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Jesse Singal

On the ground, tales of ill-prepared undergrads

By Jesse Singal
February 3, 2011

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MANY AMERICAN college students aren’t learning anything. That’s the distressing claim of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,’’ a new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors found that 45 percent of the 2,300 students they analyzed showed no improvement in a range of vital skills, from critical thinking to writing, over the first two years of college. For many of those students, that means tens of thousands of dollars of debt with little to show for it.

What’s going on? There are likely several factors at work, but graduate students may be able to identify some of them. After all, they weren’t in college that long ago themselves, and are often on the front lines of lecturing and grading younger collegians.

I emailed three friends who are in doctoral programs: Kelly, Jill, and Mike (not their real names). Kelly and Jill are at private colleges, while Mike is at a public university. All three schools cracked the top 60 of US News & World Report’s “National Universities’’ category for 2011, and two are in the top 20.

What they wrote, while anecdotal, should give shudders to anyone who has ever paid a tuition bill or written a student-loan check. Their students had trouble with the bare basics of making or analyzing an argument. Jill said that her students’ papers “are replete with sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic and overly confident perspectives on complex issues.’’

Few of Kelly’s students “know how to come up with a clear argument/develop a thesis,’’ she wrote. Mike wrote that “I have students turn in a reading assignment in which they need to identify the thesis statement of the piece. This is a struggle for them. If they can’t find it in assigned pieces, how will they learn to produce cogent writing themselves?’’

This and other factors lead to grading that is less than rigorous.

Grading easily is “definitely the custom,’’ wrote Kelly. The first professor she was a teacher assistant for said “that ‘the gentleman’s C’ is now ‘the gentleman’s B,’ ’’ and that the lowest grade that we would give out in the class would be B-, in order to avoid angry phone calls from parents.’’ A friend of hers gave an “A’’ to a student on a paper “if they succeed in having a thesis at all.’’

Mike pointed to a skewed incentive system: “As a TA or graduate instructor you are pressured to give easier grades because the students must evaluate you at the end of the term and those evaluations serve as part of your resume for academic positions.’’

Jill pointed a finger at the lack of supervision of inexperienced adjunct professors. One such professor she was working under made 15 percent of her class’s grade a simple two-page book summary, and “told me to give them all A’s as long as it was somewhat coherent.’’

Perhaps all of this easy grading has gotten to the students’ heads. One pupil complained to Jill about her less-than-stellar grade on a research paper in which she didn’t include a single reference. “I explained that the point of research papers is to find existing information to support an argument,’’ Jill wrote, “to which she just responded, ‘No, you’re wrong. It’s not supposed to be like that, it’s just supposed to be my opinion.’ ’’

Plagiarism has been a regular problem for Mike — there have been seven cases in the six semesters he has taught. One of the most egregious came when a football player handed in a paper that was completely plagiarized. Mike reported him to a disciplinary committee and, his season in jeopardy, the student appealed.

At the hearing, Mike suggested that the student get extra writing help, since he was clearly struggling. “Instead, his two coaches ‘promised’ the council that they would punish him for it,’’ Mike wrote, “by ‘running laps before and after practice — he will be in the best shape of his life.’ ’’

Running laps is a foolish response for failing to meet academic standards. But not that much more foolish than what is allowed to go on at many of the nation’s colleges.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe editorial pages. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.