Thinking about learning

Are college students learning? In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews writes about the National Survey of Student Engagement, known as Nessie, which is trying to answer the question.

Only 11 percent of undergraduates surveyed said they are doing the 25 hours of class preparation each week that their professors recommend. About 44 percent of freshmen and 25 percent of seniors said they don’t discuss ideas or reading from their courses with faculty outside of class.

But in its latest annual report released this week, the national survey group revealed some good news. The percentage of seniors who think their campus administrations are helpful, considerate and flexible has increased from 48 percent in 2000 to 63 percent this year. And 55 percent of students report having serious talks with students of different social, political and religious views, up from 45 percent four years ago.

Cranky Professor and his art history colleagues are consuming wine, cheese, nuts and olives while discussing “what we think our students are getting out of our classes. We’ve tossed all of our syllabuses into a box and have looked at them. We’re approaching the big question — do we as a group (of 5) have any common idea of what an art history graduate of this department should know or be able to do?”

Read the comment by Dr. Cookie, who’s completing an education doctorate. Professors have no idea what other professors are teaching, she writes, because they don’t share syllabi.

At one meeting, the profs began to complain about the teaching workload, and if they had to share ideas and articulate the core courses, then it would be hard and blah, blah, blah.

So I asked, “Do you think it would be better to first decide what you think students should know? Like when I leave here, and go out on the job market and say I have a PhD from this university, what should people think I know? What do academics assume you have taught me?”

They were silent. They had never really thought about it that way before.

It was particularly sad that professors had not thought about student knowledge, when we’re in an education department.

In a column, Mathews links to D.C. area colleges that post their Nessie results.

About Joanne


  1. Yeah, I don’t study for 25 hours a week. But if a girl can get a 4.0 on 8-10 hours a week, why shouldn’t she?

  2. I never studied for 25 hours a week either. In fact, I did extremely well in my classes. I also barely read the books. Some sit on my bookshelf completely unopened. The spine hasn’t even been cracked.

    If my professors gave extensive weekly quizzes on the reading, then I wouldn’t have been able to get away with coasting in college. Hint. Hint.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    If they did that the students would punish them on course evaluations; the untenured ones would be on their way to unemployment as a consequence, and the tenured ones would probably lose out on merit salary raises. As a result, the students like you, who want to learn more, are screwed out of an education in order to keep the slackers happy; this is how higher “education” has “worked” ever since the lunatics were put in charge of the asylum back in the 60s. Of course when you have a library available nobody can stop you from getting an education if you want one, but you deserve more for those exorbitant tuition bills.

  4. Not if it’s a mandated school policy…

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    Ah, but mandated by whom? Remember that the academic administrators are ambitious, and typically intellectually mediocre (or they’d still be doing scholarship instead of deaning), former professors who prospered under the current system.

    I admire your youthful optimism but I think the “traditional” higher education sector is unreformable, and in the long run will simply be destroyed by competition from creative new institutions which make full use of technological advances.

  6. I will say that some departments DO think about that. In our “large” courses (non-majors and major-level introductory bio) we have had extensive (and sometimes argument-laced) faculty meetings over setting up a topic list of “what students need to know after the course”

    oddly enough, that’s also the factor that I’ve used in planning my syllabi – what I want a student to walk out the door being able to do or knowing.

    huh. never knew my department was full of so many innovators.