(College) Kids These Days, Dunning-Kruger Edition

I am well aware of the revered tradition of old people complaining how this new crop of college kids don’t learn anything ‘cuz they’re too busy imbibing fashionable intoxicants and humping anything that doesn’t bite them. And yet, I’m kinda curious what people who know more about modern colleges think of the NYTimes‘ piece on “The Economic Price of College Failures“:

… “Academically Adrift” studied a sample of students who enrolled at four-year colleges and universities in 2005. As freshmen, they took a test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning & communications skills called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (C.L.A.). Colleges promise to teach these broad intellectual skills to all students, regardless of major. The students took the C.L.A. again at the end of their senior year. On average, they improved less than half of one standard deviation. For many, the results were much worse. One- third improved by less than a single point on a 100-point scale during four years of college…

Yet despite working little and learning less — a third of students reported studying less than five hours a week & half were assigned no long papers to write — most continued to receive good grades. Students did what colleges asked of them, and for many, that wasn’t very much…

… The follow-up study, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” found that, in fact, the skills measured by the C.L.A. make a significant difference when it comes to finding and keeping that crucial first job…

Even after statistically controlling for students’ sociodemographic characteristics, college majors and college selectivity, those who finished school with high C.L.A. scores were significantly less likely to be unemployed than those who had low C.L.A. scores. The difference was even larger when it came to success in the work- place. Low-C.L.A. graduates were twice as likely as high-C.L.A. graduates to lose their jobs between 2010 and 2011, suggesting that employers can tell who got a good college education and who didn’t. Low-C.L.A. graduates were also 50 percent more likely to end up in an unskilled occupation, and were less likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

Remarkably, the students had almost no awareness of this dynamic.
When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. evidence to the contrary…

How much of this is standard bovine digestive byproduct? Or are Th’ Kids really so dumb they can’t understand how dumb they are?

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107 replies
  1. 1
    yam says:

    Ed at Gin and Tacos has an interesting Man In The Street article up today on this very topic of colleges and admissions.

  2. 2
    Arthur says:

    Those damned kids better get off my lawn!

    There isn’t a slight chance that the academics at “Academically Adrift” are wrong?

  3. 3
    Roger Moore says:

    This doesn’t seem like too much of a surprise to me. We tell kids that getting a college degree is critically important without going into much detail about why or which degrees are most valuable. People who want to learn something take classes that teach them something, while people who just want some letters after their name so they can earn more money find the route that requires the least effort. At the end, they think they must have learned something, so they report that they did. They’re just repeating what they’ve been told, which is the main thing they’ve learned to get their degree.

  4. 4
    scav says:

    If anything, dumb people almost by definition are entirely clueless about how non-smart they are. Smart people have figured out they don’t know everything.

  5. 5
    Lee Rudolph says:

    Or are Th’ Kids really so dumb they can’t understand how dumb they are?

    If you believe the Dunning-Kruger results for adults (and they fit with what I think I see, so of course I believe them; they reinforce my preconceptions), why wouldn’t you believe these results are true for college kids? (Again, they fit with what I think I saw, employed as a university mathematics professor for most of the last 40 years; so again they reinforce my conceptions, which in this case I think are a little better than preconceptions.)

  6. 6
    mclaren says:

    It’s not just the kids that are so dumb they don’t realize how dumb they — this applies to everyone.

    President Eisenhower became deeply alarmed when one of his advisors pointed out that 50% of the American population scored below average on tests of science and math in the 1950s.

  7. 7
    Arthur says:

    I just realized something: The crazy kids at “Academically Adrift” are actually adrift and this is their big marketing pitch.

    Angst riddled graduates that are trying to market their wares.

  8. 8
    Woodrowfan says:

    I’d believe it. It’s damn hard to get all but the very best of my students to see the significance of anything, or to put together a simply mental puzzle. I have to lead them step by painful step, from A to B to C to D, or they will get lost. (sigh)

    but then, most of them were in schools where the teachers had too many students and were forced to teach to too many tests.

  9. 9
    Baud says:

    Remarkably, the students had almost no awareness of this dynamic.

    Sounds like management material to me.

  10. 10
    joel hanes says:

    I don’t think this is really anything new.

    At my own Great State University, in my parents’ generation, some of the most popular majors were Home Economics, Child Development, Agronomy, and Business.

    I’d guess that if the same C.L.A. assessment had been carried out then, the proportion of the students who improved during their baccalaureate program would be even smaller than today’s fraction (even though a larger proportion of all young people go to college these days).

    But no such assessment was carried out, so we can only guess.

  11. 11
    Botsplainer says:

    I tend to think of a lot of the generalists being a lot less sharp, with fewer critical thinking and practical life skills.

    Starts in test oriented high school, and continues through TA led freshman seminars.

    We’re fucking up.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Botsplainer:

    I tend to think of a lot of the generalists being a lot less sharp, with fewer critical thinking and practical life skills.

    Explain please.

  13. 13
    WereBear says:

    There are times when I look back on my childhood; latchkey kid by the age of nine, responsibility for baby brother at eleven, running the household at fourteen, and I feel that I didn’t have much of a childhood.

    But if the alternative is to be one of these clueless idiots, I was not so ill served after all.

  14. 14
    Baud says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    You’re obviously a generalist, or you wouldn’t need an explanation.

  15. 15
    Betsy says:

    This study proves the old chestnut:

    Universities are full of knowledge. The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none away, and knowledge accumulates.

  16. 16
    Derelict says:

    I can tell you as someone who had to interview and hire people, the recent college grads and the ones still in college coming in for internships were, for the most part, utterly hopeless. Few made it through the interview without injuring themselves fatally. (One classic: “Is this a full-time job?” Yes “Does that mean I have to come in every day?”)

    The three I did hire or take as interns needed constant close supervision because they could not figure out even simple things (like, don’t barge into the studio while a show host is on the air to tell them they have a phone call).

