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Thursday, November 16, 2006


Speaking of grades...

Here's an essay on incompetence, which doesn't realize it's on, or its own, incompetence.

Could Shari Wilson employ yet another anecdote about what someone she knows saw, heard, believes?

"What’s behind this great drop in ability to assess performance?," she asks. "I’m sure that sociologists, education specialists and other experts have outlined a long history and a number of interrelated causes that explain this drop out in students’ knowledge," she acknowledges. To which one must ask: is there any evidence that this state of affairs represents a change, that there's been a "great drop," or, if you prefer, a "drop out."

Final grade: B-
Interesting issue, not a bad start, but a weak analysis. I'd recommend revising and thinking more about this issue in connection to work in other fields on incompetence. And, please, no mentions of "declines" or "drops" unless you can prove one has taken place.

(This post has been brought to you by too little sleep and my constant annoyance with people who argue, always with nothing but anecdotal evidence, that students today are worse than their forebears.)

  • At 11/16/2006 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Love it. I think we should start putting grades in all our posts.


  • At 11/16/2006 12:27:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    By the way, that survey she gives her class is obviously loaded -- I mean, she's clearly dangling the word "overachiever" over their heads. They're not all independently coming up with the claim that they think they're overachievers; she *gives* them that word, and then, sure, people check it off. Who wants to admit to *not* being an "overachiever"? (It's an idiotic word anyway -- what's *over* achieving? How much is too much?). What's going on here with her oh-so-unscientific polling is that she's leading them on to claim to be overachievers -- in other words, assuming that she's a reasonable grader, she's guaranteeing the results she got in advance.


  • At 11/16/2006 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I wonder about this. I mean, this person is an idiot. But what would constitute *non-anecdotal* evidence about changes in student performance? Either up or down? Maybe there can't *be* evidence on this, and it's just inevitably going to be the sphere of pointless nostalgia, unprovable assertions, etc. But at the same time, I see no reason to assume that students now are the same as they've always been. Everthing else is in flux; why should student performance be an island of stability?


  • At 11/16/2006 01:16:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    And the student population has changed dramatically over the past, say, 50 years. Many, many more people going to college pretty much inevitably means a downward shift in their abilities going in, doesn't it? If you assume (as I think makes sense) that the people with better education and more money tended always to be more likely to go to college, then as you expand the pool of college-attendees, you're not going to increase the number of better-educated, well-heeled, well-prepared students very much. You're going to increase the number of poorer-educated, poorer, less-prepared students much more. So it wouldn't surprise me if "students" today overall were coming into college much less prepared and hence were performing worse. But it's not clear to me that that's a bad thing. It may be a sign of a good thing--increased opportunities for higher education among the citizenry. Schools need to change, though, to deal with it, not stubbornly protest about how much worse their students are than they used to be.

    This has nothing to do with the sloppiness of that article, though, which still gets a B- in my book. She sounds like a professor who would benefit from re-reading her first-year college essays.


  • At 11/16/2006 02:46:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    It could absolutely be the case that with increased access to educational opportunities, especially increased access further down the social scale, students with a greater range of abilities would be found in the college classroom. But, that's happening at the aggregate, and the student population at any one school wouldn't necessarily reflect that change. In fact, the change at certain schools, I would guess, have run directly counter to the overall trend (are Yale students really worse writers than they were 30 or 50 years ago? I doubt it; I'd actually expect them to be somewhat better). In any event, whatever shift there may or may not have been in the mean performance of college students over time--for which, again, we have no conclusive evidence either way--there certainly hasn't been a fundamental shift in the way they behave. 18-22 year olds are, and have been, 18-22 year olds. Blah, blah, blah. Gotta go.


  • At 11/16/2006 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Just to finish my thought...

    And what I hate more than anecdotal claims of a decline in student achievement are claims that such declines are the result of the laziness, sloth, moral turpitude, etc., of students. The moralizing of performance annoys me to no end (which isn't to say students can't be rude, slothful, disrespectful, unwise; lord knows they can be. I just don't think students acted all that better 20 or 40 years ago).


  • At 11/17/2006 01:07:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I agree with the dislike of easy moralizing. But this I'm not sure about:

    "18-22 year olds are, and have been, 18-22 year olds."

    Are they? Why? How? The world has changed a lot, and I can't see why this particular population group would be unaffected. Especially if the actual pool of people we're talking about -- outside of Yale, etc. -- is significantly different from what it was. I don't want to moralize this or turn it into a source of nostalgia, but I also don't think we can discount the possibility -- I would say the certainty -- that things are different now than they have been twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

    I think Hieronimo's points about the expansion of the student pool are exactly right -- as well as the sense that this is, actually, a good thing. But it's also a pedagogical challenge, and it *can* mean, as in my experience at State U, that you're talking about a student population that's pretty under-prepared, is often working full time during their time in college, and is so focused on the promise of a *financial* payoff from university education that they're very alienated from the actual *substance* of that education. This can be frustrating, I find: my students have a lot on their plate, and they're not going to be intensely engaged with, say, a Shakespeare survey. This is, on the one hand, totally understandable; but on the other hand, it's a little disillusioning.

    If our senior colleagues tend to wax nostalgic about students past, and to moralize about the performance of students present, it's at least possible that the problem with this is less that they're wrong in their assessment of the nature of the change than that they're seeking to retreat into a world when the student body was just much more homogeneous -- to retreat into a moment when college was much more a uniformly middle-class experience, when the students were didn't have to be so intensely focused on fighting their way through socio-economic barriers, and when as a result a leisured liberal arts curriculum meant something to them that it just isn't going to now. At least, to many, and at institutions like State U.

    We may be having different experiences because of our different universities, also.


  • At 11/19/2006 12:02:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Oh yes, I agree, mostly. My comment about 18-22 year olds was simply getting at the idea that people in this age group were not in the past better behaved, more moral, less crazy, less lazy, or more diligent than students today are. Shari Wilson writes that "staff who manage study rooms and carrels often report that students seem to work 'in dribs and drabs' while in the library. Backpacks in hand, they often loiter at computers and chat at tables instead of actually working." To which I say, it was ever thus. And I say the same thing to this stunning insight, "One reference desk librarian reported that she would see students 'studying for four minutes, goofing off for a half an hour, and then studying for another four minutes.'"

    And as for students working, yes, it's true that they currently work a lot while they're also taking classes. They work so much that I'm sometimes amazed they have time to take classes. Is this a huge change, though? Maybe, especially at certain fancy schools, but, then again, students regularly used to work their way through college (or at least that's what our parents tell us), so this isn't exactly a new development. Of course, back in the day, I'm not sure working your way through college required quite as many hours and years of working as it does today (and when I say I'm not sure, I mean I really have no idea).

    And, yes, this could be a difference in our schools. My school apparently has stricter admission policies than it did in the past, so the students here are often considered superior to their predecessors. But we're talking about changes within certain specific populations, not about changes about students in general.

    All this makes me wonder whether it's harder or easier to be a professor nowadays than it was twenty or forty years ago? Not because the students are more difficult, but because the expectations we're held to are higher, or just different. Again, I'm not sure (I kind of think it was ever thus), but certain changes in the profession do make me think this is a more demanding job than it previously was. Or maybe it's just demanding in new and different ways that annoy me and freak me out.


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