Our Underachieving Colleges

In an earlier post I began discussing Derek Bok’s excellent book, Our Underachieving Colleges. This is a continuation of that discussion.

Bok offers a compelling critique of higher education today (at least in the U.S.) and offers prescriptions for how to improve it. He begins by identifying eight goals for undergraduate education:

  • The ability to communicate, orally and in writing,
  • The ability to think critically and quantitatively,
  • The ability to reason about moral and ethical issues,
  • Preparation for citizenship,
  • Preparation for living with diversity,
  • Preparation for living in a more global society,
  • General understanding of science, social science and the humanities, and
  • Preparation for employment.

Each goal has an associated chapter which can be read independently of the others. Bok uses the same basic argument throughout. He reviews the research on the extent to which higher education has achieved each goal. He reports evidence that students have made progress, but that the progress achieved is relatively modest, more modest than most of us would predict, leaving much room for improvement. He then proposes ideas for doing so.

Let me highlight some of Bok’s particularly provocative points.

He asserts that writing ability should be at the cornerstone of higher education. Few of us would quibble with that. But next he concludes that as such the goals of the writing program should not be left to the English department; instead, they should be the responsibility of the entire university faculty!

Bok points out that critical thinking requires more than intelligence. It requires effort, as well. Indeed, research has found that added effort has a significant effect on progress in critical thinking.

Bok suggests that many students learn enough to get through a course without in any sense mastering the material, even though they receive good grades.

Bright undergraduates frequently use rote to pass the course, without truly understanding the basic principles involved. So long as professors assign questions similar to those discussed in class, students can rely on their memory to find the right answers, and their instructors never realize how little understanding they possess.

More troubling still is the finding that large majorities of seniors appear to graduate without being convinced that it is possible to reach conclusions about messy, complex questions according to their “fit” with available facts and arguments.

Bok endorses active learning methods over traditional ‘chalk & talk.’ While “good lecturers have a unique capacity to inspire students by communicating a teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject and giving students a sense of what a truly educated mind can achieve” he acknowledges, most faculty do not present lectures of this quality most of the time. [Note to UMW folk: Consider the presentations at last year’s Great Lives series versus the lectures in an average course.]

Continuing, he observes:

Many college professors seem to feel that lectures are needed to explain complex material or to cover large quantities of important information.

What makes professors believe this?

The most persuasive explanation for the widespread use of lectures is simply that this method of teaching is the one most familiar to faculty.

It is not clear, however, why such subject matter cannot be conveyed just as well in written form without using valuable class time for the purpose.

In fact, he points out:

The urge to cover material [emphasis added] interferes with cognitive growth by avoiding practice in applying concepts and reflecting on strategies for more effective problem-solving (metacognition).

Bok also criticizes introductory courses as generally not being welled suited to general education.

This problem is particularly likely to arise in the case of science. Awakening an interest in chemistry or biology or geology among ambitious business majors or aspiring novelists is a daunting challenge at best. It requires an imaginative choice of subject matter and considerable flair in presenting it to students.

Bok argues for creating general education courses which are different from the standard introductions to the discipline and which should be taught only by the best teachers in the department.

Bok concludes the book by suggesting that what is necessary to improve higher education is a change in the academic culture to develop “an ongoing process of evaluation, experimentation, and reform,” where we treat the assessment as carefully and seriously as the research we conduct in our fields. Exactly how this change might be accomplished is less clear. Nonetheless, I recommend the book to anyone who thinks that colleges and universities are doing a good job of educating undergraduates, anyone who thinks that higher education in the 21st Century should be no different than it was in the 20th.

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3 Responses to Our Underachieving Colleges

  1. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Higher Education as Disciplinary Practice

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  3. Pingback: Why this conversation? at Liberales Artes @ UMW

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