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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:34PM (#42912329)

    Yes... the bar is being lowered, yes it is!

  • Wrong site (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:36PM (#42912357)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:39PM (#42912397)

    20 years ago as a first year UK student, I spent a semester at a decent US university. I participated in Masters level courses and aced them all. I was shocked at the astonishingly basic level of teaching and understanding; grading for much of the course was via multiple choice quizzes which made it ridiculously easy to achieve high marks, without proper validation of a student's understanding of the subject. At that time, UK university courses were effectively free.

    You are paying handsomely for the lamentable education you are receiving. Complain. Vociferously!

  • ...Back in the day (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:44PM (#42912497)

    Back in the day they had high standards...

    Wait, did they? Do you have metrics to show it?

    Eighteen year olds aren't great writers, they never have been. Maybe at Harvard or an advanced English class, you'd have to write really well. But this is a Blogging class at State school. This is clearly writing for engineers, I'm not surprised the writing is bad.

    Welcome to the real world. Universities are neither miracle factories that turn out great thinkers, nor are they particularly strong filters of the caliber of people. They take in average 18 year olds and turn out average 22 year olds.

    What is the point of college? Well, it's kind of arbitrary. We have more people than jobs, so we need some sort of filter to select the people for the jobs. On the other hand, the professors know Blogging 301 is just a ticket to clerical work, so they don't act harshly on tuition-paying students who just want to move on to average jobs. They can't write well, but do they really need to? Does the world really need that from them?

  • by funnyguy (28876) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:48PM (#42912555)

    As an adult student who has gone back to school, I want to say something as well.

    We have seen a dramatic decline in the knowledge retention of students because professors are not trained on teaching methods. Even strong professors who are very prepared on paper have major and substantial gaps in their ability to communicate. Students are struggling to manage this situation. Do you let them teach to the students in a way that just forces memorization? Or do you only learn the course content at a level consistent with the professor's ability to communicate? Do you somehow split the difference, or if so, how? These are the questions we are trying to answer.

  • No single cause (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:49PM (#42912565)

    I teach writing at a community college in Pennsylvania. Primarily, I teach classes for developmental students -- students who aren't ready to write at a 101 level.

    At our school, it isn't an issue of lowering the bar. We're an open admission school; we accept everyone, and try to meet their needs. That means I see lots of poor quality writing, and it means that I'm always looking for ways of making a difference. I'd point to a number of reasons for why students write poorly, even after going through a university's writing series:

    1. Students usually only invest in their writing when they're being graded on their writing.
    2. Students tend to memorize processes rather than master concepts. They might not think that the stuff they memorized for essay writing -- like paragraphs -- applies to a blog post, even though the similarities should jump out at them.
    3. Grading systems encourage students to do the bare minimum.
    4. Students tend to invest less in online writing. Blogging is so similar to the way they write in social media that they let their bad habits from the one environment appear in the other.
    5. Many students have a bad attitude about general studies. They think college is there to teach them the exact skills they're going to use in a specific job environment. In reality, college is really bad at this; it almost never can accomplish the same goals as on the job training. This means they undervalue their writing classes.
    6. The writing process usually isn't emphasized outside of writing classes. I have students every semester who can produce passable writing as long as they participate in prewriting, draft, do a peer review activity, get feedback from the college's writing center, and then revise and submit a final draft. Outside of my class, they revert to trying to write, edit, and revise all in one session, and then wonder why their writing isn't the same quality. Blogging tends to exacerbate these problems, since the software doesn't encourage you to do multiple revisions over a period of a couple of days prior to posting.

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

    by Jstlook (1193309) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:49PM (#42912567)
    The Dice.com content generation team hasn't realized that yet.
    This sounds like (judging from the tenor of the well-written "ask slashdot") another shill article along the lines of the "how to get the job interview" crap they're posting nowadays.
  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <.moc.liamg. .ta. .nhojovadle.> on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:52PM (#42912649) Journal

    The difference is this is something people post to voluntarily. They are not paying to receive a grade and credit for. The OP is referring to a course requirement.

