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Ask Slashdot: Is the Bar Being Lowered At Universities? 605

Posted by Soulskill
from the students-probably-making-good-use-of-the-bars dept.
An anonymous reader writes "I am in my late 20s, live in the U.S., work in the IT industry, and am going to school to upgrade from an associate's degree to a bachelor's degree. One of my classes is a web-based course that requires students to write blogs. I am not attending one of those questionable for-profit schools. This is a large, state-funded, public university. In this course I have noticed poor writing skills are the norm rather than the exception. It is a 3rd year course, so students should have successfully completed some sort of writing course prior to this one. Blog posts, which students are graded on, tend to be very poorly written. They are not organized into paragraphs, have multiple run-on sentences, and sometimes don't make sense. I do not know what grades they are receiving for these posts. Slashdot, is what I am seeing the exception, or the norm? Is the bar being lowered for university students, or am I just expecting too much?"
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Ask Slashdot: Is the Bar Being Lowered At Universities?

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  • not new (Score:5, Informative)

    by bananaquackmoo (1204116) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:38PM (#42912379)
    This is nothing new. Universities have a BROAD set of admissions standards. In any college you will frequently find people who you wonder how they got there. Even if they didn't someone could get in via money, lying, legacy, getting lucky, socio-economics, knowing a guy in the admissions office, you name it...
  • by pngwen (72492) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:47PM (#42912543) Journal

    I am a college instructor, and I have been for about 7 years now. I'll be upgrading to professor soon, so I can tell you first hand that your observations are quite correct. The undergraduate education system of the USA is considered to be the laughing stock of the academic world. However, our graduate schools are perceived as the best in the world. The reason for this is the utter failure of our public primary schools.

    Think of it this way. The average high school graduate in the US can only read on a 6th grade reading level. They come to me, a scholar in the field of Computer Science, and I have to try to teach them complex mathematical ideas that are only truly expressible in a new language. I have a couple of options. I can either dumb down my course to give them a chance, or I can maintain my integrity and demand that they come up to speed. The answer is that I have to do a mixture of them. If I taught as I was supposed to, my student success rate would plummet and my perception scores would be low, hence I would be fired. However, if I make the course too easy, I've polluted my own field in the next generation. Instead, I try to ramp them up with basic skills, but push them just to the edge of what their minds can actually handle. I also try to encourage them in other areas of study outside my own. Most of my students consider me a very tough but fair instructor, and most are grateful for my help. However, I do fail a larger percentage of my students than other instructors. Most have gone the field pollution route.

    This is a serious problem in our society. One thing we could do to fix it is stop pushing college so hard. Many of my kids would be better served in a tradeschool than a university, and yet they are pressured to come to me. They waist 4 years of their lives, learn nothing usable, and then end up back where they started.

    Oh, and one last thought. About the perception of the rest of the world. If you have a Bachelor's degree, that basically brings you up to par with the high school graduates in other countries. That also brings you up to the level your grandparents in the US had when they finished High School. We need to stop the degradation of the primary schools, but we never will. No child left behind has basically ensured that all future generations of Americans will be too stupid to find their a**hole with both hands.

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:57PM (#42912737) Journal
    The problem with your argument is that professors have pretty much never been trained in pedagogy. I think most people in secondary education, including the professors themselves, would agree that learning about how to teach effectively is not high on the list of priorities for most professors. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which are problematic and should be changed. But the thing is, this has been the situation for decades. Most professors aren't good teachers. That's true today, and it was true in the past. So how do you explain declining performance of students when the quality of professor has remained constant?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:58PM (#42912763)

    I am a full professor at the University of California. Our promotions are tied to our course evaluations, and our course evaluations improve as we make the classes easier. Why would we slit our financial throats for you?

  • Normal Distribution (Score:4, Informative)

    by gallen1234 (565989) <gallen@whitecran ... om minus painter> on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:12PM (#42912983)
    I'm a college professor, and my students seem to follow a relatively normal distribution. I have a few who can write well, a few who would have a hard time making a grocery list and a large majority that do okay. The ones who do poorly often do very *very* poorly and I think their relative impact may cause outside observers to overstate the situation. I've also noticed that, predictably, full length papers tend to be more problematic than individual discussion posts. Students who do okay in the discussion often start to go down hill when they have to put together a multi-page argument.
  • Re:Wrong site (Score:5, Informative)

    by N0Man74 (1620447) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:19PM (#42913097)

    Slashdot readership (if it can really be called that, judging by how little is actually read by its posting users [slashdot.org]) is an older crowd; they are not college students. Chances are they will lament how times have changed, and then tell you to get off their lawn. Seriously, very few people here are going to be able to answer your question because they are not in college anymore. On top of that there are tons of trolls who will just say they have to start up arguments.

    And does that also explain why educators with decades of experience also feel there is a decline? I have an acquaintance who is a professor at a local college, and he frequently laments at the declining performance of students today. He has shared that he has seen a remarkable decline in critical thinking, and an increase in textspeak in formal essays for his classes.

