Why universities underachieve

European universities consider the Dublin descriptors as their objectives for about 20 years. Consequently, they claim that upon graduation:

  1. Students are acquainted with the knowledge base of one or more fields of knowledge, research methods included.
  2. Students are able to apply the acquainted knowledge, which means that they can relate concepts and theories with related phenomenon in practice (near transfer)
  3. Students are able to think critical about real problems, making references at proper concepts and theories and – if necessary – by gathering and elaborating empirical data (far transfer)
  4. Students are able to communicate at several levels of complexity about scientific knowledge and its application
  5. Students are increasingly able to master their own learning

Having been a member of evaluation panels for more then 10 years, I must say that programs that have realized these objectives are rare.

Insufficient critical thinking skills

Insufficient critical thinking skills

The first (acquisition of knowledge) and the second (application of knowledge) Dublin descriptor dominate the curriculum. Learning to cope with the other three Dublin descriptors stays behind in most programs. I repeatedly asked representatives of programs under evaluation to explain the meaning of the third Dublin descriptor (critical thinking). Unfortunately, I seldom discovered any vision or strategy with respect to the attainment of this qualification, let alone that students were trained in it. The same applies to the fourth and fifth descriptors. The stepwise acquisition of critical thinking, communication and learning skills require that students participate regularly in collaborative research, tackling real-life problems, resulting in papers, presentations and discussions and thorough feedback.

Onderwijs - Underachieving collegesMy observations coincide with Derek Bok’s – former president of Harvard – critical review of higher education in the US. In his book Our underachieving colleges he has collected ample evidence that universities fall short in educating students as critical thinkers, able to judge deliberately and prepared to deal with diversity within the US and in our globalizing world (Bok, 2008).

Virtually no institution that I have been visiting is able to deliver serious proof of the attainment of the outcomes of their programs. Mostly, the thesis is considered as a proxy, which is questionable. Some institutions asked students to indicate the degree of mastery of the objectives of the program themselves, which is better than doing nothing. Some programs have introduced portfolios, but until now they do not convince as proofs of the attainment of the Dublin descriptors.

Onderwijs - academically adriftMeasurement of educational outcomes is not deployed in the US either. The publishing of the seminal reports of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Arum & Roksa, 2011, 2014) changed the scene. Both authors – employed as professors in US universities – wondered how universities ground their claim that they enable students to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly. As research to validate this claim is absent, Arum & Roksa deployed the Collegiate Learning Assessment-test (CLA-test). In this test students write a short essay about a real problem. These essays are evaluated from a critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills angle. 2000 freshmen participated in the experiment and repeated the test after 18 month. 45% of the participants did not show any progress. Four years after the second run, a significant part of the original participants participated for the third time and 36% still did not show any significant progress. The authors conclude: Limited or no learning for a large proportion of students characterizes American higher education. The authors also collected data with respect to the average time students spent to their study. In the well-known University of California this appears to be 13 hours, compared with 43 hours for leisure and social activities.

Onderwijs - academically adrift 8The research of Arum and Roksa has been criticized from a methodological point of view. However, it has contributed to a growing awareness that something is terrible wrong in higher education in the US. More in particular if alumni’s debts (more then $1,1 trillion) and unemployment are taken into consideration.

Unfortunately many universities are over-complacent and over-focussed on their ratings, their publications, their enrolments, their patents and endowments. Deep engagement in education, critical evaluation of their programs and determination to realize their objectives stay behind.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2014). Aspiring adults adrift: Tentative transitions of college graduates Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bok, Derek. (2008). Our underachieving colleges. A candid look at how much students learn and what they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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