Tag Archives: college

Discussion thread: Student responsibilities

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following statement about responsibilities in college:

In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for help on assignments, and it’s the instructor’s responsibility to respond to those requests in a helpful and timely way.

Do you think this statement is true or false? If false, could you modify it so that it’s true?

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You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Problem Solving, Study hacks, Teaching

On not paying for your kids’ college

Meagan Francis has this “bad parent” column today in which she confesses that she has no plans whatsoever to pay her five kids’ ways through college. Snippet:

Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to — and that it makes sense to — give. […] Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

My wife and I are pretty much of the same mind as Francis here. I made it all the way through four years of undergrad (including two summers) and five years of graduate school with my mom and dad paying only for my utility bills during my final two years of undergrad (because I had moved out of the dorms), textbooks that my scholarships didn’t pay for, and some “allowance” money. Their total financial investment in the nine years between high school and finishing my Ph.D. (at super-expensive Vanderbilt, no less) was probably about $5000 and certainly less than $10,000. The rest was paid for through scholarships, assistantships, work-study, and part-time jobs. I never applied for a student loan, so I finished up my PhD with no debt. Plus, I gained some valuable life- and work-related skills through my work-study and part-time jobs that added a lot of value to my education. Having to work while in a rigorous major at an academically-focused university forced me to come to grips with time management and making good choices about my priorities, and I would like for my kids to get that kind of “education within an education” too.

So my wife and I are firm believers that socking away a fully-funded college fund for each kid is just not necessary. We plan on saving up enough to be able to help our kids through college but not to pay for it. Actually our plan is to instill an excellent work ethic and a love of learning in our kids on the front end, right now even before they start school, so that they’ll do extremely well in K-12 and end up getting a full ride somewhere. And believe me, if you’re a good high school student, you can get a full ride somewhere. It may not be at an Ivy League school or MIT, but it will very likely be at a number of really good schools that aren’t especially well-known but where you can get just as good of an education, if not better, than at the big-name places.

The important thing for students and their parents to keep in mind is balance. Francis’ advice taken to its extreme would have some students trying to manage 18-hour credit loads while working 40+ hours per week to pay for it, and that will lead to failures both at work and at school. If your financial situation is going to require this kind of insane schedule, it’s probably better to wait 3-4 years before starting college and get a job to save up money; or plan out a 5- or 6-year path through college taking about 12 hours a semester; or both.

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Should everyone go to college?

I’m reading through a number of books and articles related to the scholarship of teaching and learning this summer. One that I read recently was this article (PDF), “Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education” by Ross Miller. There are lots of good points, and teaching tips, in this article. But Miller makes one assertion that doesn’t seem right. He brings up the point, under the general heading of “beliefs”, that “questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college” [Miller’s emphases]. As to the “should” part of that question, Miller says:

According to Carnevale (2000), from 1998 to 2008, 14.1 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or some form of postsecondary education—more than double those requiring high school level skills or below. Given those data, it makes sense to encourage all students to continue their education past high school. Consistent high expectations for all students to take a challenging high school curriculum and prepare for college (or other postsecondary education) benefit everyone. Our current practices of holding low expectations for many students result in far too many dropouts or graduates unprepared for college, challenging technical careers, and lives as citizens in a diverse democracy.

So, Miller answers, yes — everyone should attend college. But the reasoning seems spurious for a couple of reasons.

  • How much of the increasingly common requirement of a bachelor’s degree for new jobs is the result of an existing oversupply of people with bachelor’s degrees? Miller claims that people need to have a postsecondary education because more and more jobs require it. Maybe so. But is that because the jobs themselves inherently use skills developed only through a college education? If so, we have to ask if our higher education system is consistently giving students that kind of education. If not, and if students should get a BA or BS  merely because there are so many people out there with BA’s and BS’s that you have to have one to avoid the appearance of intellectual poverty, then this encourages superficial education at the postsecondary level, and the reasoning here is more mythological than anything and needs to be repudiated.
  • As Joanne Jacobs noted back in early 2008 (quoting an article by Paul Barton) it’s not at all settled that the claims about jobs here are even valid. According to that article, only 29% of jobs in 2004 require college credentials, and the percentage is expected to rise only to 31% by 2010 — not exactly a clarion call for all students to matriculate. Also, Barton notes that the wages earned by males with college degrees have slipped, which indicates an oversupply.