    The submitter didn't really explain the purpose of this exercise. If the purpose was to deploy and customize Wordpress to show something you had learned about PHP and MYSQL then maybe the teacher wasn't grading on grammar and most people didn't care. I myself am guilty of long sentences that, if I had more time to spend on them, I would probably trim down but I don't because that's not what I'm paid to spend time on at my job (unless it's user doc). Likewise if this was demonstration of technical skill over prose, these could have been last minute entries and afterthoughts to the assignment. Given little time, no proof reading and just put up to Lorem Ipsum up some text?

    The big question: are these students docked for having poor grammar in their blog posts in a computer course? If not, then you probably shouldn't be critiquing them like they just tried to write a novel.

  • Average students (Score:5, Insightful)

    by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:57PM (#42912739)

    Average students attending universities with admissions standards that accept them will predictably attain - hold on now - average performance.

    50 years ago average students didn't go to universities to get bachelor's degrees. Now they do.

    So how is it a surprise that the standards are lower?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:01PM (#42912799)

    when the teacher was asked about why the spelling problems were not corrected, we were told "Oh, we don't do that anymore, we don't want to stunt their creativity.

    I wish you were kidding.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:05PM (#42912889)

    I think the bar was lowered to soak up all the cash the various levels of government have been dumping into the institutions' coffers. The governments appropriate more money, the schools have to dig up more students to get the bucks.

  • by Dainsanefh (2009638) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:07PM (#42912913) Homepage

    Inner city teachers are required to pass their students or they might get shot by the students. The primary / secondary education system here is a joke. We need to start rounding up certain people and terminate.

    However, unfortunately, one of their own is now living in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:10PM (#42912959)

    There is a widespread belief in the US that everyone should go to college. There are two problems with this. First, the economy has a certain need for skills like carpentry or auto repair. College, with some exceptions, doesn't teach those. Second, not everyone is prepared for college, due to lack of motivation or aptitude or due to a failure of secondary education.

    What I think you're seeing is that these unprepared students are being channeled into the university system. Two generations ago they might have gone to secretarial school or plumbing school or what have you and then into the workforce. One generation ago there was a movement for vocational education in the US to move that kind of training into high school and get the non-college-ready students career-ready instead. For reasons I don't understand, vocational programs first became a dumping ground for students with learning disabilities and/or behavior problems, and then were de-funded. This leaves us with little middle ground between ceasing education at high school, and four-year universities.

    At the same time, high schools have been struggling to keep their dropout rates down and to impart basic literacy to their graduates. They're frantic to minimally educate the bottom quartile of students. Given limited resources (and, often, a statutory requirement to spend disproportionately on special-needs students), they're just doing triage. For those students who do go on to college, there seems to be an implicit expectation that high school doesn't need to make them perfect: their deficiencies can be corrected later, in college.

    Back two generations ago, a college would take a weak high-school graduate and just reject her application, and she'd shrug and go on to a (perhaps perfectly rewarding) career in hairdressing or on an assembly line. Now, with the expectation that college is for everyone, economic forces ensure that there is a college that will accept such a student.

    When everyone is expected to go to college, college becomes the new high school.

    Interestingly, there is a lot of political will to make college accessible, but much less to put some teeth back into the high-school curriculum so a diploma actually means something.

  • Yes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tridus (79566) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:12PM (#42912995) Homepage

    Math professors at Universities have been complaining about this same trend for a very long time, to the point that they actually created a set of non-credit classes that basically teach high school math again. You have to take an entrance test before taking a first year math course, and if you fail you have to take the non-credit course first.

    Why? Because the math failure rates in first year became astronomical due to the pathetic job that high schools are doing in teaching it.

    Other fields (like writing) are suffering similar problems now. Generally speaking we do a pathetic job of teaching basic skills like these in elementary and high school. But on the upside we've boosted everyone's self-esteem to the point where they don't know what failure is.

  • by rhsanborn (773855) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:32PM (#42913259)
    It's very normal for the brain to substitute homophones. It isn't some horrible indictment of the person's intelligence. I'm willing to bet this guy knows the difference between waist and waste. It's the equivalent of a typo.
  • by Mordok-DestroyerOfWo (1000167) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:32PM (#42913261)
    Isn't there a fundamental law that says that if you critique somebody's grammar and/or spelling, you will make a glaring mistake yourself?
  • by cffrost (885375) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:39PM (#42913359) Homepage

    Then wouldn't it get harder as it gets lower?

