Obviously, institutions have general education programs that are supposed to teach students how to use knowledge in order to think in these ways. So why do these gaps persist? All universities need bigger budgets and brighter incoming students. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better with our current students and our current budgets. I think three mistaken notions are interfering with our ability to graduate more capable students.
Mistaken Notion #1: In order to learn to solve unfamiliar complex problems, students must spend more than 90% of their class time and homework time studying what experts have accomplished or discovered in the past.
Reality: Suppose you wanted to become physically stronger. What fraction of your workout time should you spend watching exercise videos? It does comfort many students and faculty when students spend most of their time learning from experts. But to become capable, a student must work on a startlingly large number of problems, and get good coaching as they do so.
Pick a degree program in which you teach. How's the current balance between learning from experts versus personally doing the work of the field? (One of our Teaching Day speakers, Anders Ericcson, will address this point this coming Friday, October 4.)
Mistaken Notion #2: To develop a capability such as writing, the student should take (only) one course on that capability.
Reality: Suppose you needed to be able to lift a 100 pound weight tomorrow. Would it have been sufficient preparation to lift weights intensively in 2010, and then lift nothing until you needed that skill in 2013? Neural science research demonstrates that mental capabilities decay with disuse, just as physical strength does.
That's why some academic programs at institutions like Stanford are now using a 'spiral' approach to designing courses of study. Crucial capabilities are periodically developed, a bit at a time, in course after course. Each time the student returns to a concept or way of thinking, it's developed further, applied in a new context, and at a greater level of sophistication.
Theory #3: To succeed in X after graduation, study only X. (For example, if you want to become a successful chemist in the world, it's sufficient to take only chemistry courses, plus direct prerequisites such as physics and mathematics.)
Reality: Notice how many of those gaps about which employers are grumbling are at least partly outside the fields where faculty in a department do their research and publishing. For example:
- 89% of employers thought that recent college graduates are too weak in written and oral communications. (To test whether your students are getting enough practice, coaching and instruction in communication, ask some of your employer alumni to judge a random sample of written and oral communications by students who are soon to graduate. Our Assessment Office can help you with this. Do your judges see communications capability as a strength of your students?)
- 81% of employers believed that recent college graduates are too weak in critical thinking and analytic reasoning; 79% were dissatisfied with their ability to apply what they've learned to real world problems; 75% asserted that recent graduates are too weak in complex problem-solving. Real world tasks and jobs usually require knowledge from their major used wisely in combination with other kinds of knowledge. For example, graduates need to be able to organize in teams, and deal with dysfunctional teams. How many courses in each degree program offer students practice, instruction and coaching in that area? How would a panel of your alumni rate the skills of current graduates in that area?
- 75% of employers wanted more from recent graduates in ethics. How many courses in your program contribute to a student's ability to reason and act ethically?
I suspect that university graduates, their employers, and accreditors will soon be paying more attention to what universities like GW are doing to help graduates do well in all these dimensions of a liberal education, no matter major or graduate program they're in.
Do you agree? Would the changes advocated by AAC&U and others be a step forward for your program, or a really bad idea?