  17. 17
    Botsplainer says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    My girls are all college age. Of my interactions with their peers, the kids on specific career tracks are doing great. The floaters (my middle daughter being among them) are adrift, purposeless. They don’t seem to know much, nor do they seem interested in improving.

    My youngest daughter skipped the survey classes; she took enough AP courses for credit that she’s technically a junior and is taking all of her courses within her major.

  18. 18
    WereBear says:

    This is related to the stunning discovery that so many people major in something it turns out they don’t like to do.

    They had a wrong idea about it in the first place which was never changed while they studied the thing, and by the time they get to actually making a living at it. They hate it.

    Many people tell me they see this all the time.

  19. 19
    efgoldman says:

    @Derelict:

    the recent college grads and the ones still in college coming in for internships were, for the most part, utterly hopeless.

    Sometime in the late 90s, we hired a young lady for the summer. It was a file clerk job.
    She had just graduated with honors from Georgetown, and was going to grad school in international relations in the fall.
    We had to let her go after a week. She never heard of filing alphabetically, or for some other paperwork, numerically.

  20. 20
    mclaren says:

    And of course the most hilarious part of this article is that you’re reciting it to a forum full of people who swoon with admiration at Barack Obama’s “Obama Doctrine” of “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff”…while Obama’s entire presidency has consisted largely of doing dumb stuff.

    Keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the legendary “graveyard of empires”? Check. Too stupid for words, so Obama has to do it.

    Sign the NDAA, a document that tears up the constitution and wipes our collective asses with it by giving the president the authority to kidnap any U.S. citizen and hurl him into a secret prison without trial, without charges, without access to a lawyer? Check. Too stupid for words, so Obama has to do it.

    Continue to crank up those DEA raids on state medicinal marijuana facilities? Check. Too stupid for words, so Obama has to do it.

    Offer a lame-ass warmed-over Republican “health care reform” that’s turned into a disaster in Massachusetts, with health costs increasing faster than other states? Check. Too stupid for words, so Obama has to do it.

    Obama’s entire presidency has been one long search for light sockets to stick his tongue into. So naturally the commenters on this forum praise Obama to the skies for his great Doctrine of “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff.”

    Figures.

    Dunning-Kruger Effect, thy name is Balloon-Juice.

  21. 21
    cmorenc says:

    Yet despite working little and learning less — a third of students reported studying less than five hours a week & half were assigned no long papers to write — most continued to receive good grades. Students did what colleges asked of them, and for many, that wasn’t very much…

    I can assure you this slacker study paradigm doesn’t apply to students in the sciences and engineering or computer science- you have to work your butt off quite a few hours outside class every day or else quickly fall hopelessly behind. Nor does it apply to nursing school (which my younger daughter just completed) which, though not as difficult as the physical sciences or engineering, is nevertheless much more challenging than many people thing it would be (the continuing accreditation and reputation of nursing schools is in significant part dependent on how successful their graduates are in passing the NCLEX licensing exam) – and in her school, there were plenty of research papers on top of the clinical classes.

  22. 22
    efgoldman says:

    @WereBear:

    This is related to the stunning discovery that so many people major in something it turns out they don’t like to do.

    Or worse, something they do like to do, for which there’s very little or no demand (e.g. music.)

  23. 23
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Baud: Well, obviously.

    On topic: This sounds to me like “kids these day” complaining.

    @Botsplainer: By specific career tracks, do you mean business, pre-med, education, etc., or do you include the “I know want to be a history major” people as well? I am sure it is great to know what you want to do or a have found your calling at age 18 – my mom did; it was teaching. A lot of people don’t find that at 18. It takes years and some never do.

    They don’t seem to know much, nor do they seem interested in improving.

    It also could be that you are asking them about something that is not their passion. As a 19 year old, I would have responded more passionately to questions about alternative music and rugby than I would have to questions about Soviet foreign policy and political modernization in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – yet I learned that stuff as well.

    Maybe I was lucky but I was able to treat college as a time to learn and grow as a person and not just as a set of classes.

  24. 24
    KS in MA says:

    It looks to me like this is the key paragraph [showing my age by not using “money graf”].

    “Students who spent more time studying alone learned more, even after controlling for their sociodemographic background, high school grades and entrance exam scores. So did students whose teachers enforced high academic expectations. People who studied the traditional liberal arts and sciences learned more than business, education and communications majors.”

    Teachers who enforce high academic expectations tend to be found at … yes, good colleges … so, my guess is that students who get into and graduate from good colleges are indeed more likely to end up with better jobs. Employers may not be able to tell if the kids got a good education, but they sure can read a resume.

  25. 25
    jonas says:

    I can tell you what’s going on. Classes at public universities — where the vast majority of US students are educated — are staffed by part time adjuncts (up to 60% in some places) earning poverty wages on semester-to-semester contracts. How do you guarantee that you’re offered a contract next semester so that you can keep the heat on through the winter? You smile and dance a lot and give everyone A’s even if they don’t know shit, that’s how. Forget assigning substantial research papers or projects — they’re too hard to grade give the size of the classes and there’s always the risk that the student will screw up, get a bad grade, and smear you on your evals for “not being fair” and the dept. chair or dean uses that as an excuse to cut you from the roster the following term.

    This isn’t adjuncts’ faults — a lot of them are really great, highly-trained and motivated teachers trying to make it in a completely f-ed up academic job market. They’re just working in system that rewards them for having the lowest expectations possible.

  26. 26
    Gin & Tonic says:

    My career trajectory shifted some time back, so the last time I interviewed and hired college kids for entry-level jobs was over two decades ago. Not much different then – it was the rare candidate who could string two or three coherent, let alone persuasive, English sentences together.

  27. 27
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    @mclaren: Must be nice viewing history threw the lens of non-context. But you forgot leaving GITMO still open.

  28. 28
    ShadeTail says:

    The answer to the topic comes, a so many answers do, from the late-great George Carlin:

    “Kids are like any other group: a few winners, a whole lot of losers.”

