Sunday, April 22, 2012

“How much do students here learn? How do you know?”

These questions posed by David Brooks in an article in the NY Times are symptomatic of the need to assess education, but Brooks is missing the point when tries to use some pseudo  quantitative information related to the "amounts" learned by students in college.
This misguided attempt to measure gain is skills using Arum and Roksa's study “Academically Adrift", where they "found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that." But then Brooks mention that the numbers are "disputed" and continues by saying "but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college." So why use the suggestion of the study if the numbers are contested?
There are other ways of knowing how education is affecting one's life and ways to quantify the benefit of higher education for instance the average income of tax payers with or without a four-year college education. The percent of unemployed with or without a college degree and so on. So when Brooks ask parents to ask the question to college administrators "How much do students here learn?" is misguiding them as a more appropriate question would be: How do you assess the quality of the education provided here?
This question will make parents more involved in their children's education and will also help them to see the need of hard work and commitment when choosing a career more so today when STEM majors are lagging way behind other industrialized nations.    

Saturday, April 21, 2012


What it takes to learn?
One of the most talked virtues in teaching is "making difficult concepts easy to understand". One can struggle with this idea for it not only requires engagement from the teacher but also from the student, and the objective (might be course content) not being easily accessible to a simple interpretation.
As a metaphor one can use the idea of a symphony: how can one understand even enjoy a piece by Stravinsky if one hasn't a basic knowledge of harmony, melody, or rhythm?
Stravinsky Conducts Firebird
You can teach making it fun and using games like this video can show
but it will always be necessary for all to be engaged! Here is where "talent" becomes part of the learning "equation" as talent will be an individual attribute. Not everyone has "an ear" for music, or "a leg" for soccer! So how can we know what kind of talent is needed for a particular subject? And once we know what king of talent is required can we (teachers and councilors) help students develop such talent?
As we all we do in life everything is connected so one way to address this issue would be to find the links to the motivation needed for the development of such talent. Also we have to know the scope of the requirements in that particular field, for example a student seeking a degree that would allow him/her work as a pharmacist in retail might not need a course in quantum chemistry but one working in research might need. So can we know what the future will be for that student? Or by not teaching quantum chemistry to pharmacy students are we restricting the scope of the student's future?