    The lower the bar gets, the harder it is to get a good ROI from a college education.

  • by PRMan (959735) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:40PM (#42913375)
    You forgot 4) Move to a better neighborhood. Public school quality in America is VERY dependent on the neighborhood and parental involvement. If you run a bad school in a good neighborhood, the district superintendent can get run out of town very quickly. It happened in my hometown (we were all happy to see him go since he was moving all the money from the schools to making the district office nicer and his salary higher).
  • Nobody Reads (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sir_Eptishous (873977) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:43PM (#42913411) Homepage
    It seems to me that someone can write a decent sentence and paragraph if they read regularly. If someone reads well written articles, columns, stories, histories, novels, etc; then that person will usually have an "inherent" ability to write a passable sentence, paragraph, argument, etc;.

    You can now get the fuck off my lawn as I lament the fact that(gots to have some exaggeration and hyperbole) no one reads anymore:
    Unless it is a few pages or less, and more likely 140 characters or less.

    A young relative of mine who is is college right now complained about how much reading they had to do for classes. I asked if they ever read on their free time for fun, you know, even something like "Harry Potter". They said no. I have since discovered that this is the norm for the Gen Y and Z folks. Reading on your free time is now considered very anachronistic and unhip.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:53PM (#42913579)

    The only people who knew how to program were people who learned themselves

    This is universally true of everything. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

    It's also the point of a good university. You aren't being spoon-fed factoids to get you through the next three-monthly module. You're supposed to be developing an understanding of the subject, and that's something you can only give yourself.

    If you didn't like the lectures, why did you go to them? I did computer science (and maths) at Oxford and, after checking out the first lecture, I only continued with about a quarter of my lecture series. Why didn't your acquaintance ask someone about arrays? Or read a book? Why waste three years becoming progressively more confused by the syllabus? Why do you think this is someone else's responsibility?

    Universities provide various learning resources. You use the ones you find useful. This really shouldn't need stating.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:05PM (#42913765)

    If you would like to see just how far it has fallen, here is an 1899 entrance exam from Harvard:

    Back in 1899, about 5% of students went on to higher education. Today more than 60% do. It is silly to compare someone at the 95th percentile to someone at the 40th.

    When people claim that SAT scores have fallen since the 1950's, they are doing something similar. Back then fewer than 20% of high school students took the SAT, today over 60% do. The high school dropout rate was also much higher in the 1950's, so that skews the results further. So the comparison is meaningless. When you correct for these factors, and compare people with similar backgrounds, you find that SAT scores are actually significantly higher today.

  • by ranton (36917) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:06PM (#42913789)

    If you would like to see just how far it has fallen, here is an 1899 entrance exam from Harvard:

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/education/harvardexam.pdf

    The only thing that exam might show is how much colleges have progressed since 1899. A third of that test is just translating Latin and Greek, which has very limited value. The history is very focused on ancient greece and rome. While they are difficult questions, IMHO, if secondary education of the time focued on those time periods I am sure they aren't too difficult. The math on the exam is pretty easy with no calculus to be found. The plane geometry section would be hard for me, but only because my schooling never covered it. If Harvard thought it was important enough back then to put on their exam then I am confident secondary education covered it at the time.

    About the only good a test like this would do today is to help make sure no one outside of the upper class and who didn't go to a high-priced private school could ever make it into the Ivy League. It looks like teaching to the test was a problem even back then, except back then top schools mostly asked questions on material they knew only children of equally pretentious parents who know the answers to.

  • by supercrisp (936036) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:09PM (#42913837)
    That's easy. Declining public funding of public education has driven universities to rely more and more on tuition dollars. So we increase enrollments, and we have to keep students happy. We measure our success at making students happy by administering evaluations. Basically higher education is becoming more and more about customer service. Hell, my university insists on calling students customers and forces me to attend several customer service workshops or training sessions each semester. I really enjoy being told how to do my job by a person who has a BA in business! I really enjoy serving my students! (These statements will be revised after I am fully tenured and promoted.)
  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:53PM (#42914637)

    Yes... the bar is being lowered, yes it is!