  29. 29
    Richard Shindledecker says:

    If you can’t think critically when you’re 10 yrs old you’
    ll never get it.

  30. 30
    mclaren says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    Waxing nostalgic for the good old days of GW?

    And we have a winner in the Dunning-Kruger competition!

    The problem, of course, is that all too many of Obama’s domestic and foreign policies are a total rehash of GW’s presidency from the endless unwinnable foreign wars to the ongoing failed and futile War on Drugs to the torture and kidnapping of U.S. citizens to the “get out of jail free” card offered to Wall Street financial criminals regardless of how badly they trash the economy.

    To complete the impression you’ve given of abysmal stupidity, you’ll next want to accuse me of being a racist for criticizing Obama’s domestic and foreign policies. Then fall back on the old standy, “If you don’t like Obama, you must be a wingnut.” Because there’s no middle ground twixt wild praise for Obama and wanting to lynch him. It’s obviously impossible that someone could ever offer thoughtful criticism of some of his policies.

  31. 31
    raven says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): I loved Soviet Foreign Policy and Comparative Communist Systems in Europe in 72-3!

  32. 32
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @raven: I was taking them a few years later.

  33. 33
    Schlemizel says:

    Between this thread & the ones before & after it appears as if the trolls are warming up their pipes for the election cycle. Wonder how long before unlimited corporate cash shows up.

    I try to stay out of discussions about what is wrong with university education as I do not have a degree but I think in my lifetime the change seems obvious. The big thing (imho) is that ‘liberal education’ has been bad mouthed in favor of trade school learning. Why learn about art, history, sociology or even English when you are really only interested in an MBA & none of those things help you run a business? Not only does this result in stupider people, incapable of creative thought it has dumped thousands of incompetent MBAs who don’t understand why they are fucking up the world.

  34. 34
    mclaren says:

    Yes, the trolls are warming up their pipes for the upcoming election cycle. Because anyone who criticizes the Democrats’ continuing rightward drift must be a “troll.”

    The only people on this forum who aren’t trolls are the ones who applaud more war, more tax cuts for billionaires, more national security martial law measures “for the duration of the emergency.”

    Why don’t you go back to Red State and call for the U.S. to invade Saudi Arabia?

  35. 35
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Schlemizel:

    The big thing (imho) is that ‘liberal education’ has been bad mouthed in favor of trade school learning.

    That gets to the fundamental question: what is the purpose of a university education? An awful lot of people think it is to prepare people for jobs. Others, with whom I tend to agree, think there should be a more holistic purpose – but then I went to a LAC (that did not have an engineering or business department) so I might be biased.

  36. 36
    Pharniel says:

    How much of this is standard bovine digestive byproduct? Or are Th’ Kids really so dumb they can’t understand how dumb they are?

    As always I trot out Unskilled and Unaware but I can’t find my favorite article on the subject.

    I’m pretty sure Obama isn’t a victim of Dunning-Kruger – He’s a victim of Congress pissing on themselves and then flinging shit. Close Gitmo? Congress works in amendments that prevent detainees from being released or moved to US soil.

    It’s pretty much the same thing all the way down. Congress refused to do it’s job so instead you get halfassed implementations of policies with zero actual fucking oversight because the house is too busy trying to gin up the next money making outrage non-scandal instead of fucking running the intelligence community through the blender.

    Then there’s the Senate where even DiFi got fed up with the CIA’s shitshow antics and the GOP decided that she was being a partisan crybaby.

    Obama 1) was never that liberal and 2) has a missing branch of government. That’s pretty much “Government Failure State” right there.

  37. 37
    satby says:

    Critical thinking needs to be taught, and somewhere along the way we stopped teaching it. It stubs me when I see people I know are reasonably intelligent in real life pass on the stupidest spam without considering that what it says is physically unlikely or impossible. Not even political stuff, 3 otherwise functional people shared the “OMIGOD, plastic balls that embed in your gums” toothpaste one.

  38. 38
    WaterGirl says:

    @Derelict:

    “Does that mean I have to come in every day?”

    thanks for making me laugh!

  39. 39
    Melissa says:

    After 30 years working in higher education I came to a few conclusions. One is that we can’t teach critical thinking. We can help broaden and sharpen, but the habits of mind are set at an earlier age.

  40. 40
    PhilbertDesanex says:

    My college roommate from the 70’s had to teach his office how to write English, and they were all young white suburban English-speaking Americans. He required they write one full grammtically-correct paragrah per week. It took a while.

    At a minimum, your basic college degree is a stamp of approval that you can a)read and write, sort of b)access enough money, somehow c)can stay out of serious legal trouble (no weed busts on campus-see (b) ) and d)handle red tape. Beyond that, it varies. For many, good on ya, I have all the respect in the world. For others, um.

    For too many kids college is party crap, just more school, to delay having to work. This idea of everyone go to college and then do your life career is ridiculous. LIke we are all going to be hot coders or startup millionaires. Bullshit. Most people are destined to have to work to support themselves, and will go through several changes of occupation.
    We need free technical colleges that work with employers and teach something productive. Bring back unions, of some more modern sort, so young people can actually support themselves doing actual productive WORK, while they figure what’s next. After that they’ll be more likely to find a path. Man these times suck for young poeple trying to get going.

  41. 41
    Jerry O'Brien says:

    It was never my impression that colleges were meant to teach critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. You’re supposed to have those going in, and then you apply them to learning what you need to know to work in specialized fields.

    Likewise, few students increase much in height during their college years. Are colleges therefore failing to provide for the students’ physical development?

  42. 42
    Suzanne says:

    I always wonder how people self-select into majors. I went to a public university on a full scholarship as an undergrad, and I decided to major in visual arts. I met PLENTY of smart, motivated people in the art school. Not necessarily the type of people that got great grades, though some of them did, but plenty of people who read voraciously, and exposed themselves to culture, high and low, and surrounded themselves with other smart people and talked about interesting things. I cared about my grades insofar only as I had to keep them at a minimum threshold to keep my scholarship.

