Value of Higher Education - Arshad Ahmad
By Arshad Ahmad on Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Re: Is our students learning? by Margaret Wente (referencing the U.S. book “Academically Adrift”), published in the Globe and Mail on June 16, 2011:
Margaret Wente cites a fairly robust study by Arum & Roksa who confirm what many of us have suggested for some time. Take a closer look at the core of their findings. The underlying intuition and explanation is not all that surprising. In sum, the study claims that almost half of the students show no gains in learning after two years in university. While this might lead Ms. Wente to believe that "for many students, higher ed. is a waste of time", there are two good reasons why this might be the case.
First, the study reveals that students are spending about 15 percent of 7 days on academic work. In other words, precious little time in learning. Well, learning does not occur by osmosis nor by willpower. Without time on task, it would be surprising that students showed learning gains.
Second, students admitted that half of them had not taken one course that required more than 20 pages of writing. One out of three said they had not taken a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading. In other words, expectations from students are at an all time low.
Should anyone be surprised that, if students are not being challenged, if there is little motivation to put in time on tasks, then little will be gained academically? Add to this larger class sizes, less attention and demonizing students as the problem, and we have a perfect storm.
Blaming students is as silly as blaming teachers. One of the hard questions to think about is what teachers really want students to be able to do. Learning is "not filling a bucket....but lighting a fire" said Yeats in 1893. Wonderful learning outcomes result once teachers kindle the flame and then it is impossible to prevent students from more meaningful and deeper approaches to learning.
As for Ms. Wente's conclusions, she looks at the glass half empty. One can easily conclude the opposite by focusing on as many examples of students who demonstrate exactly the opposite. In other words, higher education also affords incredible gains in learning, in changing student perspectives that not only help young Canadians to mature but also to make the world a better place.
Arshad Ahmad, Department of Finance, Concordia University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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