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

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 Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:38PM (#42912375)

    I saw it start in the 60s when profs started inflating grades to keep students from losing their student draft deferments. More and more unqualified graduates entered the workforce and many went into education. It's been in a downward spiral ever since.

  • by RobertJ1729 ( 2640799 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:41PM (#42912441)
    I am a university professor. What you are witnessing is the disintegration of American secondary education. We have seen a dramatic decline in the preparation of incoming freshman. Even strong students who are very prepared on paper have major and substantial gaps in their education. Professors are struggling to manage this situation. Do you teach to the students in a way that will maximize their learning? Or do you teach the course content at a level consistent with your own notion of academic integrity and what the course catalog lists as the content of the course? Do you somehow split the difference, or if so, how? These are the questions we are trying to answer.
  • by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:50PM (#42912599)

    What you are witnessing is the disintegration of American secondary education.

    My (Canadian) brother married an American. Once their (American-born) kids were of a 'certain' age, they moved back to Canada, for exactly this reason. They were appalled at the degradation of American public education, and they saw their options as being 1) paying gazillions they didn't have for private school, 2) home schooling with the loss of all the resultant good stuff that comes from going to school or 3) putting their kids in public school and having them wind up with an inferior education.

    So now the kids are enrolled in public school here in Vancouver.

  • by HappyHead ( 11389 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @01:52PM (#42912651)
    First, the context - I used to teach a web development course at a Canadian university. It was a side-job as a sessional instructor, brought in for knowledge in the area, and since I moved away for my day job, I stopped teaching.

    While I was teaching the course, I would have the students develop a web site from scratch, with the primary focus being to showcase their ability to encorporate CSS and javascript, and follow the W3's accessibility guidelines - topic was up to them, and I frequently told the class that their content's accuracy wasn't important, as long as it was their own content being generated. (This produced some of the most entertaining things to read at times... "Reptiles of the World" was all about Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, and their political machinations.) There were always a mix of local and foreign students in the class, and frankly, while some of the foreign students hadn't actually bothered learning the local language before coming to the country (or after), their average writing skills are (and have always been) about the same as those of the local students.

    Sadly, I must admit, that over the 10+ years that I taught the course, the quality of writing steadily decreased. At first, the average student was fairly literate, and I only had occasional problems with people devolving into instant-message speak. ("Can u help me?" Seriously people, the "y" and the "o" are both within an inch of the "u" on the keyboard! If you're writing a web page, you've got time to search them out and hit them!) During the later years of teaching the course, I found that more and more of the people coming into my class fell into the category I would call functionally illiterate, and sadly, all I can think of to blame for it is schools no longer actually caring if kids learn to read and write before pushing them out with diplomas.

    A relative of mine's daughter in grade school came home with an "essay" she had written and received a good mark on - it was full of horrible spelling and grammar errors, which my mother and the girl's mother both made her correct - 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."
  • Re:its normal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PatentMagus ( 1083289 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:03PM (#42912829)
    What ages are most of the people in the class?

    Someone in their late 20's should notice lots of qualitative differences between themselves and most relatively fresh high school graduates. That is especially true for someone who has been working for a living.

    The smart move, if you're having such an easy time with the course work and acing the class, is to pick up on those youngsters. This is probably the height of their physical attractiveness (and the waning of yours). You'll never be so well positioned again either.
  • by SQLGuru ( 980662 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:20PM (#42913107) Journal

    No Kid Left Behind! Everyone gets a trophy!

    The Wussification of America has been going on for a while. People never learn how to fail and how to deal with failure. And then, kids learn that there is no incentive for them to get any better at anything because there are no consequences.....someone will come along and change their grades, declare them a winner, or whatever even if they don't deserve it.

  • by supercrisp ( 936036 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:22PM (#42913133)
    That's a popular idea. It's also been said to have started with the GI Bill, or colleges began to admit women, etc. In general, it seems that increased access to college education (greater admissions and/or lowered admissions standards) has meant decreased writing proficiency. I think that trend has accelerated dramatically the last ten years or so, as school funding has declined and has come to have various strings attached. The most problematic string is stuff like NCLB that hooks school funding to test outcomes. So you get people teaching the test rather than writing. If they don't, the damn school will have to shut down. And these places tend to be marginal schools anyway, serving impoverished areas where the parents likely don't have good education either. If I were boss, my solution would be: more teachers that are empowered to kick ass, take names, and tell parents to step the f*ck off. It also wouldn't hurt to pay enough to make teaching attractive to more people. But that's a dream world. As well all know, the real answers is iPads, Biblical Creationism, and sound free-market approaches to education funding.
  • by PRMan ( 959735 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:24PM (#42913171)

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


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

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:30PM (#42913243)

    Hold up! I never said that there is not a decline. I said that this is the wrong site to ask this question. Slashdot is not a site full of educators and/or college students, it's a bunch of self-described "nerds" who probably taught themselves most the stuff that they want to talk about here. Does that sound like a place you would get an unbiased/correct answer from?

