Saturday, May 14, 2022

The College Kids Are Not OK

We have long known that shutting down schools was a very bad idea. We have documented, on this blog, the damage done to schoolchildren from the appalling shut down policies. And we have emphasized that these policies were more likely to harm minority children. 

On all these scores, we have, unfortunately, been right. 

And yet, being of an optimistic temperament, we imagined that college students were having an easier time of it. We had assumed that they would adapt more easily to Zoom learning and would more easily relearn how to function in classrooms.

Unfortunately, if this New York Times op-ed, by Jonathan Malesic is correct-- and we have no reason to believe it is not-- we have misjudged the resilience of college students. They too have been damaged by the lockdown policies. At a time when American college students are significantly underperforming their peers around the world, this is bad news indeed.

Malesic teaches writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He reports on his experience of returning to the classroom last fall:

In my classes last fall, a third of the students were missing nearly every time, and usually not the same third. Students buried their faces in their laptop screens and let my questions hang in the air unanswered. My classes were small, with nowhere to hide, yet some students openly slept through them.

Remote learning had damaged these students:

By several measures — attendance, late assignments, quality of in-class discussion — they performed worse than any students I had encountered in two decades of teaching. They didn’t even seem to be trying. At the private school, I required individual meetings to discuss their research paper drafts; only six of 14 showed up. Usually, they all do.

His experience was not unique. Colleagues across the country had had the same experience:

But when I posted about this on Facebook, more than a dozen friends teaching at institutions across the country gave similar reports. Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education received comments from more than 100 college instructors about their classes. They, too, reported poor attendance, little discussion, missing homework and failed exams.

Some professors have relaxed their standards, because we can’t have that many students failing. But, Malesic disagreed:

I also feel compassion for my students, but the learning breakdown has convinced me that continuing to relax standards would be a mistake. Looser standards are contributing to the problem, because they make it too easy for students to disengage from classes.

Why is this a problem? Well, the country is going to be run by people who are well-educated. The jobs of tomorrow will require advanced education. A nation of dummies and dolts is not going to compete in the world markets:

Student disengagement is a problem for everyone, because everyone depends on well-educated people. College prepares students for socially essential careers — including as engineers and nurses — and to be citizens who bring high-level intellectual habits to bear on big societal problems, from climate change to the next political crisis. On a more fundamental level it also prepares many students to be responsible adults: to set goals and figure out what help they need to attain them.

At this point, Malesic doubles back and explains how it all happened when, two years ago, classes went remote:

In March 2020, essentially all of U.S. higher education went remote overnight. Faculties, course designers and educational technology staffs scrambled to move classes online, developing new techniques on the fly. The changes often entailed a loosening of requirements. A study by Canadian researchers found that nearly half of U.S. faculty members reduced their expectations for the quantity of work in their classes in spring 2020, and nearly a third lowered quality expectations. That made sense in those emergency conditions; it seemed to me that students and faculties just needed to make it through.

The results were immediately evident. Students did not adapt and did not function as well under the newly imposed conditions. Compared with previous classes, they had all become underperformers:

Faculty members and students across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I live, described a widespread breakdown in learning that year. Matthew Fujita, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the results of the first exam in his fall 2020 genetics class, a large lecture course, reflected “the worst performance I’d ever seen on a test.”

Amy Austin, who teaches Spanish at U.T.A., began calling her students her “divine little silent circles” — a reference to Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” — because she would typically see only their initials in a circle on her computer screen, none of them speaking.

The problems involve discipline and motivation-- both of which are undermined by online instruction:

There is much evidence that students learn less online than they do in person, in part because online courses demand considerable self-discipline and motivation. And some lessons just don’t translate to a remote format. “You can’t learn how to use a microscope online,” said Melissa Walsh, who teaches biology and environmental science at U.T.A. “You just can’t.”

It’s no surprise, then, that in one of the first studies to examine broad-scale learning outcomes during the pandemic, researchers found that the switch to online learning resulted in more course failures and withdrawals in the Virginia community-college system, even despite more lenient grading. Students nationwide reported a greater willingness to cheat, too.

Again, once in-person learning started up again, students did not just bounce back. Remote learning had taught them bad habits and the habits remained with them:

More disconcerting is that when classes returned to mainly in-person in fall 2021, student performance did not bounce back. The problem isn’t only that students learn poorly online. It’s also that when they go through a year or more of remote classes, they develop habits that harm their ability to learn offline, too.

Dr. Austin said the quality of her students’ work had not recovered after the return to campus. On grammar tests, students continued to score lower than they did before the pandemic. Now, she told me, the students in her classroom often met her questions with blank stares. “This is like being online!” she said. That was my experience, too. In my classes, it often seemed as if my students thought they were still on Zoom with their cameras off, as if they had muted themselves.

And also:

Many students got out of the habit of coming to class at all. Dr. Walsh estimated that in her biology course for non-majors this spring, just 30 percent to 40 percent of students attended class, and only a handful watched her recorded lectures. The students who don’t attend class are missing out on the best of Dr. Walsh, who recently won a campuswide teaching award.

For Malesic the solution lies in a place called the University of Dallas, a Catholic university where students returned to class sooner than did their counterparts at SMU. And besides, these students were receiving an education revolving around the classics. As we ought to know, being challenged by the greatest minds brings out one’s best. Wallowing in mediocrity makes one terminally mediocre:

To build a culture that will foster such habits, colleges might draw lessons from what may seem an unusual source: the University of Dallas, a small Catholic university with a great-books curriculum and a reputation for conservatism

Several of its faculty members told me the nationwide learning breakdown simply wasn’t happening there.

As everywhere else, University of Dallas classes went remote in March 2020. But most were in person again that fall. Returning so quickly was an unconventional move, though one that people at the university said was consistent with the institutional culture. In September 2020, a student wrote in an op-ed in the campus newspaper, “The anticipation of returning to campus this August made me wonder, ‘Is this how Odysseus felt as he returned home after ten years?’”

Anthony Nussmeier, who teaches Italian at the university, praised its response to the pandemic as exhibiting a holistic understanding of care for students, balancing “the immediate health imperative with other imperatives that are no less important: the importance of mental health, the importance of friendship, the importance of physical proximity to other human beings for most of us.”

So much for the metaverse.

Will America take up this lesson, from the pages of the New York Times, no less. I have my doubts.


Anonymous said...

I trust NOTHING from the NYT.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I spent 2 semesters at SMU...long, LONG ago.