Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lazy American Students?

There is an interesting "quick take" in IHE today asking the rhetorical question Do American Students Bring Down the Curve? based on an opinion column in The Boston Globe that answers it in the affirmative.

First, it is important to realize that this is the opinion of one instructor, and even she does not claim that all low grades go to Americans (which make up 80% of the undergrad population at her private business college) or that none of the A grades go to Americans. But, from where I teach (at a CC), I think she has it all wrong. She has a problem with Snowflakes, not Americans. Let us start with where she teaches, then look at what she might not be doing where she teaches.

The college:

She teaches at Babson College. Yeah, I had to look it up, although I suspect Bostonians would be aware of it. This is a small (the entire freshman class of 471 would fit easily in one half of the dorm I lived in at Enormous State University, with space enough for half to have private rooms) expensive private college ($37,824 for tuition plus $12,500 for room and board) that is basically devoted to business majors. [Aside: that room and board rate is almost twice what it is at Enormous State, so they probably do all have private rooms.]

They look selective (471 enroll out of 4100 applications), but their middle-50 on the SAT (1830 to 2070, meaning 610 to 690 on each part) puts about a quarter of their freshman class below the "aptitude" of most of my 2nd year CC students and in a range where we would likely be requiring remedial math or english classes. A bit over 20% are international students.

(These details are from their official facts page. Purely by accident, I saw an article in a November "Business Week" that ranked them highly for custom executive business education programs.)

Definitely "snowflake" territory. Many of the American students are probably Wannabe Trumps with well off (if not wealthy) parents and got by with minimal effort in suburban schools where you get a bonus point toward your GPA just for taking what is called an honors class. [Schools where a 4.0 is the new 3.0 average.] In that environment, the mere fact that the college gives out C, D, and F grades in a freshman composition or history class is probably a shock. I'll admit that I am shocked that grades like that are tolerated by a student-centered retention program where one mid-year drop out costs the college $25,000!

To continue my generalization, they have probably never had to work for a living, and might never have held a job. They know they want to be business men or women, but don't know what skills are used on the job.

I can definitely see how one tail of the distribution in her class might be made up of the 25% who combine mediocre skills from high school with poor motivation.

The teaching:

My thoughts here are driven by an observation I posted just the other day on FSP's blog in a discussion about why tenured professors should care about what is in student evaluations of teaching. My comment concerned a favorite student observation of decades past: An engineering major stated that ze hated physics and couldn't understand why ze had to take it. What did I learn? That one thing I need to teach real early in the course is why it is required for engineering majors! Turns out lots of them don't know why because they don't know what engineers actually do. This student probably would believe that something taught in an engineering class was relevant to a career, but didn't get the concept of prerequisites so everything else was just a speed bump that got in the way of what they thought they needed to study.

I'd be willing to guess that the problem is even bigger with rhetoric classes. Now Babson College knows it is relevant, but do the students?

Here is a key remark from Babson's About page that might put this in perspective:

The undergraduate curriculum integrates core competencies, key business disciplines, and the liberal arts into foundation, intermediate, and advanced-level courses. The competencies are rhetoric; quantitative and information analysis; entrepreneurial and creative thinking; ethics and social responsibility; global and multicultural perspectives; and leadership and teamwork; and critical and integrative thinking.

Notice that reference to "rhetoric", the subject taught by the author of this opinion piece?

[Side comment: I like the word FOUNDATION as a synonym for prerequisite, although I'll stick with BASIC for some of my applications. It sends the right message for engineering, in particular.]

I would hope something this basic to the learning goals of the college was part of their orientation. Of course, if those kids were busy updating Facebook (which might rival drinking as a reason for failing out of college) during orientation, they might have missed it so it needs to be said in every class, and not just on the first day. "Today we are working on the foundation for the report-writing skills refined in Business 301, skills that will get you that first big promotion." And I would hope that the teachers in their freshman business class refer to the importance of rhetoric just as I point to specific math skills they will learn later on and apply (along with physics) in more advanced engineering classes.

We all have to signal the importance of the whole of what they are learning if we expect them to retain the parts that really matter.


FrauTech said...

Thanks for defending the American student (me right now). I agree most of the complaints hurled at my generation are complaints that should be directed towards snowflakes and don't apply to working moms my age, student moms my age, and many other non-silver spoon kids. I saw your comment on the other post and thought that was really interesting, and surprising that someone would be into the physics classes already without understanding what an engineer does.

Anonymous said...

While there are numerous points in the original editorial piece that I have a difference of opinion on, I'm slightly disturbed at some of your generalizations of Babson College. As you freely admit that you have never heard of the place, you are sure quick to form generalizations based on only the fact page. For one, that honors classes are used to boost GPA, when in fact, honors classes at Babson have 0% impact on a students GPA. An honors class is weighed equally as a non-honors class.

Doctor Pion said...

Honors classes at my community college are not weighted either. They are just harder, and often not graded any easier.

My reference to honors classes concerned those taken in high school, where the common system of "weighting" those classes contributes to double grade inflation and encourages the Snowflake mentality.

My opinion of Babson College is quite high, mainly because the prof said that low performers actually earned failing grades. (Their post-grad ranking is only frosting on that cake, IMO.) But it is a fact that 25% of their students come in with per-section averages below 610 on the SAT and it is not a generalization to use a national score to compare those students to mine. Further, it is a fact that CC students must take remedial math or english classes if they score much below that level on any single part.

And I stand by my view that a student with a 600 math and verbal SAT score that can afford over $50,000 per year for a college that does not have a national reputation is a Wannabe Trump.