    Don't be so sure. Every generation believes that their kids are dumber than they were "back in the good old days". They are nearly always wrong [wikipedia.org]. The classic work about the decline of American education was "Why Johnny Can't Read". It was published in 1955. If you go back and look at random papers written by students in the past, I think you would find their writing to be just as bad as what you see today, and probably worse. Don't let false nostalgia cloud your judgement.

  • by SomeKDEUser (1243392) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:57PM (#42914705)

    I'm sorry. But if an idiot wants to borrow some absurd amount of money to study something silly, it's their problem.

    In the US if there is a fault from the gvt (assuming you don't consider higher education a public good to be provided by the gvt) is that you cannot default on your sudent loans, meaning that in effect, there is no risk to the lender other than the borrower dying an untimely death. Because even the poorest burger-flipper will over a lifetime be able to repay this outrageous amount of money.

    Otherwise, of course, unievrsities will charge whatever people are ready to pay. That is what a market does.

  • by uncqual (836337) on Friday February 15, 2013 @04:40PM (#42915331)

    This is what happens when standardized tests are the focus of education.

    It seems that the standardized tests were not the cause of a decline, rather that the cause of the standardized tests was a decline.

    In the United States, the introduction of widespread standardized testing that elementary and middle school level teachers cared about was mostly in response to concerns about the decline in the education of our young adults.

    IIRC, math at the elementary school and middle school levels is the area that the US does the worst WRT other leading nations (and which is probably the best indicator subject for if we are going to be turning out engineers and scientists or dishwashers and retail clerks). In standardized math tests used within the US at these levels I've seen small problems but they seem to fairly accurately gauge what the student knows about math and certainly reflect what was expected (and less) of similar "educated" students 40 years ago.

    Teaching math "to the test" is the hard way to do it. Teach math - the tests test that. Of all subjects at the elementary and middle school levels, I think this is most true of math.

    For some reason, the elementary school education institution in the US in the past few decades has chosen to teach math more as if it were a "soft" subject. For example, there's lots of "group work" in math now - WTF? The net result of group work is that the kids who "get it" in the group do the work and the rest don't even try (to fail in a group is embarrassing and, besides, the group "achieved their goal" without your help, so why work?). By the end of third grade, the die is usually cast for the kids who were not forced to work their own problems (and, receive incremental help along the way as it became obvious they were struggling with one or more specific concepts) - they will almost never catch up and will fall only further and further behind feeling like idiots and, in self defense, finding other pursuits (such as gangs). For another example, there's to much emphasis on "creative" thinking - it's important to explain the "why's" to the students (several times), but it's also important to do the work (sometimes derisively called "drill and kill") - and in that process the why's begin to sink in or be reinforced. Teach WHY and HOW to "adjust" decimal points during multiplication and long division - some will remember the why and reconstruct the how as needed, some will only remember the how, many will remember only some of both and still do well.

    As well, the elimination of "tracking" in many schools has been a mistake. Apparently tracking would "hurt the feeling" of any child not in the top group, so it' s better to toss them into the common pool and feel good while they drown quietly. This forces the teacher to "teach to the middle". This is a disservice to all groups. The kids who are not getting it find the explanations increasingly over their heads. The true "middle" group isn't challenged as much as they could be because the teacher is trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to help the less successful students rather than trying to step up the tempo to advance the students in the middle. The students who are advanced are bored -- unfortunately, this turns some off to education and leads them astray outside of school and most of the rest are grossly unchallenged wasting a lot of valuable opportunity that will almost never be fully reclaimed (time, especially during the period where children are more "plastic", is a precious commodity that simply can't be reclaimed or fully compensated for once wasted wantonly)

    It's not just the school's fault of course.

    Parents are the biggest part of the problem On the one hand, a shockingly large percentage of recent immigrants come from cultures where education is not important - enough education to earn a bit more than minimum wage is fine (and, in some cases it seems, is preferable because if the kid

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Friday February 15, 2013 @05:47PM (#42916305)

    Wrong. You're totally ignoring the network effects. It's not just the idiot student's problem, it's our problem too.

