The $50,000 brain drain?

March 9, 2011, 1:20 a.m.

Stanford is known for a lot of things: first-rate academics, famous faculty, a staggeringly low admit rate and overcoming the greatest odds in football history in 2007 by defeating USC. But it turns out that in the broader American university system, education may not be one of the principal accolades.

Indeed, Derek Zoolander may have been on to something when he advocated for a “Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good.”

Sociology of education professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roska recently made national news with a report that asserts, more or less, that college students appear to be learning squat. Using a sample size of 2,300 undergraduates from 24 schools across the country, the large-scale study found that “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” This percent only marginally improved to 36 percent after four years.

The $50,000 brain drain?
(ERIK KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

In addition, the researchers found that of those 2,300 undergraduates, “half 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,” a deficiency that may have contributed to the lack of intellectual growth among the collegiate population.

Blame was placed not only on the institutions and their lack of academic rigor, but on the students themselves, citing an increase of social engagements as one of the culprits for decreased test scores.

“Clearly, this is very bad news for university education,” said Catherine Heaney, associate professor in the Department of Medicine and the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

“What may happen to a lot of students [during their first year of college] is that they don’t realize they need to adjust the way they learn and study,” Heaney said. “They are being asked to process information and material in a myriad of different ways, a far departure from the learning and thinking they did while still in high school.”

Stephen Dobyns, this year’s Mohr Visiting Poet, is no stranger to the classroom and spoke vehemently about the decline in critical thinking due to class size.

“I have been teaching for almost 50 years and have seen this ability to write and to think really get worse and worse,” he said. “In order to successfully teach writing and composition, the class size should be about 10 students, not 35.”

Dobyns elaborated, “Particularly in the subjects of English, writing and composition and even critical thinking, [students] are being failed at the high school level; instead of being flunked, they’re simply moved, and once they enter a college environment, they sink. They lack the knowledge and study skills necessary to be academically competitive.”

Though from markedly different fields, Heaney and Dobyns agree that, at least on Stanford’s campus, academia is alive and well–good news for Stanford students, considering the $50,000 tuition.

“I really don’t think [stagnation in critical thinking and reasoning] is present at Stanford at all,” Heaney said. “I’ve seen so much growth in students that I’ve gotten to know, particularly in terms of their abilities to gather relevant information and integrate it in critical and appropriate ways.”

Dobyns agrees, citing a measurable difference in the quality of writing from Stanford students as compared to other institutions where he has taught, like Syracuse University and Sarah Lawrence College.

“I’m struck here by the writing that I’ve seen,” he said. “There isn’t the roughness, the simplicity of syntax and diction or the grammatical mistakes that were so prevalent on other campuses. And that’s very heartening.”

Stanford students echoed their professors’ sentiments, arguing against the study’s claims that they may be spending a small fortune on nothing more than balmy weather and a trademarked Nalgene bottle.

“I have no doubt that I’m learning [at Stanford],” said Charles Naut ’12. “The ability to think critically and problem solve is always emphasized in the classes I have taken so far. And as an engineering student, I appreciated IHUM and PWR because they allowed me to improve my writing skills that I would have otherwise not emphasized as a priority.”

Naut cited a collaborative attitude and an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving as central to Stanford’s academic culture.

“It’s not as cutthroat an environment as at other institutions, and I feel a great deal more of academic support,” he said. “The professors are really supportive, and you can get as much attention as you want. It’s all about taking initiative.”

However, other students feel their learning is hampered by overly large class sizes and insufficient office hours, and that sometimes, taking initiative isn’t enough.

Abby Howard ’13 is one such individual.

“I learn a lot of facts, but I don’t always feel like I retain that information post-test, which is both frustrating and disconcerting,” Howard said. “The quarter system is a sprint. I never feel like I have a week where I get to enjoy the material for the sake of learning, without the underlying worry about the exam.”

Last quarter, for example, Howard had a total of seven midterms in her four classes, most of which had hundreds of students.

“I’m taking my fifth quarter of chemistry, and there are upwards of 200 people in the class,” she said. “You can, of course, go to office hours, but when there are that many people each vying for individual time with the professor, you only have time to ask a set question.”

That being said, Howard agrees with Naut: she feels she has become a more confident student and has benefited from the emphasis Stanford instructors place on critical thinking.

“You have to assume that your education is working for you, but you really have no way of knowing for sure,” she said.

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