More Negative News about Our Knowledge Levels . . . Do You Yearn?

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Drink up

I suppose if one lives here in the US, one could consider these recent Inside Higher Ed stories to be gloom-and-doom: first, “ACT Scores Slip,” pointing out that this year’s results are the lowest in five years and that reading and English scores are particularly down; and second, “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy,” pointing out that American adults’ literacy and numeracy levels fall below average.

Naturally, these quick pieces don’t tell the entire story (for instance, the ACT story notes “more students are taking the exam — some of whom are required by schools to do so but have no collegiate aspirations”), and any kind of rankings amongst large groups of people, as well as any kind of measure of skills and intellect, are bound to be sticky as they deal with human beings in different circumstances, cultures, etc. That said, basic knowledge can be tested, and standardized tests for all their controversy do measure something.

So what’s a student of any age to do? Well, first get the right attitude; recall this exchange from the TV show Seinfeld:
Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn? Do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh, yes. Yes, I yearn. Often, I sit and yearn. Have you yearned?

Ah: but can one be taught to yearn for learning?

Consider this: within “ACT Scores” kinds of stories, it’s generally observed that students who take a more rigorous college-prep curriculum do better on these tests, which suggests students who challenge themselves learn more. Indeed! Of course, students must first desire to learn: it’s very telling, I think, that during my years in higher ed I’ve heard this particular cliché more than any other: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Teach for awhile and you realize the yearning for learning comes entirely from the student: it must.

As for the article on US adults lacking in literacy and numeracy levels, we could consider the schools of course, and we should; but I firmly believe any and all of us can take, to a large degree, our educations into our own hands. A common-sense action for anyone who struggles with reading would be to read, read, read some more. Too many of my students who struggled with both reading and, not surprisingly, writing, told me they didn’t like to read, so they avoided it. Well, they will stay in that less-than-optimally-literate place unless they take initiative to start reading more and, again, start challenging themselves. I could do my part by assigning readings in class and guiding them, but if they dropped out (which happens frequently in a community college), they then lack formal guidance and must themselves yearn to learn in order to come back around.

What do you think – how might we raise literacy and numeracy levels?

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Wi-Fi on Campus, Studying on Phones . . .

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tiny frog

Smaller is better?

Here is a story about how some universities struggle to keep up with students’ demand for ever-more bandwidth – a demand driven, the article notes, by the laptops, smartphones, and tablets being brought to campus. Though students seem to expect wireless will be there, naturally, on campus and will work at the speed they desire, all this access costs money, and hence the rub: universities across the US are

“exhausting their budgets just to maintain their existing networks while congestion threatens to choke their online traffic.”

Where’s that money really going, after all? Well, one might ask what students are doing on their electronic devices – surely, study some of the time, and surely, engage in extra-curriculars too. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it a lot – and the healthiness of being “always on, all the time” via mobile device is addressed in this interesting piece: “Smartphone Addiction.”

Back to the studying, though – when it comes to the use of phones for schoolwork, I (like some commenters to the article) wonder how much deep learning can be done on a phone’s tiny screen. As people haven’t had tiny screens on which to study before, I suppose the verdict is still out; but the experience of trying to focus on learning material a few inches square at a time seems to me unnecessarily onerous.

At any rate, if you, students, are attempting to study on a teeny device and are running into problems remembering what you read (as manifested in your grades), try studying via a book or at least a bigger screen. Also, try taking notes and annotating your readings, and do all this in an environment free of distraction. It’s easier said than done, but it could make the difference in your learning and your grades.

Articles cited above: “Device Explosion” by Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 9/5/13.
“Smartphone Addiction” by Stephen Pirog, Inside Higher Ed (“Academic Minute” recording), 3/18/13.

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For Best Results, Go Away

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What would you bring back?

