Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘American Higher Education Is Characterized by Limited or No Learning for a Large Proportion of Students’ — Unless You’re a Liberal Arts Student

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The authors decided that, despite a lot of rhetoric about accountability in higher education, no one seemed eager to carry out an assessment, so they did their own. They used a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A. The test has three parts, though they use data from just one part, the “performance task.” Students are, for example, assigned to advise “an employer about the desirability of purchasing a type of airplane that has recently crashed,” and are shown documents, such as news articles, an F.A.A. accident report, charts, and so on, and asked to write memos. The memos are graded for “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and writing.”

The test was given to a group of more than two thousand freshmen in the fall of 2005, and again, to the same group, in the spring of 2007. Arum and Roksa say that forty-five per cent of the students showed no significant improvement, and they conclude that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”

Louis Menand on attempts to assess the value of college, in the New Yorker. The section quoted above is depressing, but reading on we discover that those much-maligned, “useless” humanities turn out to have value after all:

Still, Arum and Roksa believe that some things do make a difference. First of all, students who are better prepared academically for college not only do better when they get to college; they improve more markedly while they’re there. And students who take courses requiring them to write more than twenty pages a semester and to read more than forty pages a week show greater improvement.

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

So the questions now are obvious. Who will pay the salary of the business department? How can we make business education relevant again? Isn’t it time to defund the MBAs? Can the non-liberal-arts be saved? Etc., etc., etc…

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  1. […] Gerry points out: “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of […]


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