One of the classes I'm teaching now I haven't taught since 2005. Some reading materials which students found a reasonable challenge 6 years ago now completely stump a significant portion of the class. They don't even attempt the reading. Not to mention that more than one can't read cursive, so how are they getting the notes I write on the board?
Have standards at my university changed in only 6 years?
Is there something unusual about how or why students enrolled in this particular class?
Is there a larger pattern?
The book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska has been getting some attention and does point to a larger, even national, pattern.
From an interview with Salon:
Fifty percent of the kids in a typical semester say they haven't taken a single course where they've been asked to write 20 pages over the course of the semester. And 32 percent have not taken a single class the prior semester for which they've been asked to read more than 40 pages per week on average, and in terms of homework, 35 percent of them say they do five or fewer hours per week studying alone.
OK, guilty as charged. In one class I'm requiring students to write over 20 pages but most are coming in far below the expectations I expressed--both in terms of quality and quantity. In the other class, I'm only requiring about 15 pages of writing. Both classes have over 30 students. I think I spend too much time on grading. My students tell me I require more writing than many of my colleagues--particularly those in other liberal arts disciplines. I believe them. Because if they were practicing writing regularly they'd be better at it than they are.
So here's the bind. My colleagues are requiring less work. My students are expecting to do less work. I want to set them tasks which are challenging but possible. And the bar for what is possible falls a little every year. We are stuck in a pattern of decline, and it seems to be a problem of collective action. No one is positioned to make a change without paying a cost.
More from the Salon interview:
There's a longstanding tradition of some students going through college with little asked of them and little learned. Nothing is new about that. However, there is significant evidence out there that something has changed in terms of the academic rigor and student workload.... Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago. We also know that in terms of grades, students expect to receive higher grades and do receive higher grades in spite of less effort.Philosophers are surely as much a part of this drift as other disciplines. The book reports that 45% of the students followed in the study (at a wide variety of campuses) failed to progress in developing critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in their first two years. That's our department, no? Not just us, but we surely play a central role.
It's possible that one of the things to blame is something I love dearly: academic freedom. No one tells me what or how to teach, and I take the responsibility to teach well seriously. But with no one looking, it is all too easy for some of us to slide a lot and all of us to slide a little.