To consider the non-academic benefits of an education is both pleasant and practical, and a recent item in Inside Higher Ed informs that consideration: “Study Abroad Positively Impacts Personality, Study Says.” That study found that study-abroad students improved various aspects of their personalities, including “openness” and “emotional stability.”

This article made me wonder if, too, study-abroad personality development could be partly due to persevering through being in uncomfortable situations and surroundings – encountering a language barrier, for instance.

Of course this is speculation on my part, but perhaps the inherently humbling experience of being a foreigner breeds maturity by way of humility. I believe humility is a beautiful thing, and (study abroad or not) a valuable trait to a student’s character development. Translate that, if you like, to the need to be reminded “you’re not special” – or at least, “though certainly you may be a unique and valuable human being, you’re only one person in a long string of people and one student in a long string of intelligent and worthy students – and you have much to learn from others (their successes, their mistakes, their knowledge to pass along) in the past and present.”

Image via / Seemann

Also on this blog:
Can’t Study Abroad? 5 Ways to Nonetheless Feed the Travel Bug

“Here We Are Now; Entertain Us”: Edutainment’s Effectiveness



Hey kids!

Hang around college faculty for awhile and you’re likely to hear grumbling about how students with short attention spans expect a “dog and pony show” in the classroom. I’ve read this is the “Sesame Street Syndrome”: that is, a lifetime of being tuned in to quickly-changing stimuli from various educational media has created young people for whom it is difficult to focus for any length of time, and who expect that learning should be fun. (This attitude is crystallized in a remark from one of my former students: “Well, if you were boring, we’d all be falling asleep” – as if a student’s inattentiveness is the prof’s fault.)  Enter the much-derided (in higher ed circles anyway) concept of “edutainment.”

Perhaps it’s derided for good reason. First, in my experience, I have seen that most profs do work hard to engage their students and certainly don’t set out to be boring. Even so, despite students’ personal preferences, recent research contradicts the idea that students actually learn more while they’re being entertained. In fact, the study cited here indicates there was no significant difference between student learning after students had heard a lecturer perceived as charismatic and fluent and a lecturer perceived as “disfluent.” Interestingly, however, the students thought they’d learned more from the entertainer.

In the long run, surely what matters is what you’ve learned, not what you might believe you’ve learned. This is something to keep in mind, as a student, when you hear certain professors are “fun” and entertaining in the classroom . . . they may, indeed, be excellent profs and talented at teaching, but in the end – sorry, Ernie, Bert, et al – a higher “fun” level does not equate to a better education.

Article linked above is “Charisma Doesn’t Count,” Chris Parr, Inside Higher Ed, 5/30/13.

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Good Blog to Watch if Curious about MOOCs

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back porch

Earn your stripes from the back porch

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) phenomenon continues to buzz in and around higher ed. MOOCs may seem heaven-sent for folks interested in DIY learning: by simply harnessing one’s internet connection (combined with a strong dose of motivation) one may enjoy taking college-level courses from various prestigious institutions for FREE. What’s not to love?, you may ask.

Turns out there’s a whole lot of talking about, and various degrees of love for, MOOCs: plenty of skepticism and forecasting (what does this mean for the future of education? Online education?) together with a general welcoming sentiment for what the courses are trying to do (expand knowledge and world-class teaching; make these more accessible to whomever is interested). If after browsing the news you’re still a bit confused over what, exactly, a MOOC is, though, you may find this website particularly helpful: Degree of Freedom, a first-person account of the MOOC experience. Its author, Mr. Jonathan Haber, offers thoughts on his attempt to, in his words,

“learn the equivalent of what I’d get from a liberal arts Bachelors Degree entirely through free, online resources (with a focus on the Massive Open Online Classes, or MOOCs that have been in the news lately).”

The catch: his timeline is one year (he’s taken a year off from work to do this).  Wow!  It’s an intriguing quest and a website well worth visiting.

I particularly enjoyed this post, which touches on who, seemingly, is best cut out for MOOC learning, as well as on the use of MOOCs:

The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about Mr. Haber and his blog in this article. We’ll be interested to keep watching!

