Study: Many college students not learning to think critically

6 Mar

Study: Many college students not learning to think critically

Two and a half months ago, The Hechinger Report came out with the results of a four-year long study by NYU sociology professor Richard Arum questioning the value of a four-year college education. Arum and his team concluded that, overall, students are not making remarkable gains in their critical thinking abilities.

Results by numbers:
2,322: # of students studied
24: # of colleges/universities, ranging from most to least selective, represented by the study
45: % of students who showed no significant gains after 2 years of undergrad study
36: % of students who showed no significant gains after 4 years of undergrad study
<20: % of time per week students dedicate to academics (studying, class time, etc)
51: % of time per week students dedicate to extra-curriculars
>40: the average # of pages of reading per week per class read by those who made the highest gains
~20: the average # of pages of writing per semester per class written by those who made the highest gains
0: the # of other students with which those who made the biggest gains studied

The question at the forefront of my mind is how they measured gains in critical thinking abilities. The study says students were unable to “sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event…The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.” However, it seems obvious to state that these are reading and writing based skills. Without having seen the actual test the subjects were given to measure their gains, I can’t say very much with certainty, but under the umbrella of ‘critical thinking’ I place heavy emphasis on problem-solving and deductive reasoning.

All nuances aside, though, this article reifies what I perceive to be one of the biggest problems in modern society: not everyone is meant for college. They’re just not. You like what you’re good at, and there are so many people I know whose talents lie outside the classroom and yet they’re spending money and time going to a four-year institution instead of going to trade school or getting an associates degree. Taking it one step further, not everyone is meant for college directly after high school. Columbia has the school of General Studies for students who have, due to a wide range of circumstances, taken a significant measure of time off from school and have since decided to go back for their undergrad degree. Needless to say, they put all the rest of us to shame, because they know why they’re here. For them, college isn’t just the next step, and it’s not something that’s going to be easy for them- many of them have jobs or families to attend to while carrying a (generally speaking) rigorous course load.

This proposal probably seems contradictory to my last post (re: 20-somethings taking too long to get their lives started), and at first glance, it totally is. In today’s day and age, without a degree of some sort– at minimum, a Bachelor’s– one can’t get a job with a substantial income. If students don’t get that degree straight after high school, that’s wasted time. And yet here I am, saying they should put it off, essentially saying they should waste time. How does that make sense? It doesn’t, really. And it won’t, until we can edit the way education is perceived. Higher education shouldn’t be a necessary next step, because it’s not always necessary. Take insurance agents, for example. How much of their work is dictated by their college degree as opposed to on the job training? That degree is nice to have, and ideally it will produce more educated American citizens, but until we can prove that that is, in fact, the end product of a college education, is it always worth it?

While this study says that liberal arts students made the greatest gains in critical thinking due to their increased exposure to writings and readings and skills of all types, a liberal arts degree is almost useless- it’s value lies predominantly in two things, really. First, the fact that it’s a Bachelor’s degree at all, and second, the location from which the degree was obtained. The process to receiving a Liberal Arts degree is both interesting and enjoyable (I’m on my way to getting one right now), but regardless of one’s major, college grads aren’t exactly graduating with very many tangible skills. I won’t go so far as to say that your major doesn’t matter at all, but a November article from the New York Times’ education section suggests it has very little bearing on what you do later in life (that is, unless you want it to).

To that end, a PayScale Inc. study came up with the following data on the subject:

“Contrary to what many parents tell their children majoring in subjects like political science or philosophy, these degrees won’t necessarily leave you in the poorhouse. It can depend on what career path you choose to pursue with that degree. History-majors-turned-business-consultants earn a median total compensation of $104,000, similar to their counterparts who pursued a business major like economics — whose grads earn about $98,000 overall at midcareer, the PayScale study shows.”

Even the College Board says that, “for most students, picking a college major is not the same as picking a career. It will be up to you to pursue what you like.” But I digress. The value of a college major isn’t really the point of this post.

Anyways, the gist of what I was trying to get at was that if no substantial gains are being made, is there a point in getting a degree at all? And if that is indeed the case, in what does the problem lie: the students, the schools, or the system?

