Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No Ability to Grasp

In a recent posting on the New York Review of Books blog, Charles Simic, Pulitzer-prize winning poet and professor emeritus of literature and creative writing, states that "Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal". His evidence for the spreading of ignorance comes in part from polls showing that large numbers of Americans believe certain things that are known to be false about recent and current events, and also from his experience as a college professor: 
Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.
I will not discuss in detail his ideas about the role of the media in spreading propaganda and disinformation, or why so many Americans believe (or are willing to believe) obvious lies about our own recent history (not to mention the present), except to disagree with this point: "In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more." There are many examples throughout history (in the US and beyond) in which much attention has been paid to those speaking nonsense from ignorance. Even so, I agree with Simic that current trends are disturbing.

But Simic also writes: "to have it [disinformation] believed requires a badly educated population unaccustomed to verifying things they are being told", which feeds back into his experience of teaching for 40 years. That's the part that interests me because, in my ~20 years of college teaching, I have not seen a shocking decline in how much students coming out of high school know, as he describes in the excerpt above. [I am also ignoring any discussion of college-educated vs. not college-educated people in the context of the current US election-year explosion of ignorance, and am focusing here only on Simic's personal observations of a decline in college student knowledge and intellectual abilities.]

Why haven't I seen this change in how much students know and can learn? Did the change happen >20 years ago, so the biggest decline precedes my teaching experience? I can't evaluate that from my own experience, but I admit to being skeptical that students in the good old days were more accustomed to "verifying" things that they were told. In fact, today I think that many students are deeply skeptical of what they are told, and we professors have to make a concerted effort to be convincing in our explanations.

Or is the difference not so much my relative youth as a professor but the fact that I teach Science and Simic teaches Literature? He writes about how students today don't have much context to understand literature because they don't read much (relevant) literature before college, and they don't know about history, even the history of places where they grew up (he gives the example of New England mill towns). It is therefore more difficult to teach these students.

In Science, we require less context of that sort (particularly of the historical variety), although we expect our students to know (some of) what they have learned in previous science and math classes. As long as they have learned something in their previous science/math classes, I can take it from there and teach them what I want them to know in my Science classes, whatever the level and format of the course.

But Simic doesn't just say that students haven't accumulated certain facts before arriving in college, but that they also ".. have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught". That's different, and, if true, should also apply as much to Science as to Literature, History etc.

I get as frustrated as any teacher does when some students do indeed fail to grasp a concept (or basic fact), despite being given ample opportunity and assistance. Even so, at every type of institution at which I have taught, I have found that every course contains students with a wide range of abilities. A challenge for me as a professor is to teach them all. This has not changed in my 20+ years of teaching experiences at different colleges and universities.

Another possible explanation for my failure to discern a decline in student abilities over the years is that I am oblivious. I am skeptical about this explanation, but I do not reject that possibility out of hand. I think when we are intensely focused on something for a long time, we can lose perspective. Perhaps I have been "dumbing down" my courses bit by bit over the years, progressively adapting to the declining abilities of my students, so any decline in student abilities was imperceptible to me (?). However, if I had taught the same course in 1992 and then not again until 2012 (assuming that my teaching abilities remained the same and it was a course that could be taught the same despite the passage of decades..), perhaps I would see a difference (?). Somehow, I don't think that is the explanation.

At the moment, I am intrigued by the Science vs. Not Science possibility. I wouldn't want to take this so far as to say that teaching (and learning) Science requires less of an intellectual engagement with, or curiosity about, the rest of the world, as compared to history, literature, and so on. I don't think that is the case. But perhaps some fundamental aspects of (college-level) Science can be "grasped" more easily (that is, with less background information) than, say, a 19th century novel? For example, in this context, is it easier to explain the second law of thermodynamics than the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier?

What do you think? Have any of you long-time teachers seen any change, for better or worse, in overall student ability to understand what you try to teach them? Please give the time-frame of your observations (in years), your academic discipline, and any ideas you have that might explain your observations.


KHecht said...

I've heard this complaint before and think it is mostly generational. In high school history classes, modern history after the civil war with the exception of WWII is often not included in the curriculum. Since the students entering college are born in the 80s or even 90s, the Vietnam/Korean/Cold wars, fall of the Berlin wall, etc. are largely unfamiliar. But those who lived through such events have clear recollections of their importance. I'm not sure this makes it more difficult to appreciate Steinbeck or Hemingway, but it is perhaps not unsurprising that students today do have a knowledge gap due to the absence of modern history in the typical high school curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Another related hypothesis to your musings on "science" versus "non-science" is that perhaps different types of students are choosing "non-science" majors today versus 40 years ago. I am a relatively new college professor (7 years), so I can't say that I have personally observed this trend, but perhaps the "best" high school students are now disproportionately choosing to major in science programs?

