Academically Adrift?

This morning as I was browsing through my daily news, a sociology study stuck out of the information overload. In times of #Occupy and Gaddafi’s recent death, a sociological account was the last thing I thought I’d write a post about. But finishing my second month teaching at USF, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my course is going, what my students are learning, and if the course I’ve prepared is effective (Of course, the efficacy I’m assessing reflects the goals that I’ve set for myself and my class). I’ve also been simmering in my mid-course assessment, a strategy I’ve developed here at USF (such a great way to take the temperature of your course, why didn’t I think of it before? Evaluations as a motor to courses, instead of a cursory practice at the end of each course! Duh!). And lastly, my monthly teaching workshop facilitators asked all new faculty to answer,” what are the big questions your course is tackling?” All of these things allow me to learn, assess and get better as I’m teaching.

At any rate, Richard Arum from NYU found that an alarming rate of undergraduates don’t learn how to think critically, write effectively  and reason with complexity after their stints in higher education. Findings of the study point to various student-centered problems that affect their critical thinking development: studying individually v. groups, socializing, student laziness on doing reading and homework.

As a teacher, Students often beg off from working in groups or pairs because its easier to do things individually. Do I think its annoying? Yea. When I give students small group work, some of those minutes go to chit chat. Is it wack? Mmm-hmm. I know when my students haven’t done the reading. Does it irritate me? Sure.

But I think critical thinking–a key tenet that I want to ensure that my students walk out with after taking a course called, “Introduction to Globalization”–has to also be measured in critically. No offense, Professor Arum, I think assessing if our students met our big question goals at the end of a course, much less at the end of their college career, has to be a critical undertaking. I don’t necessarily have a survey instrument, interview guide or scale to offer undergraduate educators but I think our assessments of critical thinking has to be measured in our classrooms, with alternative assignments, an array of engagements.

Also, a major beef I have with this article, is that it puts the blame on students then expects teachers to get better, without proper discussion of this throw-away sentence:

Arum concluded that while students at highly selective schools made more gains than those at less selective schools, there are even greater disparities within institutions.

Um, the quality of education of “highly selective” schools might have something to do with tuition. I think leaving out an analysis of the retreat of the state from education and then arguing that undergraduates aren’t critical leaves out a very, important and influential structural culprit.

Lastly, let me say this, I think undergraduate students often struggle with developing their critical thinking skills, its just not how higher education is set up, its the way the “real world” is set up. Undergraduates, more and more, are worried about how the piece of paper they’re getting after 4-5-6 years in college is gonna translate to paper, the kind that’ll pay bills. So, before we point fingers at universities, undergraduate educators and undergraduate students, let’s make sure we tease out the social milieu under which the possibility of critical thinking is in critical condition.

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