  • Re:Wrong site (Score:5, Informative)

    by Antipater (2053064) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:21PM (#42913127)

    I'm only two years out of university, so I hope I can provide a less "get off my lawn" perspective. I think what you're seeing is more a result of your specific field of study than a general decline. You're in IT, and techies don't give two shits about their writing. In my time at school, I graded assignments for both the Mechanical Engineering and English departments, so I got to see both sides of this coin. Papers for the English department were well-structured, grammatically sound, and generally easy to read, even if what they were writing about was absolute trash. Engineering reports conformed to basic sentence structure, but that was about it. They cared about the data and the equations, and the rest was filler. A comma splice was something that was mentioned in a blow-off class their freshman year and had absolutely no relevance to the Young's Modulus of aluminum. We checked the writing for plagiarism, but as long as the sentences actually made sense, the grammar was of no consequence.

    So I don't think it's a "lowering of the bar" so much as it is a splitting of disciplines - the Humanities-oriented folks slept through math class, and the STEM folks slept through writing class. Whether that's OK or not is a judgment call. Lord knows there are already enough op-eds out there playing tug-of-war over the amount of hard vs. soft education.

    The exceptions to the above were the Asian kids. Since they had studied English as their second language, with diligence and care enough to be fluent in something so different from their native tongue, they put a lot of time into their writing. There were very common grammatical mistakes (native Mandarin speakers have a lot of trouble with verb tense and subject-verb agreement, for example), but they approached anything they wrote with the care that you would put into a doctoral thesis.

  • by Vaphell (1489021) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:46PM (#42913463)

    maybe not directly, but the govt has indeed created a huge industry around the students loans, without the guarantees nobody in his right mind would loan thousands of dollars to teens. Baseline price is decided by the cash on hand people have, but the moment you give everybody an access to the subsidy of X, the price will jump by X - and that's what happened. If people who have next to no money on their own are willing to borrow 100k to study gender issues, that's how much the universities will charge.

  • Re:Wrong site (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:49PM (#42913509)

    What I have seen, there is also the push for good grades because good grades means better colleges and universities. I don't have direct proof of it taking place in high schools; but, as a professor, I have had pressure put on me to award higher grades so that way students will have better GPAs for graduate school and jobs. I've had students AND PARENTS(!) come into my office after I give my final grade come in and bitch at me about the grade I gave because that will hurt them down the road and usually those are the kids that never came to class, never spoke in class or nor did the extra credit (some of which is as easy as "tell me what sentence in the reading spoke to you the most"). No wonder it has slipped. If you are used to having things handed to you and skating by with the minimum, well, that is what you deserve.

  • by tlambert (566799) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:13PM (#42913901)

    Not so long ago, the U.S. changed the way it taught the three pillars of traditional education: reading, writing, and arithmetic.

    The read and writing are very closely coupled, and the ability to write, as well as the size of your vocabulary, directly correlate with whether you were taught to read via the "Whole Language" method, or whether you were taught via the "Phonics" method.

    The "Whole Language" method effectively treats the letter combination which makes up a word as if it were an ideogram, and you end up treating English ideogrammatically. The end result of this method of teaching is severalfold for the student taught:

    (1) The student can read words for familiar ideograms very quickly; this translates to a perception of rapid initial progress in reading, which does not follow a linear curve when increasing vocabulary usage occurs over grade levels of reading. For most people this isn't an issue, since newspapers tend to use a vocabulary of at most 300 words for most of their stories (i.e. they write their stories in language somewhere between a 5th and 6th grade reading level).

    (2) The student will often fail to be able to read words which they have not encountered before, unless the meaning can be derived from context and the first letter of the word. This is because students are still taught the "ABC Song" mnemonic, which can more often get a first letter match, compared to subsequent letters.

    (3) Their ability to write words which they have heard spoken verbally, but have never seen written in verbally paired context, is either damaged or non-existant.

    (4) When using texting, and to a lesser extent, blogging, and email communications, the student is more likely to engage in use of an abbreviated phonetic alphabet (sometimes called "text-speak").

    Contrarily, learning phonetic processing of words leads to a slower apparent ramping to an observed ability to read, but suffers none of the other drawbacks.

    The "Whole Language" method came out of the newly minted discipline of child psychology in the 1960's, and took over from the phonetic method in the late 1960's or early to mid-1970's, with California leading the way, and the other educational systems following later -- the delay in adoption depended on how conservative the school or district was when it came to adopting new methods of teaching.

    Luckily, the "Whole Language" approach has since been largely discredited, but the children who were taught to read "in the gap" were effectively handicapped in their ability to read, unless they relearn it phonetically with unfamiliar words -- typically most easily achieved by learning a language other than English phonetically, where that language shares most or all of the phonemes with English.

    Unfortunately, this "gap" lasted into the mid to late 1990's for some states (mostly, again, the educationally conservative states, who were slow to adopt the "new" phonetic method, after have been late to adopt the "Whole Language" method.

    There are a number of interesting scholarly articles on this, apart from the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teaching_reading:_whole_language_and_phonics [wikipedia.org] and I encourage you to seek them out, since the Wikipedia article fails to provide date-bands by at least state, or within a state, by school district, which would otherwise allow you to understand the age range you could expect to have been "damaged" by use of the "Whole Language" teaching method.

    NB: Some schools, notably Parochial schools (otherwise known as "religious schools"), and Montessori style schools, which had to simultaneously teach multiple grade levels within the same classroom t the same time, never adopted "Whole Language". Catholic schools in particular, which had an emphasis on teaching both Latin and English, and private schools with a foreign (usually romance) language requirement ended up with an additional teaching burden which was do

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Friday February 15, 2013 @05:23PM (#42915979)

    I apologize for not linking to the article, but I am unable to find it.

    Here it is. [economist.com]

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