    Yes, you cannot default on your student loans. However, there is no way to force someone to pay their loans back. So if someone defaults on their loan, the only way for the lender to get that money back is to sue the student, and get a judgment to collect the money. Suing costs money in court and attorney fees. Collecting costs money in hiring someone to track down the person's employer and then file more court papers to garnish their wages. If the person isn't working (they live at home), or is working for cash, then you're outta luck; you can't collect from them. If they're working at McDonald's, you probably still can't collect, because there's laws that limit how much you can garnish someone's paycheck to pay a debt (esp. if it's not for child support payments, but some other less-important debt). Now, when you throw in all the interest accrual, no, that burger-flipper will NOT be able to ever repay that $100k loan, and isn't going to try either.

    The end result of all this is, at some point, you're going to hit a bump where tons of ex-students default on their student loans because they don't have decent jobs and can't repay the loans, and it's 2008 all over again, with banks crying to the government and getting bail-out checks, with the students still not able to get a job or allieviate this debt, so they can never get a decent job (what's the point? Their wages will be garnished so they won't make any more than flipping burgers, so they won't even try). So now we have a whole generation of NEETs who have a worthless "education" from some university that's watered down their standards as written about in the article here, and no one able to do high-value jobs, and either a bunch of financial institutions either out of business because of all these bad loans and the economy taking a giant hit because of these "too big to fail" banks going under, or trillions of dollars passed from the government to these lenders, for free, to prop them up just like we did in 2008, all financed by the taxpayer.

    Finally, Universities aren't supposed to charge whatever people are willing to pay. They're government-managed (to a point) institutions, so they're not supposed to be working for a profit. We're not talking about Unversity of Phoenix here.

  • by plover (150551) on Friday February 15, 2013 @06:28PM (#42916837) Homepage Journal

    Parents are the biggest part of the problem On the one hand, a shockingly large percentage of recent immigrants come from cultures where education is not important - enough education to earn a bit more than minimum wage is fine (and, in some cases it seems, is preferable because if the kid does better than the father, the father feels inadequate).

    That's not new, and is not limited to recent immigrants. A few years ago my son became the first member of my wife's side of the family to graduate from college. They've been in America since the 1800s, and were mostly farmers, laborers, and the occasional missionary. The most education of any of his antecedents on that side had was a trade school degree. Many had dropped out from primary school at an early age in order to work the family farms. College educations were not encouraged - my mother-in-law was valedictorian, yet her formal education ended at high school. Even my wife's desire to go to a technical college was not encouraged. Her family even chided me when we were dating her because I was a "college boy". Sadly, I don't think their situation is all that unusual in rural America.

    I never noticed an "inadequacy" issue with the men in her family. The son being able to out-earn the father was a measure of success, and a point of pride, every time I saw it happen. (I'm hoping mine kicks my butt in that respect, too.)

    On another hand, far too many parents in the more "traditional Americanized" (i.e., assimilated) strata are convinced that "little junior is perfect" and that any failing must be the school's, teachers' or someone else's fault rather than considering the possibility that their perfect genetic offspring from their perfect loins might, maybe, not be working as hard as they could.

    This is a real problem with the Entitlement Generation, and came from the twisted idea that it's demoralizing to tell Junior he's failing. It's good to be demoralizing - that's the feedback that causes improvements!

    Regarding standardized tests, they grew out of a known inequity between schools, not from an overall decline in education. People looked at students who came from certain public schools and wondered why some kids were doing great while kids from other schools were struggling. Standardized testing allowed schools to measure the differences, highlighted the gaps, and got people looking for solutions. If this school that performs well has a lot of kids in early childhood education programs, does that mean that EC programs fix problems? Try it out. If this school that performs poorly has a lot of kids from impoverished neighborhoods, do free lunches help? What about free community education classes for the parents? Do after school programs help? The tests help school administrators see the results.

    Without the tests, we're flying blind as to what actions actually make an improvement, and which are a useless waste of money. Standardized tests are designed to measure school efficacy, not students' intelligence. Politicians who have alternate agendas, and others with a poor understanding of the process, often don't understand (or otherwise misuse) the distinction.

    Does that mean we shouldn't use those tests as a measure of an individual student? It means that if you do, you might interpret results of things they were not designed to measure. The tests are NOT trying to ascertain the limits of the individual mind. They're looking for a broad picture of education.

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