Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A game of catch-up

USA Today reported last week that a research on American college students showed little improvements in their critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skill, especially during their first two years of college. When I saw the headline I was shocked, and a bit reluctant to read the article further. Not that I fanatically idolize the American education system (which is currently seeing the rise of Asian students mastering it), but what I was mostly afraid of was to find my worst fear imprinted between the lines – that I am wasting my time here. Yet, somewhere at the back of my mind I know that could not be possible, for seven out of the top 10 universities in the world are in the United States. Some argue that that is based on the number and quality of post-graduate research these universities produced. So, if the professors are producing fine research, shouldn’t their undergraduate students highly benefit from encounters with these great academicians too?

Then, somewhere at the bottom of the page they discussed the research methodology which led to their conclusion. Apparently, sophomores do not learn much based on the fact that almost half of the students in the research reported enrolling in courses where they read less than 40 pages a week, and wrote less than 20 pages per semester. And my focused immediately shifted to beautiful Malaysia.

When I was INTI, I remember most lecturers giving out handouts and notes that we are supposed to study for exams. With these notes, according to them, we need not bother buying or reading the 500+ pages of a textbook – these teachers slaved for us to gather the most important information in order to help us ‘score’. With these notes, we are expected to answer 3-hour-long midterm and final exams. Essays are to be written in the exam hall (which is ridiculous, because how can you do anything BUT regurgitate in such short period?). Thus, if students in the US are learning so little, how much are Malaysian undergraduates learning each year? See, people back home like to complain that our exams are designed only for students to regurgitate information, which I do not disapprove of altogether. But if students are made to memorize something they won’t remember the next day, the least a teacher could do is to help them improve other skills that would be beneficial not only in the workplace, but also in their day-to-day life.

Maybe it’s just INTI, I’m not sure, I've only been to one higher learning institution in Malaysia. Probably other universities do make their students read a minimum of 40 pages per week, per subject - like we do here - and if so, that is awesome. But I honestly doubt it because of the many things I read concerning our graduates weak communication – English and Malay – skills. I’m not talking about a weak grasp on grammar and tatabahasa; I’m talking about the ability to structure their thoughts coherently, and be able to critically examine the work of others. If we were to take mini-steps to a better higher-education system, I say we work on that first.

I love Malaysia, and I have none but love and respect for my fellow students. I just feel that we've heard enough arguments from both sides that it is time we finally take some actions. You game?



rassyid said...

i believe that the american education system is highly productive and practical in a way that it encourages students to think and evaluate academic materials critically. however, the issue of american students gaining little or not enough knowledge might not be interpreted as the failure of the system. maybe they are just lazy like me :p

T said...

I didn't read the article, but as somebody who graduated with Communication degree, I can say that media like to hype-up or sensationalize research finding and pose it as "truth". Most of the time, it's not really that significant when you look at the research closely. Also, in science (be it social science too), results has to be replicable for it to have more merit to it.

Ok, back to the findings of this study, my speculation is that the US has too many colleges/universities where we have more students now compared to a decade or two ago. So, you cannot expect all of these "otherwise-would-not-go-college" type of student to have/acquire the same skills as the "college" material.

Also, things started getting tough in Junior year anyway. It's unfair to generalize all college students when they are only have freshman & sophomores as their samples.

That said I still think American Education System promote Critical Thinking. This is very apparent at work place. Sometimes it's a headache working with someone with impressive 4.0 graduates from non-US background. Instead of coming up with simpler solution, they are obsess about not changing what's already in place, thus creating more work for others. And yes, critical thinking is important for engineers too.

ChEsZa said...

I agree with you about the those who won't be in college is not for the many colleges around now. I was thinking the same thing about how those people would affect the research. So, yeah, I don't the students "learn less" as they headlined, but maybe the median just got lower. That's my take anyway.