David S said...

Perhaps there is more highschool emphasis on science and maths, to the detriment of literature.

Although personally I think it's just talk about the "good old days". I'm only a postdoc, but I think it would be depressing to teach a similar course over and over again. It would feel like every year you go back to point 0 and have to start with another set of ignorant students all over again.

EliRabett said...

Those who become professors and teachers were most often the best student in their classes and their memory of what they knew then is projected on all of their students.

Eli will make an exception that less literature is read today, but that may simply be because there are other entertainments available at home.

nicoleandmaggie said...

There's an academic article by Mindy Marks and Phil Babcock that documents that college students spend less time studying now than they used to. In 1981 it was 24 hours, today 14. That's true controlling for SAT score, type of college etc.

Sofia said...

In mathematics, it seems that the good students are learning as much or more in high school than every (calculus is now a standard college-prep course) but at the same time the foundations are less likely to be solid. Knowledge of exponent rules and algebra with fractions cannot be assumed even if the student has memorized the quotient and chain rule for derivatives. You end up with a group of students who seem to know what they are doing (and have enough confidence and background to fill in the gaps as they go) and another group of students who, failing to have memorized the quotient and chain rules for various good reasons and having learned little about anything else, really feel they know nothing.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student at a MRU, and I've TAed an intro microbiology class for the past 3 years. The professor who teaches the class has taught it for at least 10 years, and has also noticed a decrease in the quality of students in his class. The averages have been dropping the most over the past 5 years, even more noticeably in the past 2 years. He has had to change the difficulty of exams and quizzes to try to keep the majority of the class from failing. We (the professor and I) have talked several times about why this might be occurring. Many of the students that come to ask for help simply haven't studied, or haven't tried to learn the material on their own. It seems that in high school they don't develop study skills, and aren't challenged enough. Students also don't seem to know how to take good notes (or notes at all), and expect to be hand-fed all the material they know.

Whether is this a regional effect, or maybe my MRU doesn't have good high school feeders schools, I'm not sure but I have definitely noticed a low quality of students in this specific class.

Alex II said...

Could this simply be explained by the larger proportion of the population attending college? I suppose that doesn't address the poll questions, but it would do something to address the author's anecdotes.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that the subjects you teach are less likely to be politicized, and less likely to be the subject of the kind of disinformation campaign Simic describes. But this wouldn’t be true of all sciences – evolution, global climate change, conservation biology all come to mind. There is also a difference between willful ignorance (my grandfather wasn’t a monkey!) and the post-modern refusal to accept that anything can ever be known by anyone ever. Not to mention problems with authority.

That said, I think we are buffered in the sciences, since we attract students who are on average more motivated and better prepared. (At least my university has data for this – science majors come in with higher GPAs, higher test scores, etc. on average).

FSP, I must be a robot, because I can never read your two words!

Kristin said...

I wonder how much of it relates to the fact that a larger percentage of kids go to college now compared with 40 years ago. It used to be that the students who wanted to go to college would take "college prep" courses, so it stands to reason that they were more prepared for college than today's students. Maybe?

CSgrad said...

nicoleandmaggie: It's also a lot easier to study more content in less time today. I can type things in Word or whatever rather than having to fiddle with a typewriter. I can find papers with Google Scholar and similar online tools instead of having to physically go to a library and track down the right journals. If my textbook is poorly written and I don't understand its explanations of concepts, I can find a bunch of different explanations of the same concepts online in a few seconds, rather than having to go hunt down and pore through textbooks until I find one that explains the concept in a way I understand.

As far as the original post goes: A higher percentage of high school grads go to college now than was true 40 years ago. With college no longer being the exclusive domain of the elite, it stands to reason that the average knowledge level of entering frosh would go down.

Andrea said...

"The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are
forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.". Plato

No there is some dispute whether Plato said that ur te dispute has been going on for some time so people have thought that way for at least as long as they ave been disputing the quotes origins. :)

Anonymous said...

I do think it's at least in part a science vs. literature issue, since language shifts and political/historical/social references and the like tend to make literature bound to its specific cultural context in a larger way than, say, science or math.

To take an ancient example, since that's what I'm most familiar with, the Greek word τύραννος, which in essence just means an absolute ruler, would mean very different things to, say, an Athenian citizen in the 4th century and a Syracusan in the 3rd, and an author using that word in either context would be looking to elicit a specific reaction from his audience. I don't think there's going to be quite as much change with, say, the use of π in 1870 vs. 1970, for example - there are advances in technology, but discoveries from a century or so ago can be used without so much of a need to grasp the context.

