I recently had a chance to hear Dr. Derek Bok, former Harvard University president, speak on the issues facing higher education.
He notes that U.S. universities are highly admired and respected around the world. However, he states that this is due just as much to weaknesses in the educational systems in other countries as it is to higher education here. The U.S. will face much stiffer competition from these countries in the future.
Dr. Bok noted there are two major problems facing us as a nation in regards to higher education: The quantity of college graduates and the quality of education/learning that these graduates have.
The first refers to the number of students graduating from college today. Too few students actually finish their degree programs and the U.S. is beginning to lag behind other countries (8-10 countries have a higher percentage of their young people who successfully graduated from college). The problem is not with getting them to college (80% of high school students begin) but in the high drop-out rates. It used to be that the majority of students who went to college came in straight from high school and were from middle or upper-income families. Today, more and more students are older students, of lower income brackets, from poor K-12 schools, and are first generation college students-meaning the first in their families to attend college. There is a need for more support services for these students in order for them to gain the resources, tutoring, financial support, and confidence they need to successfully complete their educational programs.
A second problem is the quality of education students are receiving. College graduates in the U.S. will be competing with graduates in other countries who will work for less. Thus, U.S. students will need to have a higher quality education to compete/they must know more.
How much students get out of college depends on how much they put into it. How do we affect this?
NOTE: Thirty-six percent of college students do not show a significant increase in their writing and critical skills when they graduate.
Why? Overall, they are studying less because there is so much competition for their attention (internet, Facebook, video games). Faculty are not aware of the extent of this competition and are teaching the same way that they were taught. Ph.D. programs train people to do research, not to teach. The emphasis is still on lecturing.
Faculty are also not demanding as much from their students. Part of this is due to the emphasis on getting good student evaluations. Professors want job security and could be fired, not tenured, or not promoted if these evals are bad. Universities are competing for students and budgets. The emphasis is on keeping the students happy, not on making sure they are learning.
Just as with any other social change, the only way professors will change the way they teach is when they realize the need to change.
Professors don’t do teaching the way they do research. With research, they identify a problem, gather data, test hypotheses, make conclusions, etc.
With teaching tend to use hunches, intuition, how did in the past or how saw others teach.
The way to get professors to change is NOT to tell them to change. The trick is to give them credible evidence that there is a need for change and then let them figure out how.
Teachers need to emphasize problem solving, collaborative work, and give frequent and timely feedback. Let the students know if making progress and how they can improve. Students tend to study to the exam so include critical thinking on exams.
By improving the quality of teaching, students will become more interested, be more willing to work harder and thus learn more. Lectures do not work to teach critical thinking, there is no deep learning with lecture just as you could not learn to drive a car or to play basketball by listening to lectures.
Dr. Bok ended up by saying, “A first-rate community college adds so much more value to society than just another medium ranked research school.” We need to rethink how we rank our schools and put emphasis back on teaching and away from publishing esoteric articles that no one reads.