What do you know and why do you know it?

MPR’s Midmorning today picked up on an item on News Cut last week, discussing why almost half of those studied apparently learned nothing in their first two years of college, and quite a few didn’t learn much over four.

Is this an indictment of our high schools, our colleges, or ourselves?

Inside Higher Ed says it’s 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.

Not surprisingly, online readers have been sharing their opinions.

“In 1996 I adjunct-taught freshman English at the U of St. Thomas, and all went well. (I’d been an adjunct professor at several colleges, and I work as a professional writer.) In 2006 I was again recruited to teach two more sections of the same course. Thirty-six of my 40 students did fine, but four of them decided they didn’t want to learn grammar and critical thinking and such, and they contrived–through e-mails to the chairman and the dean, through visitations to the chair’s office by tearful parents, and by badmouthing me to others–to get me fired. The chair expressed surprise that I was including writing basics, saying they no longer taught these skills. I had, quite literally, never gotten the memo on this, so I was shocked and appalled–and fired. BTW, I had caught one of the four cabalists plagiarizing, red-handed, and as a parting shot I sent the evidence to the English Dept. secretary (who would not have dared to withhold it from the chairman); no action was ever taken against the student.” — Nicholas, Minneapolis

I graduated college two years ago with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, and I am currently applying to grad schools. The biggest problem I see with the college education system is that most programs are not difficult/focused enough. I learned more in those 4 years than any other time in my life. I spent countless nights up late studying, and so did all of my friends. My viewpoint is that I was there spending large quantities of money, and I wanted to get the most out of my education. The teachers I also respected the most were the ones that pushed the students the most. I feel few students today appreciate this.

Secondly, most students today pick general degrees that do not focus their education. The idea of being “well rounded,” requiring students to take a wide variety of unrelated classes, only prevents them from focusing on a chosen profession, creating a less skilled work force. For instance, I knew an accounting major who had to take a gym class to get his degree.

Lastly, students today are blinded by this contemporary idea of the college experience. Yes, college should be fun, and was for me, but the primary reason you are there is to learn. – Jake, Washington DC

“I think that technology has made it easier for students to pass classes without studying for them. In taking a test I could easily google all the key points within a few minutes of studying and pass a exam rather than doing the work by going to class and reading the required books. By doing this, you can’t retain much and I think many of my fellow students don’t retain much. Unfortunately for me I can’t do this as I chose a field (Latin and Greek Languages) were truancy and being unprepared for class results in shame and possibly corporal punishment:).” – Peter, University of Minnesota

“I’m a Health Instructor at MN West Community & Technical College. I’ve taught at a 4-year institution and at this two year institution for over 20 years.

“I agree that many students get to college lacking the discipline and study skills to succeed nor do they care about learning. They just want to pass and get their degree with as little effort as possible.

“I assign more than 40 pages of reading per week and expect at least 20+ pages of writing throughout the semester. Students don’t do it. It’s very difficult to engage students in the kind of class participation needed to develop critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills When the student hasn’t read the material.

“Students complain that the course is too much work (especially “for a health class” – as if health should have less rigorous academic standards.) Because the course is not now required (because the legistlative mandate of 60/120-credit degrees has squeezed out so-called “frill” classes, enrollment in my courses is plummeting. Students are opting for classes with less rigorous course work.” — Nancy, Worthington

“I agree with the conclusion that our higher education system is in decline. But I think you need to consider the larger picture.

“1. Our primary and secondary education systems have been in decline for years. It was only a matter of time (and repeated generations graduating with lower requirements) before this decline propagated to our universities.

“2. Our society has not valued education since at least the 80’s. Financial and non-financial incentives are nearly 100% oriented to training for management and business, which in my experience are the least academically challenging.” – Alan, St. Paul

“This book is yet further evidence that much of the indictment is of the 100-year-old underlying system that all colleges and universities use — that students earn degrees by accumulating just enough course grades and credits. There is a deep alternative being developed, in which a degree is defined as a set of capabilities (“student learning outcomes”) to be actually demonstrated. – David, St. Paul

  • Joanna

    My experience as a teacher in higher ed for the last 30 years? Nothing has changed. Learning occurs when student who are motivated do the work. Period. I can use a piece of chalk or a computer, but if the student doesn’t read the assignment, do the homework, or prepare for class, it doesn’t matter what I do. Everyone wants to blame the system, but the basic fact is that you get out what you put in. I can lead students to the water, but if they don’t drink it, they are wasting their money and my time. Plenty of learning is going on, but I observe the same number of minimalists who are putting in seat time now as I did when I started teaching.

  • Al Heebsh

    I graduated in 1997. I certainly spent a lot more than 5 hours a week studying when I was in college! As for writing, I took a number of courses where I was required to write extensively. Our university had courses deemed “Writing Emphasis Courses”. These were regular content courses but the profs agreed to require a certain amount and quality of writing, though I don’t recall the criteria. We were required to take 2, one of which had to be in our major area. I took 8 of those courses. While I use a fair amount of what I learned in my major course work, I think the most valuable part of college for me was the writing. Writing skills are essential in my science job, as are the critical thinking skills required to construct a decent paper. I certainly hope that universities ensure that students today are as challenged as I was.

    One of the guests on Midmorning talked about too much focus being put on research by professors. Professors at my university were there to teach, not to research. They were very accessible, and it helped. However, one thing I didn’t have was experience in doing actual research. That would have been valuable in the R&D environment that I now work in. As I talk to recent science grads from other universities, they are gaining experience in labs working on actual research. I can see both sides of this research vs. teaching coin, and I think a balance would be valuable.

  • Emily N

    As a new instructor in higher education, the one disheartening characteristic of students seems to be a sense of entitlement. I have found that many students who turn in written assignments feel they should receive an A because they typed a few (incomplete) sentences and printed it out. Some have even gone as far as to think that if they attend class they will miraculously earn an A, as though through some sort of osmosis they will learn the material.

    I have asked my previous mentors and professors if this characteristic is new. They all seemed to agree, these students have been in class as long as they have been teaching (19+ years). And I agree with Joanna. You get out what you put in.

  • kennedy

    I guess that would explain why 50% of incoming freshman fail to finish college. With so many dropping out, perhaps we have an enrollment problem rather than a learning problem.

  • Kassie

    I learned a lot more in my first two years of college than I learned in grad school. And it was more difficult. Saying, “kids aren’t always reading 40+ pages a week” doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. My freshman year I took geology and every single thing I learned in that class was brand new. Maybe I only read 20 pages, but it was all new material. In Calculus, we maybe only did 5 pages a week. And had no writing assignments for either class. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning.

  • Helen P

    We live in a culture in which education is just something else to “get, and because it is an object, it seems as if it has nothing to do with making us happy or fulfilled. Kids today don’t understand that poor grades should make you want to do better, perhaps thinking that a “c” is a personal reflection instead of a snapshot of what has been learned. If we don’t begin to understand that education is part of a personal dream of what one is, that is an educated person, rather than a person with an education, our nation will begin to suffer from a lack of creative thinking and intellectual courage. Learning how to think, like learning to use ones muscles, takes effort but the results are amazing, both increasing ones life span. I wonder if parents today, wanting to shield their children from emotional pain are selling out the kids’ futures.