Thursday, August 11, 2011

Academically Adrift and the Status Quo

I am nearly finished reading Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In case you are not familiar with the book, here's the short version. The authors studied 2000+ students from 24 four-year institutions of higher education, giving them tests that measure general (as opposed to discipline-specific) skills that practically all colleges claim to enhance: critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The tests were given before starting college and halfway through the sophomore year, and so they were focusing on the effects of common core curriculum experiences. The results were dismal, with the average gain being very low and about 45% of students showing no improvement.

The fifth chapter is entitled "A mandate for reform," and it makes an important point about higher education: there is no crisis. There is no crisis because there is nothing that, right now, is threatening the existence of higher education as an institution. All of the stakeholders are in good position to maintain the status quo. Parents grumble about tuition but continue to pay it in exchange for credentials for their children. Students readily seek out courses that provide little challenge, require minimal work, and allow for plenty of time for social activities, while still maintaining progress towards credentials. Professors minimize interaction with students, exchanging unchallenging courses for high course evaluations and therefore more pay, while also gaining more time for other scholarship—which also leads to more pay. Administrators keep students happy in order to improve recruitment and retention, focusing on revenue streams. Legislators and other politicians gain a credentialed citizenry, improving metrics against competing states, nations, etc.

This gives me another perspective on why it has been so challenging to try to push for learning reform within higher education: "learning" is completely absent from the status quo. There is nothing about the current balance of powers that supports, rewards, or encourages undergraduate learning, and in fact, to do so would upset the balance.

From page 127, "Many higher-education administrators and faculty today have largely turned away from earlier conceptions of their roles that recognized that providing support for student academic and social development was a moral imperative worth sacrificing for personally, professionally, and institutionally."  There were some on the Future of Education Task Force who were willing to bring up the concept of institutional sacrifice, but I have yet to see this manifest on the Strategic Planning Task Force.

Looking at it positively, this book gives me more ammunition to support what I believe is the moral imperative to fundamentally improve the higher educational system. The book is well-written and contains plenty of references to supporting literature.

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