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Are colleges failing?

Higher ed needs new lesson plans

A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. Hundreds of studies have accumulated on how undergraduates develop during college and what effects different methods of teaching have on improving critical thinking, moral reasoning, quantitative literacy, and other skills vital to undergraduate education. One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. Most faculties seem equally uninterested in research when they review the curriculum.

Apparently, empirical studies command respect only when they are used to investigate institutions and professions other than those to which professors themselves belong.

It is unfortunate that college professors pay so little heed to the research about undergraduate education. If they did, they might encounter some provocative findings, such as the following.

-Despite the hours spent debating different models of general education, the choices faculties make rarely lead to any significant difference in the cognitive development of undergraduates.

-Most college seniors do not think that they have made substantial progress in improving their competence in writing or quantitative methods, and some assessments have found that many students actually regress.

-Students who start college with average critical thinking skills only tend to progress over the next four years from the 50th percentile of their class to approximately the 69th percentile. Most undergraduates leave college still inclined to approach unstructured ''real life" problems with a form of primitive relativism, believing that there are no firm grounds for preferring one conclusion over another.

-Although most colleges require students to take classes in another language, fewer than 10 percent of seniors believe that they have substantially improved their foreign language skills, and fewer than 15 percent are enrolled in an advanced class.

-Substantial groups of students, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and recruited athletes in major sports, perform well below the levels one would expect based on their high school grades and SAT scores. Although a few colleges have developed successful programs to overcome such underperformance, most do not even try, despite the commitment expressed in many college brochures to ''help each student develop to his or her full potential."

Further studies indicate that problem-based discussion, group study, and other forms of active learning produce greater gains in critical thinking than lectures, yet the lecture format is still the standard in most college classes, especially in large universities. Other research has documented the widespread use of other practices that impede effective learning, such as the lack of prompt and adequate feedback on student work, the prevalence of tests that call for memory rather than critical thinking, and the reliance on teaching methods that allow students to do well in science courses by banking on memory rather than truly understanding the basic underlying concepts.

Critics of American colleges typically attribute the failings of undergraduate education to a tendency on the part of professors to neglect their teaching to concentrate on research. In fact, the evidence does not support this thesis, except perhaps in major research universities. Surveys show that most faculty members prefer teaching to research and spend much more time at it. The problem is not that faculty are uninterested in their students but that they do too little to explore new and possibly more effective ways of teaching and learning.

One reason for this neglect is that professors are rarely exposed to research on teachingduring graduate school. Doctoral training is devoted almost entirely to learning to do research, even though most PhDs who enter academic life spend far more time teaching than they do conducting experiments or writing books. To most faculty members, teaching is an art that is either too simple to require formal training, too personal to be taught to others, or too innate to be conveyed to anyone lacking the necessary gifts. Freshly minted PhDs typically teach the way their favorite professorstaught. This pattern introduces a strong conservative bias into college instruction, a bias reinforced by the tendency of many faculties to regard the choice of teaching methods as the exclusive prerogative of individual professors rather than a fit subject for collective deliberation.

Another reason for ignoring educational research is that such work is often threatening to a faculty. Once investigators start assessing how much students are learning, they may conclude that familiar methods of teaching are ineffective and need to be replaced. Such findings are doubly disquieting. They cast a depressing doubt on the value of countless classes that cannot be done over. Worse yet, revising courses will undoubtedly force professors to spend many hours of additional time on top of already busy schedules.

College faculties have long been able to ignore educational research and avoid discussion of teaching methods because they risk no adverse consequences as a result. Students will rarely know whether they are learning less than they might or whether they could learn more at another institution. So long as colleges do not charge excessive tuitions and keep abreast of their competitors, offering popular degree programs, providing financial aid, and building facilities, they can continue to attract applicants and graduate satisfied students.

There are signs, however, that colleges may not be able to continue paying so little attention to improving student learning. Changing demands in the economy are forcing employers to pay increasing sums to remedy deficiencies in the writing and computational skills of the college graduates they hire. In addition, more and more work normally performed by college graduates is now being outsourced to other countries. Already, tax returns for several hundred thousand US citizens are being prepared in India; CAT scans are being analyzed in Poland; Microsoft is employing scientists in China; Boeing has engaged the services of engineers in Russia. As this process continues, American graduates will no longer be competing only with themselves but with hordes of ambitious, hard-working young people from countries such as India and China intent on claiming a piece of the world's most prosperous economy. In this new environment, American students can no longer afford to graduate without the best possible education.

Other organizations have become accustomed to this kind of competition. They have responded by becoming effective learning organizations -- that is, organizations that constantly assess their work to identify problems, look for new ways to overcome weaknesses, evaluate these innovations with care, and adopt the methods that work while discarding those that don't. Colleges urgently need to follow this example.

Properly done, such a process can be rewarding for everyone. The principal beneficiaries will be the students, but professors stand to benefit as well. Experimenting with new and better ways to help students learn can be as engrossing for a teacher as experimenting in a laboratory or undertaking an empirical investigation in the social sciences. For academic leaders, trying to initiate a process of enlightened trial and error through continuing self-scrutiny and research may well be the most important challenge they face. Those who succeed will not only gain the lasting satisfaction of helping to improve the lives of their students, but lead the way toward higher-quality undergraduate education. Few educators could aspire to any greater achievement.

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, is the author of the just-published ''Our Underachieving Colleges."

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