Image via / jade

A Few Interesting Stats on College Completion

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Plans thwarted?

Community colleges don’t trumpet this, but according to a new National Center for Education Statistics (US) report, not many of their students complete the degrees they set out to complete. Only 31% of those degree- or certificate-seeking students at two-year degree-granting institutions do complete their credential “within 150% of the normal time required to do so.” The percentage is lowest at public institutions, with just 20% of those students completing their degrees.

Important caveats: these numbers don’t count those who transfer out to another school before graduating; and also, in this study, full-time, first-time students only are counted.

Thus it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that less than a third of community college students who declare a goal of X degree or certificate actually finish . . . but I think we can say many students’ plans do change, and certainly though some transfer out elsewhere, not everyone does.

Four-year schools’ completion rates, by contrast, are significantly higher at 59% (over 6 years); and as one might expect, the more selective the admissions, the higher the completion rate. In fact, institutions that accept fewer than 25% of applicants see 88% of their students complete Bachelor’s degrees, while institutions with open admissions policies see 31% of theirs graduate (again, transfers out aren’t counted).

I think these numbers indicate that, for new college students, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often do go awry – and the selective admissions stats hint that being college-ready has serious consequences for the prospect of college graduation.

National Center for Education Statistics website: “The Condition of Education – Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students”:

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Students Themselves Own their Destiny



Strength of self

A New York Times blog editorial this year reported on the relatively low number of college students who end up graduating; the article asserts “the United States is doing a terrible job of helping enrolled college students complete their educations.” (1)

Well, I’m not sure exactly who “the United States” refers to and what is meant by “helping,” but when it comes to increasing student success, graduation rates, and most importantly, learning, I rather agree with another recent editorial from Community College Week (2): “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success.”

Hank Dunn, president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, North Carolina, tells the tale of his campus’s “best practices” undertaken “to help ensure student success and completion.” His article lists an impressive array of student outreach and support efforts: a clear demonstration opposing the notion of a “terrible job of helping students” (and I might add these types of efforts have been repeated in community colleges all over the country).

Or, at least, these efforts reflect a valiant goal to help students as much as is possible.  Here’s the kicker, and perhaps a dirty little secret for those who don’t work with students every day: students have to do their part. To succeed, students must be responsible, own their decisions, and choose to come to class and study. No amount of money invested in higher ed or complaining about higher ed will change this basic fact.

So I was pleased to read President Dunn’s campus has embraced, on a broad level, the excellent self-help book for students titled On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life by Skip Downing. The book explains that one must approach life from a creator and not a victim mentality; and Dunn claims it’s working for them:

“We now move very quickly to a student’s personal responsibility for their actions and find that as we do this as an entire campus (from security guards to advisors to instructors to general staff) that students’ behaviors are changing. They are accepting more responsibility and they are now more quickly looking for ways to intrinsically accomplish their educational goals.”

Wonderful news!

Those headed to college would do well to understand that their behavior, indeed, will make the difference (and that attitude flows from beliefs and mindset). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has established that American students, for surely a multitude of reasons, aren’t performing well in school and don’t know what they should know coming out of high school. That deficient knowledge base (in many cases) certainly includes study skills and general life attitudes conducive to success.

So of course, we have students coming to college utterly unprepared, and some folks wring their hands about how these students don’t graduate from those colleges. How can “the United States” increase student success?  By encouraging students to empower themselves and thereby, as much as is possible, own their own destiny.

Articles discussed above:

(1) “Only Half of First-time College Students Graduate in 6 Years,”, Economix blog, 2/26/13, Catherine Rampell.
(2) “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success,” Community College Week Point of View, 3/18/13, Hank Dunn.