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

    by MNNorske ( 2651341 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:33PM (#42913265)
    Some of it might be attributable to the "participation award" mentality that has become quite pervasive over the past few decades. I can't recall where I read it, but sometime in the past few months there was an article which was pointing out that the kids currently in college were more likely to believe themselves to be exceptional at whatever they were doing. If they all believe themselves to be exceptional they have very little reason to try and do better. A lifetime of reinforcing that everyone is a winner, and everyone is exceptional can only result in bar being lowered.

    There's definitely value in teaching kids that it's good to try, and it's ok to not succeed at some things. But, it may have been taken a bit too far. People need to fall down if only to learn how to stand. And, that's not really happening right now in our schools.
  • Re:Wrong site (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Luyseyal ( 3154 ) <swaters@noSpam.luy.info> on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:45PM (#42913445) Homepage

    Bah, the problem is that more and more kids are going to college who would otherwise have had non-university careers. Kids are not smarter or dumber. It's just that more, in general, are attending college which dilutes the pool.

    The trend will reverse as high schools narrow the university track and expand vocational options (already happening here in Austin, TX).

    Many colleges will shut down as a result.

    Many people say that online degrees (Coursera, Khan, etc.) will poach from the university. That's probably true to a certain extent, but I think the weightier blow is from high school vocational training (which I fully support). You don't need a university degree to wipe grandma's butt at $15/hr. And there will be a lot of Boomer butts to wipe.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @02:57PM (#42913649)

    Sort of. The bar is being lowered in high school and middle school. Then they give the bar to universities. Universities have to keep it roughly where it is because it's never been their mission to teach students basic skills and they are still ill prepared to do so. Please see this bit of writing: a href=http://www.aaup.org/article/warnings-trenches#.UR6B5DU-tpR [aaup.org]
    This is what happens when standardized tests are the focus of education. There are much more effective ways to measure student performance and increase it, but we don't want to pay for them. Cutting costs in the short term will bankrupt our country.
    Also see the article quoted in the previous link: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_of_the_year/2010/01/teachers_should_be_seen_and_no.html [edweek.org]
    Universities are forced to hold students to a low standard, and professors are typically subject specialists--not the teachers students require to help them learn how to write, read, and think critically.
    You can attribute a lot of this to the mindset that schools should be run like businesses. It inevitably leads to lowering standards when success is defined as passing students who can do the bare minimum (high school) or graduation rates (college & university). Schools are much more important than businesses. Students are the product, and you can't cancel a product line that doesn't perform well or market it into relevance.

  • by kramer2718 ( 598033 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:11PM (#42913865) Homepage

    You are absolutely correct that Slashdot's readership is a bit older. I fall into that demographic, but feel that I can speak on the subject of lowering college standards.

    I believe that the OP is correct, but there are qualifications. Public universities cannot raise tuition and their government funding is being drastically squeezed between the national debt and the small government tea-baggersI mean tea party. Private universities are raising tuition prices and standards.

    I attended a top fifteen private university. The standards were very high. Sure there were a few blow-off classes, but the requirements were such that every student had to take some quite rigorous classes. Engineering students could get away with a minimum of writing classes, but they were HARD. Humanities students could get away with a minimum of math and science. They weren't as hard, but were blow off classes either.

    I am friends with several current students at my alma mater. The standards have definitely gone up. The average standardized test scores have gone up. Students now have to take clusters, and the rigorousness of the course work has increased.

    My (very recently) ex-girlfriend graduated from a public university recently, and I can tell you that the standards have dropped. There is essentially no math requirement. There are majors where one can take 80% blow-off classes, and student services are poor.

    Having said that, there are some fantastic professors at her school, and some great classes. If you attend a school with low standards, you can still get a great education. You just need to seek out those classes that have good professors and interest you.

    Check out reatemyprofessors.com [ratemyprofessors.com], but don't just go by the numeric ratings. Read actual comments. Some people rate primarily based on workload; others actually rate the quality of the teching.

  • Re:its normal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vlueboy ( 1799360 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @03:29PM (#42914205)

    What ages are most of the people in the class?

    I have taken classes in a few settings, so I hope this helps. I started out at a small but well known and selective private college in a small town. Out of a couple thousand registered students, my 500-something class year had ~30 non-traditional students in my freshman year's facebook. Non-traditional means that they were not fresh out of highschool; most seemed to be in their 30s, with one or two gray haired candidates. The rest of us, including seniors, were between 17 and 21 years old. I never saw bad writing there, but there were few ESL students other than me --that would change later in my other schools. It the late nineties, an age before friendster, facebook and other major public venues of public writing. Blogs were not known, so Geocities, webrings, anime and TV "shrines", "signing" guestbooks and other things that we consider extremely quaint today were the norm, albeit extremely niche even among the elite I had the privilege to study with. One-page college-hosted webpages and Xanga blogs let me see a bit of the writing my friends could produce, but most of it I sampled via class sharing, email, dorm-wide broadcasts made by and for students, and text servers with school gossip.