    But my roommate, who was neurotic about her grades and majored in business, was a complete idiot. This girl, who ostensibly passed AP History, asked me once, “World War II….which one was that?”. And all her friends from classes were that stupid (including a couple of former and current NBA stars, who cheated off her in class).

    I know that the STEM majors attract high intelligence, but I have a feeling that some of the other majors do, too. And architecture attracts the truly masochistic.

  43. 43
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Jerry O’Brien: I grew an inch and a half while I was in college. Mere anecdata of course.

  44. 44
    Bonnie says:

    I had to get my first job just to earn enough money to go to college; and, college was much cheaper in those days.

  45. 45
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Suzanne:

    Not necessarily the type of people that got great grades, though some of them did, but plenty of people who read voraciously, and exposed themselves to culture, high and low, and surrounded themselves with other smart people and talked about interesting things.

    That’s exactly what I meant when talking about treating “college as a time to learn and grow as a person.”

    “World War II….which one was that?”

    The second one, obviously.

  46. 46
    Suzanne says:

    Low-C.L.A. graduates were twice as likely as high-C.L.A. graduates to lose their jobs between 2010 and 2011, suggesting that employers can tell who got a good college education and who didn’t.

    I don’t know if that proves who got a good college education, or who is just a dumbass.

  47. 47
    mclaren says:

    @PhilbertDesanex:

    He required they write one full grammtically-correct [sic] paragrah per week. It took a while.

    LOL!

    “We must ask the question: is our children learning?” – George W. Bush.

  48. 48
    mclaren says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    Everyone knows about World War Eleven. That was the time when Wilt Chamberlain declared “peace in our time” after his meeting with Hitler.

  49. 49
    Suzanne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Visual arts had a higher-than-average percentage of those people, even though it’s not really considered the most intellectually challenging realm of study. That’s why I wonder about how people select majors. Not everyone who is intelligent is inclined toward or is particularly interested in STEM fields. And, truth be told, there’s plenty of average minds there, too.

  50. 50
    mclaren says:

    @Melissa:

    Permit me to demur. You can certainly teach skepticism.

    Drum into people the questions: “What’s your evidence for that statement?” and “What does that assertion even mean?” and you’re 90% of the way towards critical thinking.

  51. 51
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    World War 3 in binary.

  52. 52
    Marc says:

    Are we really, really relying on a standardized test to figure out whether college students are learning? Really?

    I thought that after the debacle in the K-12 realm people would be a little more critical.

    Here is a withering critique of the methodology of the study:

    http://chronicle.com/article/A.....-a/126371/

    Shorter: the statistics that they used were bogus; their metric was flawed; and it’s the same old same old. Probably tied into a pitch to force college students to take standardized tests for..well, probably profit. See also

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/02/study-raises-questions-about-common-tools-assess-learning-college

    for a basic problem: you’re giving a test where the student has no incentive at all to do well (no stakes for them). Unsurprisingly, this tends to depress scores relative to tests that students, well, study for.

  53. 53
    Tom Levenson says:

    One thing I’ve learned across an experience that spans being a Big Public University faculty brat to being an undergraduate at an Ivy to teaching at MIT: student/peer culture matters enormously — and that culture requires nurturing at every level fo the institution. My MIT kids are great — and part of what makes them great is the demands they put on each other. If you don’t have that (and there are data points in the Boston area to illuminate that for me) then the results are much more chancy. You can get a great education at a huge number of schools. But at a lot of them, most of them, perhaps, you get a lot less help than you do at the ones that get this. And those ones aren’t necessarily the name brand ones.

    Oh — and two cheers for the liberal arts. A real history education seems to me to be to critical thinking what mathematics is to the mastery of anything in the physical sciences (and lots more besides). Being as I’m a writing professor, I tend to think taht writing as a practice plays a similar role.

  54. 54
    mclaren says:

    @Suzanne:

    The notion that STEM majors are particularly “intelligent” doesn’t fly. STEM majors are good at math and a narrow kind of logic, but that’s not all of (or even most of) intelligence. As Martin Gardner has pointed out, there exist at least 8 types of general intelligence. Emotional intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, and so on. And Kahneman & Tversky have identified two different modes of thinking — fast logical deductive reasoning (the kind Western culture idolizes, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes) and slower intuitive holistic thinking, which is actually how most people learn things and do their jobs.

    Ask yourself: did you learn how to drive a car by taking a car-driving theory course? Or by just immersing yourself in doing it and “soaking in” the process until it became second nature?

    That slower holistic mode of thinking is how most people learn to perform most tasks, but Western culture ridicules and abjures it. Take a look at the book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by neuroscientist Guy Claxton for more info.

  55. 55
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Marc: The first Saturday of Freshman orientation at my undergrad, every student who had not taken the ACT was supposed to take it for some reason. I had taken the SAT because the “better” colleges seemed to prefer it and the National Merit Scholarship competition. So, at 9:00 am on that Saturday, I, hungover or possibly still drunk, filled in bubbles on a piece of paper. No idea what my score was.

  56. 56
    mclaren says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Being as I’m a writing professor, I tend to think taht writing as a practice plays a similar role.

    Wow. That’s scary. You teach writing at a major top-tier college, and can’t even manage to spit out a proper English sentence?

    Surely you mean: “Inasmuch as I’m a writing professor, I tend to think that writing as a practice plays a similar role.”

    We’re seeing a lot of evidence for the Dunning-Kruger Effect right on this thread…

  57. 57
    Marc says:

    @mclaren: You certainly are posting a lot here, agreed.

  58. 58
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Being as I’m a writing professor, I tend to think taht writing as a practice plays a similar role.

    Aside from Math classes and Intro to Acting, I don’t think I had a college course that did not require a term paper. It certainly made law school easier.