Of course, I'm saying this as someone who's much less familiar with Science, so I could be off base.

Byran said...

Isn't there another possibility, that this professor is mistaken? Maybe today's students are just as intellectually competent as those of yore, and this professor's perspective has changed.

Perhaps there is hard evidence in favor of Simic's claim (he doesn't cite any in the post as far as I could see), but for some things (e.g., technology) it strikes me as highly unlikely that young people are less astute than they used to be. And if they are more clever technologically, I wonder why they would have less ability to grasp other sorts of information.

Hobart said...

I suspect he is falling prey to a common "the world is falling apart" bias that many people do as they age. In this case, the more he knows about the world each year (as he gets older), the less it seems the students know, by comparison, who stay the same age every year. His expectations are changing without him being aware of it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Correction: 1961, not 1981

Anonymous said...

In my 17+ years of chemistry teaching my concern has not been the the student's "ability to grasp" a concept but their "fear of being wrong". I put great emphasis on problem-solving in my Intro/Gen Chem and Organic Chem classes--I devote a whole class period to working problems with the students and they are so afraid of being wrong they will not even attempt a problem. We learn so much from our mistakes but even in a low-risk situation there is still an aversion to attempting something new and unknown.
This fear may very well translate into other science and non-science areas.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the level and quality of science students' writing is steadily declining.

Anonymous said...

I actually got surprised this year by my students in a good way. I've been hearing this familiar complaint for awhile and had internalized it. So when I went to write my first exam for a course this year I took one from about 5 years ago which had been deemed 'too long' by students then, cut it by a quarter and simplified a couple of the harder questions. Well my students finished early and aced the thing. It was a slightly shorter and easier exam but in fact their performance was much better than I would have expected based on earlier performances by students. Five years is a pretty limited window but in a number of ways I see my students getting better rather than worse. I am in STEM and I do think we're attracting some of the best students and those most prepared to work very hard.

Cherish said...

A couple things come to mind. First, it may be that a wider range of abilities is able to attend college now versus 40 years ago. It was probably harder to get into college (or less of a bit deal), whereas now people from a wide variety of backgrounds in terms of class, race, and ability are able and interested in attending.

My personal opinion, however, is that this is not as critical as what is going on with k-12 education. A week or two ago, I saw an article on how many students in the UK are passing A levels who cannot write. (Sorry...can't find the reference.) There is so much being 'taught to the test' both in the US and Europe that students are no longer exposed to the history and literature that they once were before attending college. Because of this, there is a fairly obvious decline in students. I think this is less noticeable in the sciences, however, as they are being pushed fairly heavily versus things like literature. Sure, grammar and writing are emphasized, but a instruction in that are is very focused and doesn't involve studying things like classical literature as it used to.

nanoalchemist said...

I've seen a decline in basic skills and aptitude over the past 2.5 years. I started teaching (chemistry) in '07, and there has been a *significant* drop in student performance across many metrics.

This may be due to the nature of the institution, the economy, political factors, changing educational priorities, etc. Too many variables to really control for neatly.

What one faculty member has done is to give his incoming freshman gen chem class a basic non-multiple choice, no calculator math test (not factored into the grade). Scores were averaging 2/16.

The material was taken from his son's seventh grade math book.

Questions were like:
1. At what point do the line 3x+2y=10 and 4y=16x+4 intersect?

6. A colony of bacteria increases in number by 100% every hour. If there were 2,000 bacteria in the colony to start, after 8 hours how many bacteria will there be?

8. Find the numerical value of the following Log(20) +Log (50)

So, what we think the students SHOULD know is different from what we expect them to know, which is very different from what they actually do know.

I can provide all the questions, should someone want to run the test in their class. I'd love to get more stats on this.

Anonymous said...

In many ways, I have seen an increase in the ability of my students to "grasp" what they are taught (science) and to write (I teach one writing-focused science class), but that may be because admission to my academic unit within the university is becoming ever more competitive, even though I teach at a a large state university.

professormamallama said...

My humanities colleagues and I often joke that history/literature doesn't change as fast as science.

As scientists we're constantly keeping up with the latest thing (or trying to), even in terms of what we teach at the undergraduate level. Is that true for the humanities? Maybe, but certainly not to the same degree. I have a colleague who hasn't substantially changed her intro syllabus in 12 years... and my intro syllabus has
perhaps 25% overlap with when I began 12 years ago. She's in literature. I'm in one of those 'young' sciences.

When I read Simic, I began to think that more time he spends teaching the same thing, the more it gets old and the more frustrated he might get that students still don't know it (or,*compared to him*, know much much less... and less every year by comparison). However, if I'm teaching new discoveries every year, those things are fresher to me, they're also new to the students. So, I don't have that frustration.

