Friday, 21 January 2011

Academic rigour

A new report says kids aren't learning anything at university. Why?
The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.
I'm teaching Economics and Current Policy Issues, a second year elective, in the second semester this year. I last taught it in 2009. From that year's edition of the syllabus:

The reading list contains several recommended readings for each week (and one required reading in most weeks). You should aim to read at least two articles each week comprising at least 40 pages worth of reading – so three or four short readings or a couple of longer ones. In each week’s tutorial, you’ll be expected to contribute to discussion and debate; your contributions there should build on your reading. I will expect you to cite arguments presented in the readings when answering exam questions: I will provide choice among a few open-ended questions that will allow you to draw on your knowledge of the readings in providing an answer.

Do not expect to do well on the exam if you have not kept up with the readings.
But I've not been assigning 20 pages of writing in that class. The course rates highly among those who took it (Median answer on the main survey questions "Overall this is a good quality course" and "Overall the lecturer is an effective teacher" were 5/5), but it also ranks as being more difficult and having a higher workload than other courses. And that margin seems to be the one to which enrollment is most elastic. I'd likely drop from 40-50 students in the course to maybe 15 were I to bump the essay from a 4 page policy briefing up to a 20 page paper. And then the course would be cancelled.

I'm not sure the pedagogic gains would be that high in moving from 4 to 20 pages at second year anyway. For many, it's the first essay of any kind that they've ever written. For many others, it just seems that way. Better to get short essays at the lower levels, with feedback, followed by longer ones at the higher levels.

I'm not sure whether any Canterbury students read Offsetting who haven't already taken my courses, but those who do ought to consider Econ 224 for second semester. Regular readers might even get a pre-req waiver (conditions apply, like showing me you can handle basic price theory).


  1. "I'm not sure the pedagogic gains would be that high in moving from 4 to 20 pages at second year anyway. For many, it's the first essay of any kind that they've ever written."

    How is it that people doing a second year course might be writing their first essay? I thought part of the point of first year courses was to get people familiar with things like essays, research and so on.

    ("Back in my day...etc, etc, etc.")

  2. You probably did a real degree, Thomas. It probably had .Laws or .Arts at the end of it instead of .Comm. The B.Comm here is changing though such that everyone graduating will have had to have written a four page essay somewhere along the line (Woot).

    I did Chicago footnoting in 10th Grade (I think that's NZ year 11). They may by now have replaced that lesson with how to abbreviate for texting.