  59. 59
    🚸 Martin says:

    I’d say the biggest fault here is factory education. Students don’t get long papers to write when there are 400 students in a class – there’s simply no way to grade that many papers in the final week of a class without a fucking army of TAs, and at one TA per 80 students at many institutions, that’s simply not possible.

    As a result, assessment gets boiled down to what is possible – multiple choice exams and no critical thinking. The faculty don’t like this, but truth is once you get over about 75 students (less for some instructors), your ability to interact with your class takes a major dive because you’re hitting your threshold for even remembering their names, and so instruction gets adjusted to become more efficient (read: less critical) and once you hit about 150, your ability to even recognize the faces of the students in your class falls off, so above that, just forget it. How can you ask a critical question and assess a thoughtful answer if you aren’t sure if you’ve ever talked to that student before?

    Tom loves his MIT students because they have a student faculty ratio in the single digits. That’s exceedingly rare outside of the Ivies and other high-rent privates. But that’s why MIT works so well. My institution has a student faculty ratio of around 50. Everyone from faculty to student is holding on for dear life.

  60. 60
    Roger Moore says:

    @Suzanne:

    I know that the STEM majors attract high intelligence, but I have a feeling that some of the other majors do, too. And architecture attracts the truly masochistic.

    I think the hard majors, which would include STEM but also a lot of the serious liberal arts, are important mostly because they require you to work hard, and they’ll chew up and spit out people who aren’t wiling to put in the hours. Yeah, you learn logical thinking and some other allegedly practical things like that, but the biggest thing is that you prove your ability to grind away at tough problems until they’re solved. Maybe you can do that because you’re a genius and can get it done in half the time of anyone else, or maybe you’re just a hard worker who can put in lots of all-nighters, but you have a proven ability to accomplish stuff, and that’s what really matters.

  61. 61
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @🚸 Martin: I suspect you are correct about this. The largest survey courses at my undergrad were about 60 people (for things like Intro to Government). I had many seminars with five or six people (even if one wanted to slack off, one couldn’t).

  62. 62
    Quaker in a Basement says:

    Randy Newman knew what he was talking about: “College men from LSU, went in dumb, come out dumb too…”

  63. 63
    TheWumpus says:

    “On average, they improved less than half of one standard deviation.” Wait … this is supposed to be showing that college doesn’t do anything? In fact it shows the opposite. A change of half a standard deviation is huge. For example, the standard deviation of the lifespan of a 30-year old male is 15 years. Would anyone be disappointed in a magic potion that, when drunk, extended your lifespan by an average of 6 years?

  64. 64
    Suzanne says:

    @Roger Moore: Maybe that’s why people stereotype architects as very smart (even though I know plenty of dumb ones). The studio environments fetishize working truly ridiculous numbers of hours, and “I haven’t slept in X hours” is their version of a dick-measuring contest. (I was actually diagnosed with epilepsy in graduate school after staying up working for almost 56 hours. Turns out that can fuck you up.) It always makes me laugh, because when I told people I went to art school, they looked at me like I was weird. When I told them I went to architecture school, they all of a sudden treated me with much more respect.

  65. 65
    Marc says:

    @TheWumpus: They made up what a standard deviation was too. The stats behind this claim are extremely flimsy. But the comments show that this is the sort of thing that people want to believe, so it’ll have a good and healthy lifespan.

  66. 66
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    @Marc: Thank you.

    We all have our anecdotes to point to (e.g. the STEM Ph.D. candidate who was asked at their defense, “Is wavelength of light bigger than a breadbox?” and being unable to answer.) But, IIRC, the overall statistics for the country show that people are better educated now than they’ve ever been. Literacy rates are higher; more people graduate high school; more people go to college; etc.

    Some of the things us oldsters take for granted (like filing alphabetically) aren’t just a matter of knowing the ABCs. There are some tricky things that you need to learn if you want to do it right (and it’s not taught to everyone). E.g. the 18 rules for filing (6 page .pdf).

    Beware of studies that feed into what “everyone knows”.

    My $0.02.

    Cheers,
    Scott.
    (Who hated filing.)

  67. 67
    Steve from Antioch says:

    I don’t know nothing about kids nowadays, but I do know that anyone who writes a “sentence” like this needs to get some more book learning’:

    “Yet despite working little and learning less — a third of students reported studying less than five hours a week & half were assigned no long papers to write — most continued to receive good grades.”

  68. 68
    WaterGirl says:

    @mclaren: I’m sorry that I chose this comment of yours to be the one in a million that I read. Now I’m mad. Many of us write differently on a blog than we would in a more formal setting. It’s called using a more conversational tone.

    I might say something like “Totally agree!”, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to write a complete sentence. Ergh.

  69. 69
    mclaren says:

    @Steve from Antioch:

    Book learning won’t fix a misbegotten sentence like that. What’s needed is hands-on practice. That sentence should obviously have been broken up into two separate sentences:

    “A third of students reported studying less than five hours a week and half were assigned no long papers to write. Yet, despite working little, and learning less, most continued to receive good grades.”

    This offers a perfect example of the difference twixt theoretical education and hands-on practice. Practice proves much more important in most cases. If you want to learn how to write well, there’s no substitute for writing a lot. Poring over grammar books won’t do it.

    The same proves true of most university courses. Theory, theory, and more theory. Math, math and more math. That leads to people who can ace the tests but then use operational research to run the Vietnam war, as McNamara did — with disastrous results.

    Smart isn’t the same thing as competent. Book learning isn’t the same thing as ability to do the job. American colleges obsess over theory, math, and memorization. Competence isn’t even on the radar screen at most U.S. institutions of higher learning.

