college teaching isn’t very effective

Yesterday’s post was long and meandering. I was thinking as I wrote about several different (but related) topics. I’m beginning to plan a speech that I’ll give in Texas in January, and yesterday’s post was preparatory. Anyway, I think I “buried the lead.” If anything I wrote was interesting, it was this paragraph:

College students score higher on tests of knowledge and critical thinking near the end of their undergraduate careers than at the beginning. The best estimates suggest that college exposure has a positive effect–between one quarter and one half of a standard deviation, depending on what outcomes we measure. However, there is remarkably little evidence that the type of college matters, even though colleges differ extraordinarily in size, selectivity, and mission. To me, this finding suggests that little of what a college does intentionally to educate students has an impact. Students grow, in part thanks to the college experience (which includes extracurricular activities and living arrangements); but they do not benefit to an impressive degree from college teaching.

As Hellmut Lotz noted in his comment yesterday, “course work provides valuable focus to the learning experience in dorms and friendship circles. If young adults went to … day care [for a year], they would probably learn less.” I agree. Students benefit from being congregated with other students in institutions supposedly dedicated to learning. Even the title of “student” probably has a positive effect. Nevertheless, the direct impact of the instruction that colleges offer seems remarkably small, given how much we charge for it. I blame large classes, unhelpful exercises, poorly prepared and motivated teachers, and inappropriate curricula–but the underlying problem is the incentive structure that I described yesterday. Neither colleges nor students have enough reason to care about the “value-added” from higher education.

The source, again, is Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.145-6; 205-6.

2 thoughts on “college teaching isn’t very effective

  1. Steven Maloney

    If I may permitted to muse and ramble back a bit:

    I’m not even sure what the “value-added” of education is, at least on a large scale that you could measure. I have had a large number of teacher’s who have dramatically impacted the quality of my life, but I don’t know how to even begin to talk about that “value added” in any way outside of what it means to me in a very personal way (which, incidentally includes reading “Living Without Philosophy” as an undergraduate).

    I confess that I try to run my classroom with the objective of increasing excitement about the subject matter, but even moreso to try to expose the thrill and beauty that I see in learning as much as I can. I know that sounds like some sort of awful Hallmark Card sentiment, but I really do think there’s something to it. When people start talking to me after class asking what other books they can read, or when they say I have a paper due in a month, and I wanted to use something form this class, I think those moments give me a better feel for succes than any type of knowledge that has been sort of deposited in their minds or any particular habits that have been formed.

    I’m not sure how one can even begin to institutionalize such things. I think it’s like the difference between the solutions offered by politicians and the solutions offered by Tarrou in “The Plague”. Creativity and inspiration just don’t seem like things that can be structured, standardized, etc.

    And what good does it do anyway, to simply inculcate knowledge and develop habits, when we have good reason to believe that it won’t help in preventing people from reconstructing their worldview to fit their interest or to cave to the vast pressures that authority in the world can place upon the individual?

    Anyway, I don’t mean this to sound so entirely defeatist. I think that learning is not only a good thing, but possibly the best thing in the world. And, I think it is quite obvious that if we structure education in different ways we can get better or worse results. The question that I wonder about the most is what exactly are we protecting the most when we try to protect education? It can’t be the academic institutions themselves, and it can’t be the state. We are, for the time being, on the end of a 2,000 plus year tradition, which is an amazing thing. I cannot buy into the idea that its aims are purely instrumental.

  2. Hellmut Lotz

    Responding to Steven as well as Peter, real world challenges provide probably for the best learning experiences. That’s why vocational training is so successful. There are clear goals and better feedback. And there are economic rewards that sustain the activity.

    Universities have a competitive edge in terms of intellectual independence. Think tanks research better. Vocational training teaches better.

    Having said that there are ways to simulate vocational training in the classroom. I have the famous battle of the robots at MIT in mind, for example. I had a great experience when we prepared and conducted a real exit poll as students. Then there are activities such as mute court and debate teams that provide for effective simulations.

    The thing is that all these activities come at a price. Vocational training pays for itself because towards the end of the training the employer is compensated in terms of cheap labor. The professor who conducted the exit poll had to raise $20,000. Student activity fees finance mute court teams.

    I suppose a university’s budget reveals its true priorities.

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