Kevin said...

Over the past 30 years I've seen fluctuation, but not a clear trend.
Some years I've had great students, some years, not so great.

I have noticed that as our campus rapidly increased enrollment, most of the growth was at the bottom. We had just as many great students as before, but a lot more who needed extra help.

Anonymous said...

"That's different, and, if true, should also apply as much to Science as to Literature, History etc."

Should it? Science (math, chemistry, biology) is taught in high school as facts and formulas to be memorized (barring evolution, global warming, and other politically-charged topics). Literature and history delve deeply into interpretation and unfortunately personal opinions (teaching American high schools to think outside of their own life and box is pretty difficult).

Anonymous said...

Should and does. This reminds of me when I taught science at a small college, in a department that tried to merge science and humanities. My humanities colleagues had the view that we scientists just presented memorizable facts to our students, whereas they, the "deep thinkers" delved into topics requiring creativity and perceptive interpretation. Many of my science colleagues thought that the humanities people just sat around and babbled about whatever their pet topics were. Both were wrong about the other, I thought.

I have kids in high school right now and am pleased that their science subjects are being taught as more than just a bunch of facts to memorize. This is an urban, public high school. It is not just the hot button topics of science that require creativity.

The statement in the post about ability to understand applies equally well to science and non-science.

Anonymous said...

I have been impressed with the writing skills of my students, in the past few years in particular. Pretty much all of them start off writing a standard "5 paragraph essay", like they learn in middle school, but it doesn't take long before they break free from that form, without losing the ability to make a coherent argument using evidence from reading and class discussions. They write about things we discuss in class, and I get to know the individual writing style of each student, so I know they aren't pulling essays off the web. I love to see how they learn the material, use it in their essays, and evolve in their thinking and writing throughout a semester. When I read about an "inability to grasp" and poor writing skills, I do not recognize my students at a non-elite, large public university that mostly draws students from within our state.

Anonymous said...

Postdoc here.

Assuming the professor's observations are more or less accurate, an obvious explanation is that students are learning NOT LESS, but DIFFERENT things in school than they did back in the day. One example from biology: I did not learn as much about botany and anatomy as my parents did when they were students, but I learned a great deal about genetics and molecular biology. Similar examples apply to most other subjects. A commenter above points out that calculus is now a standard college prep class, but wasn't even offered by most schools just a few decades ago. It is possible that there is more emphasis on math and science, and less on literature and history than there used to be. It is also possible that the focus in schools has become less exclusively about US literature and history, and more inclusive of other parts of the world.

Anonymous said...

I teach a 1st year undergraduate module in a STEM subject in the UK, and have taught the same module off and on for the past 11 years. We have small class sizes so there is the chance that the statistics aren't robust, but there certainly seems to me to be a decrease in the students "learning skills" and an increase in strategic working i.e. doing enough to pass. The best students of course go far and beyond this, but a higher proportion of the class do not than when I first taught it.

The module is partly assessed by coursework and partly by exam. I have noticed that the coursework marks stay roughly the same, but the exam marks have drifted down considerably. This suggests to me that the students can (with in-class guidance) perform the tasks necessary, but aren't able to apply the fundamental concepts in new contexts such as might be expected in the exam.

We are thinking about how to help re-align staff and student expectations for the next batch of students....

Doctor Pion said...

Suggestion: Do you keep records of old exams you gave and the grade distributions? (One up-side of the use of Outcomes Assessment is that I will have problem-level data of particular interesting types that I have chosen to focus on.) That is the only way to know if your standards have changed. From that reference point, I see my standards on specific tasks have increased as I shifted the focus of parts of my courses.

And I still have some exams from my grad student days, so I know the emphasis those profs had back then and what rubric or curve we used to assign grades.

IMHO, the only new problem I have to deal with is that my state's schools have been teaching to a State Exit Exam (call it SEE) for years so all students have been trained in some poor study and test skills that help on that specific test. The worst is skimming, i.e. not actually reading even short word problems. I learned about it from my students, and I attack it directly by talking about SEE test-taking vs problem solving. I always had to teach problem solving, but now I have to un-teach that nonsense.

I can see how this would be a problem for that prof. Even very good students who have passed the SEE are forced to "study" for it because the entire school is essentially in limbo for a month each year.

The only other change is that my students today don't know ANY geometry. Either they never took a true Euclidean geometry class, skipping past it and a course on analytic geometry and trig so they could take a lame AP calculus class in HS, or they had a mandatory "geometry" class that was mostly about doing a few problems specific to the SEE. I have a different group of students now than in the decades-ago past, but this problem is evident even in the cream of the crop that are identifiably as talented as any I have ever had.