  70. 70
    Exurban Mom says:

    @jonas: Actually, studies I’ve seen show adjuncts tend to grade tougher than tenured and tenure-track faculty. They also tend to enforce curricular requirements and be less persuaded by whiny grade-grubbing. I adjuncted myself for several years recently, and this was the case for me and most of my colleagues. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with rampant adjunctification of the faculty. For one: I was a solid instructor, I required students to do significant writing and critical thinking in the curriculum I taught, students generally were very positive in their course reviews…and I no longer teach. Why? I was no longer able to get more than 2 courses a term, which is not a living wage, because 3 or more courses = 32 hours of work = requirement for large public university I taught for to give me health insurance, which they were not willing to do. ( I blame the university, not Obama, for this.) Here’s another problem with this model: students sought me out for guidance on the curriculum, and I had zero information with which to guide them, and no interest on the part of the department or university to educate me on these issues.

  71. 71
    mclaren says:

    @WaterGirl:

    Someone who claims to teach writing at a top-tier university and uses a misbegotten construction like: “Being as I am…” needs at the very least to get his ass fired for gross incompetence.

    Ideally, the people who hired him should be summarily dismissed as well, and the entire hiring process revamped from top to bottom.

  72. 72
    Steve Finlay says:

    A lot of the students may be dumb, but I think most of the problem is the education that they get. They truly don’t learn anything about critical thinking, finding and evaluating evidence, logic, etc. If they are very lucky, they might get one professor (who could be teaching almost any subject) who understands how reasoning works and who teaches it. I ran into at least three, which makes me feel forever blessed.

    This doesn’t just mean that the faculty face economic disincentives that discourage them from teaching the critical thinking concepts that they know well. Some of the incompetence goes to the very top.

    For over a year, I did occasional freelance editing of academic papers for a former student from one of my LSAT prep classes. This guy had acquired more letters after his name than a can of Alpha-Getti. He was writing about fisheries economics — and he had less reasoning power than a border collie. I eventually “fired the client”; the camel’s back broke when the footnote that he provided to back up a somewhat improbable claim about the Pacific halibut fishery turned out to be an article that was exclusively devoted to Atlantic salmon.

    What does that have to do with incompetence at the top? While editing his papers, I often had to read his references. Many of these were written by people who are regarded by other fisheries economists as world-leading fisheries economists. And then, in a short paper written jointly by at least three of these grand pooh-bahs, the following sentence pops up:

    “And yet, co-management that goes wrong from the very outset can lead to undesirable outcomes.”

    Well, no shit, Sherlock. Look, you clowns: if you don’t know what a tautology is, and you can’t keep it out of your writing, then you don’t deserve to be a world-leading fisheries economist. You don’t deserve a Ph.D. You don’t deserve an MA. The place that gave you a BA should have cured you of this, and if they couldn’t have done so, you should have flunked.

  73. 73
    Pen says:

    @Exurban Mom: So how many new buildings were drawn up and/or started in the time you were teaching and weren’t allowed enough hours to qualify for health care? If your university was anything like mine I’d wager half the bloody campus.

  74. 74
    WaterGirl says:

    @mclaren: What you wrote is laughable.

    Over and out.

  75. 75
    mclaren says:

    @Pen:

    Yes, exactly. The problem isn’t the allegedly slipshod TAs or the supposedly stupid students. The problem is that universities have gone on a spending spree for new facilities and have larded up their institutions with immense numbers of superfluous administrators… All the while letting professors who are mainly known for their research slack off from the job of actual teaching.

    These issues are well-known. The problem is systemic. Universities have turned into money machine Ponzi schemes fed by legions of students who don’t seem to realize that they can’t legally discharge their hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt via bankruptcy courtesy of that evil 1998 law.

    With hordes of helpless victims, universities have no incentive not to give students good grades, push pubulum at ’em instead of rigorous course material, slack off outrageously on the job of actual teaching, all the while jacking up tuition at a rate five times faster than the rate of inflation.

    The problem with U.S. universities isn’t dumb students or slacker TAs. It’s universities turning the process of higher education into a gigantic class-distinction-enforcing and middle-class-impoverishing scam, along with criminal negligence by the tenured professors who spend their time doing research and publishing, rather than teaching.

  76. 76
    mclaren says:

    @WaterGirl:

    What you wrote is laughable.

    No evidence, no logic — a perfect example of total lack of critical thinking. A baseless assertion isn’t an argument.

    If you graduated from college, you need to ask for your money back.

  77. 77
    PhilbertDesanex says:

    @mclaren: Good one! Besides, he was the English major, not me. Damn that spell chuck.

  78. 78
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @mclaren: Res ipsa loquitur.

  79. 79
    John Revolta says:

    @ShadeTail: Even
    more cogent Carlin:

    “Think of how stupid the average American is, and then realize that half of them are stupider than that.”

  80. 80
    WaterGirl says:

    @John Revolta: Your words or Carlin’s? It’s a great line, just curious who to credit.

  81. 81
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: My mom, a teacher, has always said, “You have no idea how dumb average is.”

  82. 82
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): I can believe it.

    I may have mentioned before that I put myself through college working at a (union) grocery store. I was the shop steward and I made 11.50 an hour and that was in the early 1980s. But I digress…

    There was a cashier, a really nice girl, who had worked there for a year and they still had to take her into the back room to help her learn how to count change back. That’s 10.59 – 60, 65, 75 and 11. (as you handed out the penny, the nickel, the dime and the quarter)

    Like your mom, I used to say that I had to revise my view of how smart the average person was. I was smart and I had always hung out with smart people, and I had absolutely no idea how smart the average person was. It was an experience that stood me in good stead, for a number of reasons.

  83. 83
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: Basic training in the army did it for me. I loved Sundays when we could by a newspaper and I would get the Louisville one ( I was at Fort Knox) and savor every bit of the culture section. Oddly, because of all that Officer Candidate School (the technically tougher course – 40% flunked out at the time) was easier on me than Basic.

  84. 84
    Roger Moore says:

    @I’mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet:

    Some of the things us oldsters take for granted (like filing alphabetically) aren’t just a matter of knowing the ABCs. There are some tricky things that you need to learn if you want to do it right (and it’s not taught to everyone). E.g. the 18 rules for filing (6 page .pdf).

