of non-academic engagement help keep students engaged and enrolled. “It’s a question of what outcome you want,” he said. “If the outcome is student retention and student satisfaction, then engagement is a great strategy. If, however, you want to improve learning and enhance the academic substance of what you are up to, it is not necessarily a good strategy…”

See, A Lack Of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ In College

and Study: US College Students Advance Little Intellectually—146441905.html

The Critical Thinking Community has several great articles about critical thinking at their site. In the section, Defining Critical Thinking:

A Definition
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result

A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and

  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to
    interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;

  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought,
    recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and

  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.  (Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008).

The question is how to teach critical thinking skills.

Diane F. Halpren discusses a model for teaching critical thinking skills to college students in her article, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Helping College Students Develop the Skills and Dispositions of a Critical Thinker:

The How of Critical Thinking Instruction: A Four-Part Model

I recently proposed a four-part model of instruction for critical thinking (Halpern, 1998). Not surprisingly, it includes two parts we have already discussed—instruction in the skills and dispositions for critical thinking—but it also includes structure training as a means of improving the probability that students will recognize when a particular thinking skill is needed, even in a novel context. The problem in learning thinking skills that are needed in multiple contexts is that there are no obvious cues in the novel contexts that can trigger the recall of the thinking skill. With structure training, students are taught to create retrieval cues from the structural aspects of a problem or an argument so that when these structural aspects are present in the novel context, they can serve as cues for retrieval. I borrowed the term from Hummel and Holyoak (1997), who identified structure sensitivity as a fundamental property that underlies human thought: “First thinking is structure sensitive. Reasoning, problem solving, and learning . . .depend on a capacity to code and manipulate relational knowledge” (p. 427). For example, students may be able to explain why correlation is not causation when presented with this question on an exam but still not recognize that this same principle is operating when they read that children who attend religious schools score higher on standardized tests than those who attend public schools. Specific instruction in recognizing the structure of correlational problems can improve the probability that students will recognize these problems, even when the topic is different.

The last component of critical thinking instruction is metacognitive monitoring. Metacognition is usually defined as “what we know about what we know,” so metacognitive monitoring is determining how we can use this knowledge to direct and improve the thinking and learning process. While engaging in critical thinking, students need to monitor their thinking process, checking that progress is being made toward an appropriate goal, ensuring accuracy, and making decisions about the use of time and mental effort. In the jargon of cognitive psychology, metacognitive monitoring serves the executive function of directing the thinking process. It is made overt and conscious during instruction, often by having instructors model their own thinking process, so that the usually private activity of thinking is made visible and open to scrutiny.


Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Read an excerpt.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

272 pages | 20 tables, 20 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Cloth $70.00 ISBN: 9780226028552 Published January 2011

Paper $25.00 ISBN: 9780226028569 Published December 2010

E-book $7.00 to $18.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226028576 Published January 2011

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Derek Bok


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Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

One Response to “Are college students stuck on stupid?”


  1. Complete College America report: The failure of remediation « drwilda - June 21, 2012

    […] Are college students stuck on stupid?               […]

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