Monday, August 27, 2012

Falling literacy levels and rising student loan debt

As you plan for fall semester, you might want to give some thought to the nature of our incoming students.
This year’s PSU students share the same disadvantages as their peers all over the country: they read less than students did 20 years ago, and their reading skills are weaker; they have less writing experience than high school graduates of 20 years ago, and because they read less, their writing is less competent; they have had less practice in critical thinking, and they are less able to follow a connected chain of reasoning; their attention span is shorter than it was even five years ago, and they have more difficulty understanding and following directions.

This difference holds true across ability levels, income levels, and genders. This is not a change that reflects merely that a higher percentage of high school graduates are attempting college and therefore that the entering college freshman class includes students from ever lower in their high school graduating class. That is also true, but it does not account for the lower literacy levels and shorter attention spans of the students in the traditionally college-bound top ten, twenty, or thirty percent of high school graduating classes.
These students will arrive in college with learning deficits we can’t easily imagine, and somewhere along the way many of them have also lost sight of the connection between education and self-improvement. Instead they’ve learned to think of school as a diploma vending machine: each semester, students buy a certain number of credits and put them in the machine; when they have enough of the right kind of credits, out pops a degree.
It’s easy to assign blame, but once these students arrive on our campus there’s no real point in wondering what went wrong before they got to us. The more important question is what do we do about it? Because in one way this year’s students are just like the students of twenty years ago: they need to be prepared to do work in the real world when they graduate, and they expect to be able to get there in 124 credit hours or less. Most importantly, their students loans are going to be repaid in a much less forgiving debt climate, so they’ll need to leave college with some serious, hard-core intellectual skills.
So here are my goals for the school year. I hope you’ll consider adopting some of them yourself.
Goal 1: I’ve adjusted my reading requirements downward over the past few years as more and more students struggled to do the reading. This year I’m going to adjust them back up, and I’m going to use reading quizzes to hold students accountable for actually doing the reading.
Goal 2: More and more over the years, I’ve tended to hit the main points of the assigned reading in class lecture to make up for the fact that students don’t read carefully enough to understand it on their own. This year I am going to hold students accountable for getting relevant information from the reading by assessing them on material that was included in the assigned reading and that was not covered in class.
Goal 3: I’ve generally given up penalizing students for failing to follow directions. It seemed so petty to take points off for minor details when I was just glad to see them doing something that approached the assigned task. But it’s not at all petty to create real-world contexts in which students can read for information (the directions for an assignment, for instance), and then test themselves on their ability to understand what they read (by following the directions to the letter), and get accurate feedback on how well they did. So this semester, I’m going to give clear instructions for how to submit assignments, and I’m simply not going to grade submissions that do not follow the instructions. I don’t plan to spend a lot of time on this, but I’m betting it will be one of things that will be of greatest practical benefit to students. A huge part of adult life has always involved being able to understand and follow directions, and if our students arrive not yet able to do that, we’re not doing them any favors by pretending it doesn’t matter.
Goal 4: Because I have a tendency to engage in a certain amount of mind-reading where students are concerned, I often give students credit for understanding more than they’re able to put into words. But since life outside PSU will demand that students be able to say what they mean in language that conveys meaning to the non-mind-reading population, I’m officially going out of the mind-reading business. To that end, my most important goal is to assume that students really mean exactly what they say. I’m going to stop giving credit for the half-expressed idea or the idea that would make sense if I added a missing piece or two. Instead, I’m going to hold students accountable for being able to express the main ideas of the course in sentences and paragraphs that would make sense to an objective outside reader and not just to a someone who specializes in being a good listener.
The most important thing I plan to keep in mind is that this year’s students are just as smart as students have ever been, and if they’re coming to us with less academic preparation, that doesn’t mean they can’t catch up. We just need to resist the temptation to go easy on them.
(From First Thoughts on Writing, Pittsburg State University's WAC blog)

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