“Just the facts, ma’am.”
That’s about all that many college kids are learning.

Talking with my son’s high-school teacher a while back, I very politely alluded to those superior education scores other countries’ students were pulling. She responded authoritatively, “Many of the leaders, Japan for instance, teach by rote. In the American education system, we teach students to think. That’s why there are no great software companies in Japan.” I took comfort; indeed I’d read similar claims before.

Seems it was cold comfort.

A study published last week reports that

“Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or nonexistent.

“At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college.

“Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.”

Three of six students can’t think any better after two years of college; two of six after four years! No wonder America’s competitiveness and our national decision-making are worries.

The study’s authors point to some causes, but none of those is going to get fixed any time soon. What can we do?

Tutoring? Tough. College students can be pulling good grades without knowing they are learning mostly rote stuff.

Enrichment and after-school activities like those that parents worked to create for their middle school kids? No, most parents aren’t near their college kids, nor welcome in their everyday lives.

Get our students reading and writing more outside of college?  Maybe. The study says “half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.”

I’ve just read this report out loud to my college freshman. He’s bright and, I think, ambitious. I urged him to take on whatever extra reading, writing, intellectual clubs, weekend workshops, and other work he can – and to wake up to the fact that his teachers and their curricula are not going to help him learn to think. To a large extent, he’s got to teach himself.

“Set your own standards” is a heck of a responsibility to throw on a young person all of a sudden, but maybe it’s the message that needs to get out – from parents, college counselors, the media.

What can we do to actually improve our college kids’ minds?

[Update: some resources for out-of-school learning]
[Update: don’t neglect their grasp of economics and family finances]

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