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Many students, too little thought

Posted: March 29, 2012 8:50 a.m.
Updated: March 30, 2012 5:00 a.m.

You can lead a student to knowledge, according to an old academic saying, but you can't make them think.

I recently wrote about the possibility of testing and certification for what I called a "college-level GED." Like the current GED test for high school equivalency, it would award certification to bright, hard-working job applicants who want to show potential employers how much they know, even though they never graduated from college.

I heard from a number of readers who approved of the idea. Some were eager to take the test now, if they could. But the most helpful question I received went like this: What about the "critical thinking" skills that we traditionally expect campus academic life to teach and encourage?

I agree. Critical thinking is the brain's investigative reporter. It questions assumptions and requires more than the memory work that helps you pass most standardized tests.

But we do have tests for that. For example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, launched in 2000, gives a 90-minute essay test to freshmen and seniors that aims to measure gains in critical thinking and communication skills.

However, recent studies of CLA results reveal another major problem, not so much in the testing of critical thinking as in how little critical thinking is being taught.

One new book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, questions whether a large chunk of today's colleagiates are learning much on campus that they didn't already know.

Following CLA results and other data for 2,300 students at 24 public and private colleges, Arum of New York University and Roksa of the University of Virginia startled the academic world with their finding that 36 percent of students made no significant learning gains in critical thinking and communications skills from their freshman to senior years.

That tends to confirm what another reader, Jerre Levy, a retired University of Chicago professor of psychology, wrote to me: "I wish with all my heart that a college degree implied that the person holding that degree was capable of critical thinking. However, this is, sadly, not true."

Among the jaw-dropping examples Levy related in her email and a later phone call was a senior who reacted with memorable resentment to a two-week take-home assignment to critically evaluate a scientific journal article.

The professor specifically requested a hard-eyed assessment of strengths and weaknesses in the article's sources, methods and conclusions. She did not, repeat, not want students simply to summarize the contents. She stipulated that last part in capital letters.

Yet when the students returned their papers, she recalled, one offered nothing but what Levy said she didn't want: "a content summary, without a single evaluative statement." When the student complained about her zero grade, Levy explained the goose egg. The student argued back indignantly, "But that would have required THINKING!"

It was the winter quarter of her senior year, the young woman explained, she could memorize as much as any professor gave her and earn As and Bs but, until this course, "I've never been required to think!"

"If students can get a degree from the University of Chicago without having either the will or capacity to think," Levy said, "then it is certainly true of less selective universities and colleges."

Ohio University's Richard Vedder, my former economics professor who gave me the collegiate GED test idea, is even more blunt in his assessment of today's academia: "Universities are becoming more like country clubs," he says, with climbing walls, indoor tracks and other luxuries that give students "something else to do with their free time besides drink and have sex."

Vedder, who divides his time between teaching, researching as an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and directing the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, blames grade inflation and other perverse incentives, like too much free time.

That would be just another reason for us Americans to develop more innovative alternatives to college, like alternative GED-style certifications of what individuals actually know and how eagerly they will learn, not just how many classes they have taken. It's worth thinking about.

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