Image via / jeltovski                                      

Tasty Pi Day Sites

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Today, math enthusiasts are reveling in Pi Day, which has some sweet coverage on the web. Have a few slices:
Pi Day Celebration site from the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco, California. The holiday was founded by their physicist Larry Shaw.
This “Happy Pi Day!” post from Slashdot contains some great links (check out the musical rendition of pi on violin), and refers to this day as “an opportunity to glorify math, knowledge, and nerdiness.”
This Pi Day site includes “things to do for pi day,” pi to a million digits, and pi shopping.
Mashable’s collection of “10 YouTube Videos for Math Geeks.”

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“To Pamper Excessively”: Posh Amenities in College

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The finer things?

If posh amenities top your list of desires in a prospective college, you may have mixed-up priorities.

That’s because college is supposed to be about academics first and foremost, and if you’re not ready for that, you should hold off on enrolling until you are . . . for the sake of yourself, your benefactors or personal bank account, and your professors. I’ll explain why momentarily.

First, witness the January article in Inside Higher Ed, “The Customer Is Always Right?”, which explains (according to research from the National Bureau of Economic Research) that students’ “consumption preferences” are driving some universities’ spending patterns in ways that (I think) don’t really further the purpose and mission of an institution of higher learning (other than getting students in the door). This manifestation of an attitude of entitlement seems, frankly, silly.

I assume most of these students haven’t been to college, haven’t graduated college, cannot look back on college or reflect on the worth of their degrees – in other words, even the brightest among them can’t fully understand an experience they haven’t had. The fact that these prospective students seem to value “amenities” so tells me their priorities aren’t so much academic as social or even a bit self-indulgent. They might consider while social life is important and nice things are nice, fancy amenities are very much immediate concerns (that don’t appreciate in value) and a college education is laying groundwork for the future: a future that will demand flexible and creative problem solvers, personable people with a good work ethic and yes, humility to recognize one’s own mistakes and shortcomings.

Speaking very generally, I don’t believe someone who, even before earning a degree, feels entitled to luxury (and maybe high grades) would have the depth of character to be that flexible, creative, hard-working, humble person. It’s worth noting the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “spoil” is “injure the character of (esp. a child, pet, etc.) by excessive indulgence”; Merriam-Webster online defines “spoil” as “to impair the disposition or character of by overindulgence or excessive praise” and “to pamper excessively.”

Character development is an important part of higher learning; it should follow from studying and from enriching the environment of one’s own mind. Ben Franklin said, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the highest return.”

That’s knowledge, not opulent stuff, that we should seek in the place where learning is the objective. It’s knowledge, not country club surroundings, that you’ll empty into your head.

Image via / matthew_hull

College Transcripts in Unusual Flavor: They Gauge Work Readiness

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"Works well with others"

“Works well with others”

People skills. Work ethic. Punctuality. To be a good employee involves, obviously, more than the ability to make the grade in college; and a few schools are recognizing that formally with job readiness scores on transcripts. In the case of Linn State Technical College in Missouri, profiled in Inside Higher Ed’s “Transcript for Work,” these scores have the overwhelming approval of industry.

Lessons here for students? Well, first, I do think so-called soft skills are incredibly helpful, if not essential, to success in college; and traits like punctuality, good work ethic, and strong people skills are rewarded and encouraged through college class policies and assigned projects. However, I don’t think these life skills are terribly teachable at the college level; really, these skills arise from general human socialization, which would fall under the realm of parenting and would be formed starting at a very young age. (In fact, at age 18, it may be difficult to suddenly develop a work ethic, although I’m sure this happens as a result of various life wake-up calls.)

Still, if you’re a student it’s worthwhile to note that employers are looking for well-rounded people who can get along with others, honor company policy and rules, and work hard. Most certainly, if you have these traits and they are apparent to others, you will have a competitive advantage as a job-seeker.

Related on this site:
Road to College Success Paved with More than Academics

What Really Makes a Successful Student?

Image via / taliesin

Which “soft skills” do you think are most essential to success?

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