College is just not the best choice for every person, and to say that it is merely sets students up for wasting four years of their lives. Some people may have a vocation into a field for which four years of college are a massively inefficient use of time and resources. If you’ve got a vocation to be an electrician, go learn how to be an electrician. If it’s to be a stay-at-home mom, then go do that. Both of these vocations can benefit from a college education if the person is inclined to get one, but neither requires a college education. If you want to go to college and then do those things, fine; but let nobody say that you should go to college, irrespective of your life situation.

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Going out not drinking

Good advice for college students from Kill Jill, a college student herself: Give up drinking.

Fact: drinking every weekend (or, in my case, sometimes twice in a weekend) quickly drains your bank account, which is tiny to begin with.

Fact: groceries and an upcoming trip to New York City should be a priority, not a few hours of mixing vodka and Raspberry Sourpuss.

Fact: drinking that much can do serious damage to one’s health.

Fact: drinking every weekend at college leads to death 78% of the time.

OK. So, that last one wasn’t exactly a (documented) fact. But still, you get my point. Anyway, I’ve been 100% sober for 10 days and I plan to be sober for a long time. I can’t afford it and I just don’t feel like it.

She goes on to list seven “Ways To Have Fun In College Without Opening A Bottle Of Anything That Isn’t Coke, Pepsi, orange juice or Snapple”.  She’s not a prohibitionist or a religious fanatic; she just figures life is better without intoxication. I agree, and I wish more college students would get the fact that there are lots of really amazing opportunities out there which only college students can take, and they’re all better than being drunk or bragging about being drunk. And even if you’re a college student and don’t accept that idea, then at least consider the cost angle — do you really have all that much money to throw around on alcohol?

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Accreditation nation

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?

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That’s right, a B. You got a problem with that?

This past week I sent off for my unofficial undergraduate and graduate transcripts, because I discovered that my copies that I got in 2000 for my last job search were long gone from my archives. I got both transcripts in the last couple of days, and reading them is an interesting trip down memory lane.

I was a pretty hard-working student and my grades in my undergrad and graduate courses were mostly A’s. But I did have a few courses here and there where I didn’t get A’s; far from being disappointed by those courses or feeling like if I had just given a little more effort, etc., I actually feel pretty doggone good about some of them.

  • General Physics I and II (Fall and Summer of sophomore year): B. My undergrad is from Tennessee Technological University, a place swarming with math, science, and engineering majors — especially freshmen who came to Tech wanting to major in engineering. With that many engineering prospects, there had to be a weed-out course. Physics I and II was it, and the department at the time openly embraced the role of that course. In the run-up to the final exam in Physics I, the professors adamantly told us that the exam would not be focusing on memorization of obscure formulas but on big, general concepts, and we should absolutely not expend energy on memorization. The exam itself was, of course, a series of problems which all required recall of exotically obscure formulas. I made a 20% on the final exam, and that ended up being in the upper quartile of the course. In the second semester, the profs said the very same thing about memorization — that we don’t need to worry about it — and I promptly went and did the opposite of what they suggested. I ended up with the highest grade on the final out of over 200 students taking it. I survived, and I am darn proud of those two B’s.
  • Advanced Calculus (Fall of junior year): B. This was the first semester of a yearlong sequence in Advanced Calculus. The course was taught by a faculty member using the Moore method approach, only she used the Moore method only because she didn’t know the material herself and would frequently rip students to shreds when presenting only to find out later that her own criticisms were mathematically flawed. Once I was struggling with an induction proof and she said, “You know Robert, the good students in the course aren’t struggling with this.” (And people accuse me of being uncaring.) Also, she was a chain-smoker, and these were the days before smoking bans inside buildings; my attempts to get help in office hours probably shortened my life by 5 years. A nightmare of a course. I made it my mission in life to get an A in the second semester, and I did.
  • Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable (Fall of grad school year 2): B+. My complex analysis course at Vanderbilt was taught by Richard Arenstorf, a brilliant German mathematician of the old school — meaning he was as prolific as he was hard-nosed. His grading system for homework consisted of four kinds of grades: R (“right”), R/2 (“half right”), 0 (“zero”), and F (“false”). (I have never fully grasped this grading system, but it seems awfully appealing to me now as a professor.) Our weekly homework consisted usually of 3-4 problems that would take all of us fully one week to solve (if indeed we did solve them); our two-hour final exam consisted of ten of them. I am still thrilled to have merited a B+ in his class. In fact on the course evaluations I remember writing, “It is a distinct honor to have my intelligence overestimated by Prof. Arenstorf.” Despite all that, I actually enjoyed Dr. Arenstorf very much as a mathematician and as a person, and I was disappointed to see his proof of the Twin Prime Conjecture didn’t work out.

Sometimes it’s the less-than-perfect grades that mean the most.

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