    This is an excellent point. The purpose of an education isn’t to teach you everything you need to know, it’s to give you the skills you need to learn what you need to know. It would be understandable if a college graduate didn’t know how to do a common office task, but not if they couldn’t learn it given the kind of helpful guide you provided there.

  85. 85
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Roger Moore: I once read that a liberal arts education was designed to teach people to learn how to learn. Once you know that, you can master shitloads of technical skills of whatever kind. OTOH, I also read that a liberal arts education was designed to make you capable of at least one intelligent remark on any subject at a cocktail party.

  86. 86
    WaterGirl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): We humans are such interesting creatures! It’s interesting to think about the experiences that made us what we are, or took us on the paths we took.

    40% flunk out rate, wow. I can’t imagine anything tougher than basic training, but then I am so not military material.

  87. 87
    Roger Moore says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    I once read that a liberal arts education was designed to teach people to learn how to learn.

    How to learn, but also how to think and argue a point. A good liberal arts education uses the humanities to teach logic, rhetoric, and research. You may pick up a lot of facts that make great cocktail party conversational topics along the way, but the real value is from knowing how to construct and analyze an argument. In a lot of ways, I think undergraduate STEM degrees are trying to do the same kind of thing, but from an empirical, quantitative standpoint rather than the more qualitative approach preferred by the liberal arts. Sure, you learn a bunch of STEM subjects along the way, but the real goal is to learn how to gather and reason from evidence.

  88. 88
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): rofl. :-)

    People are living longer and can be productive for 50 years or more. Spending 2-4 years after HS learning how to learn new stuff and think clearly about topics is a worthwhile investment in an essential skill. Whether you call it college or an apprenticeship or whatever, just about everyone would benefit from it. We shouldn’t turn liberal arts colleges into trade schools for industry, though. People who went to ITT Tech in 1985 to become wizards at running DOS aren’t in much demand these days…

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  89. 89
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @WaterGirl: Only about 5% of those who applied got in. (humble brag) Oddly, I am not military material myself. My goals when I went in were to graduate from OCS and Airborne School. Once I did those in about a year and two weeks, I owed the army at least 3 years of service. I kept my hair as long as I could under military regulation and tried to sneak music like the Clash’s Sandinista into my senior officers’ hearing.

  90. 90
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @I’mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet: I take it you are not disagreeing with me, right?

    @Roger Moore:

    A good liberal arts education uses the humanities to teach logic, rhetoric, and research.

    Agreed.

  91. 91
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Yup, we’re in agreement. I got a liberal arts education – I was in the same graduating class as David Brooks at Chicago. (Don’t hate me. I don’t think we ever had a class together.) It has served me very well.

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  92. 92
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @I’mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet: You were in my athletic conference back then. I was, I think, a freshman during your senior year.

  93. 93
    John Revolta says:

    @John Revolta: That’s Carlin. And he didn’t say “average American”. He said “average person”.

  94. 94
    🚸 Martin says:

    @mclaren:

    The problem is that universities have gone on a spending spree for new facilities and have larded up their institutions with immense numbers of superfluous administrators… All the while letting professors who are mainly known for their research slack off from the job of actual teaching.

    If the state wants teaching, they can pay for teaching. They don’t, which is why many institutions like mine get less than 10% of our funding for that activity. As my boss says: the legislature isn’t interested in better university teaching, stop expecting them to suddenly start paying for it.

    That doesn’t mean that we don’t commit to teaching, but the money to do it comes from grants, and the first thing that the grant does is pay the salary of the grant writer. My corner of my institution has about 100 administrators in it. I and 8 others are paid from student fee/subsidy money. The rest are paid for by grants or research maintenance. That’s 9 administrators for 4,000 students. If you were a student, you’d be demanding more administrators. We could do a lot more to further teaching with a few more staff, and they’re coming from the grants, slowly…

  95. 95
    J R in WV says:

    I’m proud that the B-J denizens didn’t feed mcclarin the troll at all. This boy is so stupid he thinks he can still claim that the PPACA isn’t working – when in fact medical costs have risen less since its implementation than ever in the past 50 or 60 years.

    Blaming Obama for keeping gitmo open? Even more stupid.

    Taking a random sentence written on a blog as an example of why the writer shouldn’t have a degree or a job? stupid.

    Everything this person writes has the wretched stink of desperate lack of success about it. Amusing to see in such a generally intelligent forum. It makes me wonder why someone would put on such a show here on B-J? What could one possibly gain from displaying an inability to reason while berating people for, of all things, being unable to reason, in a forum full of reasoning people?

    On a more interesting and amusing collegiate education note, Mrs J worked covering the Lege years ago, and had occasion to quote a house member saying that a bill passed like Sherman marched through Georgia. A co-worker with a Masters from an Ivy-league school wrote her a note saying she didn’t understand the reference. Mrs J was reduced to telling her that an example of Sherman’s March was the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. Co-worker wrote back that she was from New York, and they weren’t involved with the Civil War, don’t you know.

    No kind or amount of education can cure stupid. Someone who is on the surface well educated but is ignorant of the involvement of New York in the Civil War is hopeless. In the same way that mclaren is.

    I often eat at a BBQ place run by a hard working young woman, and one day she was there doing it all by herself. I asked where her sidekick was, and she said “He quit, told me he didn’t like being told what to do.” Life is going to be a long and unhappy experience for that boy. Amazing. Don’t like being told what to do.

  96. 96
    RobNYNY1957 says:

    The Jesuits say “Give me the boy until he is seven years old, and I will give you the man.” They seem to think that critical thinking capabilities can be extinguished before a child is eight.

  97. 97
    Anne Laurie says:

    @RobNYNY1957:

    They seem to think that critical thinking capabilities can be extinguished before a child is eight.

