Jan 31: Are they learning yet?


The primary research question of Scott Pickey’s Associated Press article, “College students aren’t learning much in college” is, in-and- of- itself, indicative of a positivistic emphasis on carefully controlled observation (i.e. science, numbers, and – in this case – the measurement of learning) “What kind of intellectual growth are we seeing in college?”

This type of ideology is off-putting to me for multiple reasons, some of which I’ll list now:

  • “college students aren’t learning much …” seems like too vague and too vast of an over-generalization and, therefore, I’m skeptical about how applicable – practical – we could make our remedies …
  • is it possible that the ways in which we measure knowledge/skills “gained” or “attained,” etc. aren’t an accurate way of articulating what students are learning?
  • for that matter, how do we determine what is “worth” learning and what isn’t?
  • all in all, the question – and its insinuations – seem a bit tired …

But moving on … I want to address another of Pickey’s statements/generalizations: that “… the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally”

  • Is this really what is going to make the U.S. competitive? Again, what is it that we value – how do we determine what type of knowledge/skills will make graduates competitive? Does this mean that “other” (inferior/useless) knowledge isn’t of value and therefore ought not be taught/learned, etc? This seems problematic to me, in that it appears as though what is being suggested – even threatened – is that if the U.S. doesn’t step it up and start proving that college students are learning ______(whatever it is that’s determined that they ought to learn) then the U.S. – as a country – will fall out of global competition; that our country will fail. Is this a productive way to frame the goals of college education?

Next, let’s consider this statement and its implications: “The findings also will likely spark a debate over what helps and hurts students learn. To sum up, it’s good to lead a monk’s existence: Students who study alone and have heavier reading and writing loads do well.”

  • Think about your average ENC 1101/1102, etc. student. Would the proposition to “live a monk’s existence” be appealing to him/her? Is it appealing to you? Is THAT the best we can do in the way of solutions to Pickey’s problem: that (*according to standardized tests) college students aren’t learning very much?

Another important factor to address is the validity of standardized tests: do you believe that a standardized test measures intelligence or not? Simple question, endlessly complicated answer (well, for some). From the way I see things, standardized tests don’t/can’t possibly measure knowledge because, well, knowledge can’t be measured. But, of course, this doesn’t mean that college students are completely off the hook as far as accountability for learning goes. Quite the opposite, really. If you think about it, what’s more engaging: a standardized test to which there are “right “and “wrong” answers or primary research via an academic/professional internship? How would you measure what the student has learned in the latter educational experience? Well, you couldn’t! Additionally, how would you know if the student had learned “academic” or “professional” or even “personal” types of knowledge? Again, you couldn’t! So where does this leave us? I believe that the most significant and productive treatment of Pickey’s article, and articles/debates like it, is to consider it as the type of dichotomizing, circular, solution-less re-production of a tired debate. Debates such as this – the purported dilemma that college students aren’t sufficiently learning/retaining knowledge and skills – don’t have solutions. They perpetuate and, eventually, are abandoned because of their frustrating circularity. The solution, in my opinion, is the articulation of a new ideology, one that isn’t overly consumed with the production of knowledge that can be measured, but one that accepts that knowledge is always being co-constructed – created, changed – and that rather than disparaging the creating and changing of new knowledges, these processes ought to be embraced for the ways in which they perpetuate productive research and, ultimately, the ways in which they allow for creative ideas to continue moving our intellects – and our country – in positive directions.

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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