Students not learning critical thinking, says study

By Graham Rapson

A study that was recently released concluded a significant portion of students in America are graduating without the skills traditionally associated with higher education, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.

An Oct. 31, 2011 Time magazine article highlighted soaring tuition costs leading to a significant increase of student-loan debt and decreasing employment opportunities for new graduates.

Now more than ever students south of the border are wondering what exactly they are paying for. Should Canadian students be asking the same questions?

The book Academically Adrift, written by Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, followed 2,322 traditional age undergraduate students from the fall 2005 semester to the spring of 2009, and spanned 24 American colleges and universities, ranging from the highly selective to the less selective.

The study found that after two years of post-secondary education, 45 per cent of students showed no significant gain in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills. After four years only a slight improvement was found, as 36 per cent of students still showed no significant gain in these vital areas.

“The results of this study don’t surprise me at all,” said U of C General Studies 300 professor Margo Husby. “Second and third year students can hand in work that I probably would have failed in high school.”

Before becoming a professor in 1996, Husby began her teaching career at the U of C as a teaching assistant in 1992. In that time, she admits that she has seen a decline in the students’ reading and writing abilities, but believes a lot of blame rests on secondary schooling.

“The heart of the students is always good, I just think they’ve been betrayed by their high school,” she said. “Standardized testing teaches students how to write standardized tests, but it doesn’t teach them how to write, and it sure doesn’t teach them how to think.”

“I hated English,” said second-year geology student Miguel Comacho. “They always seemed to provide definite answers for things that are up for interpretation. They would never go into ‘why’. I chose sciences because I don’t like writing,” he said.

Comacho doesn’t feel his writing skills have improved in his time at the U of C, “but to be honest, they probably haven’t improved much since junior high.”

Arum’s and Roksa’s book also describes a significant decline in the amount of time spent on academic pursuits. The average amount of time dedicated to studying had declined from 25 to 13 hours per week since the 1960s and the total amount of time spent in academic pursuits including class time had fallen from 40 to 27 hours a week.

Though increased tuition costs and a need to work during the academic year are partly to blame, some of the onus falls on the students, who reported spending an average of 85 hours a week socializing or doing extracurricular activities.

“I work about 14 hours a week,” said third-year primatology student Michelle Janzen.

But even with a part-time job Janzen still dedicates 25­-30 hours a week to school outside of the classroom. “I think the reading and writing requirements are fair,” she said, adding, “the extra effort pays off.”

U of C professor in post-secondary leadership in the Faculty of Education Maggy Patterson is not as convinced that the findings hold true in Canada. She feels the difference is due to the way the Canadian and American systems are organized. “We can’t really compare what happens in the u.s. with what happens here, but we can each learn lessons from one another.”

Patterson notes the self-assessment that the U of C conducts, which involves an evaluation of the degrees being offered by outside experts from the various fields of study, help ensure proper teaching practices. Also, she said there is a “rigorous process” that takes place within the Campus Alberta Quality Council.

The caqc, of which Patterson is a member, was established in 2009. The Council’s mandate is to “provide advice and recommendations to the Minister [of Advanced Education and Technology] on applications from post-secondary institutions seeking to offer new degree programs in Alberta,” and is also responsible for ensuring continuing quality in degree programs that have already been established.

Even though Alberta, along with other provinces like Ontario and b.c. appears to have strong regulations Canada remains the only developed nation in the world without a system for post-secondary accreditation at the national level.

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