The Wrong Solution to Student Learning



When you talk to other professors and employers about college students and recent college graduates, it doesn’t take long for a particular grumble to pop up: The kids think they’re more skilled and knowledgeable than they really are.  Millennials consider themselves a special cohort–they have all the right opinions about justice and humanity–but when it comes down to the basics of math and verbal skills, they fall well short of their own appraisal.

If you make that complaint, however, as I did in The Dumbest Generation, the Millennials and their advocates have a ready reply: “You’re just another get-off-my-lawn fuddy-duddy.”

That’s when you have to reach for the numbers.

One of the questions on the 2015 American Freshman Survey was how college students rate themselves relative to the “average person their age.”  Nearly three-quarters of the respondents (73.5 percent) considered themselves in the “Highest 10%” or “Above Average” (see table on page 51).  Four-fifths of them (79.2 percent) claimed that elite category in “Drive to achieve.”

Given that the American Freshman Survey covers students in baccalaureate institutions, their overestimation isn’t as off base as we might assume.  They are, indeed, stronger on average than kids who headed to two-year colleges and those who didn’t go to college at all.

But what about when they graduate from four-year colleges and hit the workforce?  Here is where a misestimation of talents can mean a terrible roadblock.  According to another survey that focuses on precisely this moment in young Americans’ lives, the disappointments happen all the time.  It’s a survey by Hart Research Associates conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  The survey is administered online to hundreds of students just about to earn their AA or BA/BS degree, on one hand, and to hundreds of employers on the other hand.  The results in 2015 exposed a vast perception gap in how students judge themselves and how the people they will work for judge them.  A Chronicle of Higher Education headline on the results put it bluntly: “College Students Think They’re Ready for the Work Force.  Employers Aren’t So Sure.”  

According to the report, “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success,” while 64 percent of students judge themselves “well prepared” to work in teams, only 37 percent of employers agreed.  Skills gaps were even wider.  On oral communication, 62 percent of students called themselves superior, but only 28 percent of employers did so.  (This is why I sometimes interrupt a class discussion and announce, “Listen, all of you–if you put a like in every sentence you utter, nobody is ever going to take you seriously.”)  Written communication showed a 38-point different, 65 to 27 percent, while problem solving opened a 35-point gap (59-24) and critical thinking a 40-point gap (66-26).

We shouldn’t be surprised at these results.  Grade inflation through high school and college (except in pre-med and STEM majors) leads students to overestimate their learning.  So does the natural confidence of youth.  Another temptation to self-compliment is Digital Age habits.  When you write about and talk about and photograph yourself every day, the narcissism element grows.  Text messaging, cell phone calls, selfies, and Facebook posts and comments boost the ego.  They make kids overplay their importance in the world.  Having lots of “friends” makes them think they’re more noteworthy than they are (at that early time of life).  It doesn’t translate well into the workplace.

But students don’t know it yet, and it’s not their fault.  The educators’ proper antidote is not to address the students’ egos directly.  It is to develop a curriculum that will bring their self-assessments more in line with reality, especially by raising their knowledge and improving their skills.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for reform voices to acknowledge the problem but choose the wrong antidote.  A typical example appeared this week at eCampus News written by Geoff Irvine, CEO of Chalk & Wire, an education technology company.  Irvine cites the skills gap that falls between “the perceptions of students and employers about work readiness,” but for him the problem stems from a lack of “real-world experiences.”  Sadly, he says, “much of what is offered today in academia isn’t terribly ‘real world.'”  And so he calls for less traditional instruction and more “experiential learning.”

But while we sympathize with the complaint, how would more exercises in experiential learning–eg. lessons that challenge students “to consider if, given new insights, they would do things differently and if so take action based on a sound plan”-produce better writers and readers and speakers?  Poor writing skills are a constant misery in the workplace, but more collaborative projects and real-world application won’t help.  Better writing comes from reading great stylists and having one-to-one tutorials with a teachers willing to go over a student’s prose sentence by sentence.  Better speaking comes when a teacher in the classroom models intelligent speech.  (When I hear a junior professor say “cool” or “awesome,” I want to grab him and say, “Elevate!”).  

In other words, many of students’ skill and knowledge deficiencies are best remedied in the old-fashioned way, but traditional instruction, not 21st-century innovation.  I know of no evidence that shows a computerized classroom produces more writing improvement than a pen-and-paper classroom.

In the humanities areas, at least, let’s have students do less with the real world and more with Thoreau and Burke.  Have them grapple with the moral and psychological problems of Anna and Vronsky, not contemporary society.  This is, in fact, better training for the real world, that is, to keep it out of the classroom, not to bring it in.

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