    I transferred for my last year and finished my degree at a public state-funded community college in my large home city. That time around I lacked a dorm life to see their informal writing.
    The school was had about 3 times the student body, and maybe a quarter or less were in the 17 - 22 age group I had enjoyed at my first college... I think maybe half of the students in my classes had day jobs. The college forced me to take a writing class for curriculum reasons (they did not recognize writing credit from outside schools.) It was like night and day: I had new, greatly lowered expectations of math homework (problems were NOT given daily and went from about 15 x 3 class sessions to about 1/2 or 1/3 of that, and daily calc homework was no longer expected.)

    Many people in the school were not born in the US, so in the school-wide writing class, reading comprehension, a few words from the English professor and several cultural details made things somewhat harder for the progress of the class as a whole. Papers were expected to be extremely simple, and I needed to give grammar help to a couple friends. I saw a resume or two after I graduated from friends that wanted some job help. Complexity of software projects was lower too, and I found myself actually doing some optional projects at home that sadly never made it into the class' scope.

    I got excellent grades as soon as I got to that school, and my morale went up since I went from below-average to the college honor roll in my new environment. My knowledge came from what I had learned at the first college's tougher curriculum the first 3 years, seen on slashdot or just learned on my own. My second school did show me Linux in labs, but I had already seen Unix. It helped to complement my personal toolchest because I became close enough to someone to borrow his Mandrake 7 CDs back in '03.

    In hindsight, I had a glimpse of the age make-up of college for part of my senior year of highschool that I did not understand for years. I got in an intro-level college-credit class at a different local colleges before turning 17 (I was the youngest of those 30 students by far, with a small few in their early twenties.) Most others looked like moms and dads in mid thirties, fourties and so on. I later found out that said state-funded 2-year college has a very long graduating period, and beyond 15000 students. I hope this all helps.

  • by KernelMuncher ( 989766 ) on Friday February 15, 2013 @04:12PM (#42914919)
    While there's got to be some truth to this statement, I think the tremendous explosion of texting and Twitter must have contributed at least somewhat to the perceived decline in writing skills among young people.
  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) * on Friday February 15, 2013 @04:42PM (#42915357)

    I think the tremendous explosion of texting and Twitter must have contributed at least somewhat to the perceived decline in writing skills among young people.

    I recently read an article that said financial companies have found a strong correlation between using bad grammar on social media, and high probability of defaulting on loans. There was an especially strong correlation with typing in either ALL CAPS, or all lower case. They also found a second order effect: if your friends, especially those you communicate with frequently, use bad grammar, you are likely to be a credit risk as well. There are now companies that can provide lenders with a "social media score" to help evaluate applicants. The article said that some prospective employers were also considering these scores in their hiring decisions. I guess this is one more reason to write well.

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

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 15, 2013 @07:47PM (#42917667)

    I really am a geezer (age 70). I read slashdot every day.

    I cannot really say much about the situation the OP mentioned as it applies to education today. But I have 3 things to say:

    1. When I taught CS at a large state university around 40 years ago I had many opportunities to read student writing in the form of exam answers, project docs, etc. We did not have web pages, blogs, facebooks, etc back in those days. I found that the level of writing of many of the students was not very good. Since the university at that time did not have a CS degree offering, most of the students were engineering and science students from other departments -- we had very few from more liberal arts areas. In discussing their work with some of the students, it became apparent to me that they were students who did not take naturally to writing and had self-selected study disciplines where they thought writing would not be important. I disagreed with them, but since writing was not the subject matter at hand there was little I could do to help.

    2. Over my career I encountered many high school students who asked my advice of what to do to best prepare themselves for success in technical work. From the beginning, my sole piece of advice has always been to "better your writing skills". Your written work is what you leave behind you in your working life. It is something that your peers and managers can see and appreciate -- even better than your code. Your design specification documents, your user manuals, your project reports - those are your legacy. The quality of those documents will be a major part of the respect you get.

    3. Around 2002 I was working as a principal software engineer in a team at a large American online technology company, and there were several much younger software engineers in the team. One day, one of the young guys was quietly grousing a bit about why I was a principal engineer and he was not. In answer, I decided to not focus on the 30 years or so of experience I had on him, but rather I asked him if he where ready to get out in front of the team, to interpret needs for the team and to create substantial documents that informed everyone of those needs. He allowed that goodness no, he could not do that -- he had chosen the programmer career just so he would not have to write. I thought to myself "Aha!".

I was playing poker the other night... with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 4 people died. -- Steven Wright