Are Canadian students learning anything?

Canadian university students may be drifting less than we think.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how little students learn in university, based on a new book that evaluates the core thinking skills gained by US students. According to Academically Adrift, plenty of students learn very little and those that do don’t learn very much on average.

Such studies are interesting because they raise an important problem with university education in general. How do we know its working? If I didn’t think their methods of doing so would be all wrong, I would urge governments to spend more time trying to find out what students really are learning. In the absence of perfect measures, though, we might pause to point out that a new report out of the Canadian Maritimes indicates that whatever they are learning, students are satisfied with their university education.

Still, should Canadians be worried? Are taxpayers paying millions for education that isn’t being given? Time may tell, but for now, there are a number of reasons not to panic.

First, the study was done among US students, and while there are, no doubt, similarities between the countries’ higher education systems, my sense is that the grading culture at US institutions is rather different than it is here. In my experience, American professors complain about their bad students but are rarely willing to fail them. I often hear US academics say things like , “That kid never came to class, handed in lousy assignments and missed the midterm. Well I showed him. I gave him a C.” When my students do that, I give them an F. But then, no one has ever sued me over a bad grade.

Second, based on the samples given by the company that did the testing, the questions are focused on a very narrow range of skills, particularly precise logic and comprehension. And while these skills certainly matter, and while university graduates generally should show improvement in such skills, they don’t give a good overall sense of what particular grads have been doing in their time at universities. If we really wanted to test learning, we would give some general, pure skills questions, but we would also ask first year Poli Sci majors about the big questions of Political Science (“Should the Canadian government reconsider laws around capital punishment?”) and then ask similar questions four years later. Similarly, we might ask first year Biology students to give a general account of the importance of evolutionary theory at the beginning and the end of the their studies and see if there is a significant difference. In other words, we would also measure knowledge, and the capacity to apply knowledge. I have a feeling the numbers would come out differently if the tests were more broad and realistic.

Third, as one reader of our coverage pointed out, the big averages in the study disguise the differences among disciplines. Business and education students did especially poorly and this must be reflected in the overall numbers. Humanities graduates, on the other hand, showed significant improvement, suggesting that the negative stereotypes of those fields is undeserved and that businesses (depending on what they are looking for) should think twice before assuming business grads will be smarter employees.

Finally, while we should pay attention to what students learn overall, we should remember that the primary role of a university instructor is not to teach, but to create an atmosphere where students can learn. Even at a good university, people can always game the system. Students can choose a major with the easiest requirements, find out who are the candy-ass markers, do the bare minimum for every assignment, and superficially memorize enough to pass the exam. And if those students come out with a degree despite having learned very little, that is a problem that is neither new nor entirely fixable. Meanwhile, if the students who are motivated and want to be challenged are finding their education exciting and inspiring, then we are doing our jobs.

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