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to make a middle-of-the-road answer, as wishy-washy as those oftentimes seem. Where I went to high school, college is simply the next step. It’s just what you do. I wouldn’t say that most of my peers don’t want to be there (rather, everyone wants to be there; little in life is more straight-up fun than college on the weekends); I instead posit that they’ve never really thought about it. Of course they’ve thought about the financial sacrifices and whatnot, but I’ve seen very few people whose work ethic is directly proportional to the selectivity of the school, the amount of privilege they possess in being able to attend the school, or the amount of money they’re paying for their education- myself included. I dreamed I would become this Super Student when I came to college, and yet, same as in high school, when I sincerely feel something is unnecessary, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t. I try. I really, really do. And I know for a fact that millions of other college students feel (and do) the same. I’ve taken college for granted; it was somewhere I was always told would be my place post-graduation, and at least the way my high school career functioned, it was never something I thought very much about (in the sense that I, unlike Rory Gilmore, did not see a particular school as the light at the end of the tunnel). I worked hard because I enjoyed it, and ended up at my school because of it. As confirmed by the many complaints and angry rants about seemingly arbitrary acceptances and rejections (I can’t believe I only got in here when so-and-so gets to go there), to me and those I graduated with, college always seemed more like a right than a privilege.

Which brings me to the school. Private colleges function via endowment, a figure that rises and falls largely depending on student success. Also dictated by student success is professor’s rating and standing in a university. The success rating is more or less dictated by grades. As reported this past January by the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University is arguable experiencing significant grade inflation, with roughly 8% of the Columbia College/SEAS population possessing a GPA between a 4.0 (straight As) and 4.33 (straight A-pluses). Are Columbia students getting smarter, or are the classes just getting easier? There’s really no way to tell, but it seems to me that something fishy is definitely going on here, and I imagine at many other colleges and universities nation-wide.

Obviously, there’s no way to force or even ensure that students are doing the readings, save giving a pop quiz or something on each reading, but no one wants to deal with that (least of all the lucky professors who get the 200-person lectures). But I think that schools (especially those on the upper echelons of the selectivity scale) breed competition, which in turn makes students more focused on the grade than on the material- again, myself included. I wasn’t a huge fan of one of my GenEds last semester, so I wrote the papers, I did enough of the reading to speak once a class, and I finished it. I have since forgotten most things we discussed, and anything in the back of my memory will probably be squished out by the semesters to come, but I was so determined not to be at the bottom of the curve that I just didn’t care. Luckily, my school is not like Wharton and doesn’t grade every class on a class curve (only the top x% of students per class can get an A, the next x% can get a B, etc), where it becomes less about how hard you’re working and more about working harder than the person next to you. How can you possibly devote the 120% of your energy necessary to genuinely understand the material to 4-5 academic classes, sleep, eat, and maybe even go out once in a while? You just can’t. So you eliminate what’s least appealing, the work for the classes you dislike. And honestly (this coming from someone who often does just that, mind you)- I’ve probably gotten the most out of those readings, because they forced me to stretch my mind just to finish it, to keep my attention long enough to see what the author is saying. The readings I enjoy almost begin to feel like candy; I can devour them without much effort because they’re fun. But you’ve got to have your meat and potatoes sometimes.

And finally, the system. Why is college all of a sudden necessary for every job with upward mobility, regardless of the degree’s bearing on the work one is doing? Just to prove that you could, at one point in time, write dozens of papers on a fraction of the sleep? Well-roundedness is important, but only if students are actually absorbing and utilizing the knowledge to which they’re being exposed. Clearly, that’s not happening, and so it’s time to re-evaluate the system. I think we’ll start seeing more gains in critical thinking when students don’t see college as a means to an end, but rather an end in itself:  the end of an era of learning; a springboard from which they can launch into a stimulating career. When everyone who claims to love learning can get past what they feel is “important” and just read articles to read them, college will be worth it. When college once again becomes a privilege and not a right, students will begin to appreciate it and do what college is supposed to do: learn how to stretch their minds.


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