    In defense of the Jesuits (I spent a significant portion of my pre-college education being told “What a shame you’re not a boy, you’d make such a great Jesuit”), they have always been notorious for encouraging critical thinking capabilities, much to the disapproval of more conservative orders. “Failed” Jesuits — men like Robert Drinan, Garry Wills & Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance — have left the seminary schools to seed rebellion & the questioning of unthinking ritual since approximately six months after Ignatius finally got Papal approval to start educating ‘soldiers for God’.

  98. 98
    tybee says:

    @mclaren:

    you need to heed your own advice.

  99. 99

    I can’t believe the # of commenters (maybe all?) who are ignoring the part about how the job market is terrible for young people. Are you all Abe Simpson? I’ll bet many of you made similar sorts of goofy mistakes when looking for work – I know I did – but in an easier labor market employers were more likely to look beyond that.

    Blaming young people for the mistakes of their elders…I could die of the tediousness.

    It does seem that the educational system in this country is becoming less equal, along with anything else. If you go to an elite high school and college you’ll get taught the CLA skills; otherwise, maybe not. Or, you’ll be under economic pressure in college to choose a vocational-type track.

  100. 100
    Lee Rudolph says:

    @Hillary Rettig:

    If you go to an elite high school and college you’ll get taught the CLA skills

    You’ve got to be kidding. Many of the most “elite” schools (Harvard, I’m looking straight at you; MIT, not at all) are the most burdened with “legacy” students who can now pursue their Gentleman’s C with no fear of getting anything less than an A, and who (for the most part) neither need nor want “critical thinking” and “CLA skills” as part of their preparation for stepping into “elite” jobs. I see no evidence, and have no reason to believe, that their situation has changed significantly since the bright college days of George W. Bush at Yale and Harvard.

  101. 101
    Cervantes says:

    @Lee Rudolph:

    You’re right that MIT does not make it easier for kids of alumni or alumnae to gain admission. Interestingly, neither do Oxford or Cambridge.

    Some additional facts about Harvard admissions: Currently about 6% of all applicants are admitted; whereas among “legacy” applicants 30% are admitted. On average, kids admitted as “legacies” score roughly 2 points lower on their SATs than does the incoming class as a whole. And the number of kids Harvard admits from US families in the lower half of the income distribution is about equal to the number admitted from US families in the highest percentile.

    One other thing: George W. Bush attended college at Yale; at Harvard he was at the Business School.

  102. 102
    mantooth says:

    @cmorenc: I came down here to say just this. I am getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering right now and if I sneeze in Thermodynamics I have a small moment of panic over the material I just missed the Professor covering.

  103. 103
    Ella in New Mexico says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    One thing I’ve learned across an experience that spans being a Big Public University faculty brat to being an undergraduate at an Ivy to teaching at MIT: student/peer culture matters enormously

    BAM!

    I’m sorry but I’m calling “bovine digestive byproduct” on this study, and apparently other, more qualified folks have too. @Marc:

    Critical thinking is something that A.the student needs to want to do, and B.the student has learned along the way is an important reason for an education.

    My kids went/go to public schools and large state universities. They started out as critical thinkers from their earliest days, because that is a family value in our home. Observation, questioning, learning, reflection–these were a part of our everyday life. We pushed them to take advantage of what their classes could offer, even if it came from flawed teachers or boring curriculums. We spoke openly about the difference between just cruising along and getting good grades and truly trying to find meaning and enlightenment from education. They got all kinds of GPA’s, but not a single one of them can be labeled as lacking in “critical thinking skills”.

    Many of their friends were wealthier than we were, many had better grades, and a few actually went to more academically “challenging” schools. They graduated from college and got jobs pretty quickly (Finance majors seem to have an easier time than Natural Resource Conservation types), and were able to get on their feet financially in no time after school. As nice and kind and pleasant as they are, they are some of the most lackluster intellects you’ll ever meet. They’re the next generation of upper middle class, low-information voters who’s sole goals are to have a boat AND a 5th wheel to take to the lake on the weekends and who’s 401K’s are gonna blow mine away by the time they’re 35.

    Then there are people like a friend of mine, born into an 8 child, poor, dysfunctional Mexican-American family. He got arrested a couple of times in high school for dumb stuff, never considered college. He joined the Marines, then after that worked as an air traffic controller. He decided to go to college about then, and eventually, became an attorney, and is now a part-time judge. He’s intellectually brilliant, reads voraciously and always has. He sees himself as the black sheep in his family, in many ways, because they still don’t value education.

    So what if, just like everywhere else in education, we’re unfairly comparing all students from all kinds of backgrounds and value systems with tests like these? What if the desire to learn, grow and become a critical thinker starts in the family, in the early experiences of the child, or in the rare kid that sees the world in a way that pushes him to become smarter and better through education?

  104. 104
    EthylEster says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name):

    It also could be that you are asking them about something that is not their passion.

    Oh, noes! I get so tired of hearing that we just need to make learning fun. Grinding out a degree in math or lab sciences (or other challenging disciplines) may not be fun when your doing it but can lead to later fun (and an appreciation of one’s ability to learn).

    A lot of one’s work life is boring. Get over it.

  105. 105
    EthylEster says:

    @jonas:

    This isn’t adjuncts’ faults — a lot of them are really great, highly-trained and motivated teachers trying to make it in a completely f-ed up academic job market. They’re just working in system that rewards them for having the lowest expectations possible.

    Before I left the academic world and took a job in the private sector, I ran into this over and over. And that was before the fairly recent dash to reduce the number of tenure track positions. I blame administrators. They have lost the thread.

  106. 106
    Jado says:

    @Roger Moore:

    My STEM education mostly taught me how to tell when something isn’t right. Engineering nowadays is mostly about using the right software for the right situation, and more importantly knowing when the results make no sense because of in input error.

    Data is data, but bad data makes things spiral out of control REALLY fast

  107. 107
    Jado says:

    @mantooth:

    I feel you – Thermo was a bear

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