Memorizing machines


Critical thinking takes a backseat in university

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

University is a place of higher education. It’s a place where the young minds of today go to become the leaders of tomorrow. Students eagerly attend classes and pursue their interests with rigor and enthusiasm. In an ideal world, this is the place where students’ minds will be opened to a new world of ideas, and they will be sculpted into the leaders and great thinkers of tomorrow. Students spend hours poring over material. Libraries are filled with the quiet buzz of students studying, flipping pages, clicking keyboards, and rigorously building their minds. University is where students go to take their thinking to another level.

Unfortunately, according to a new book titled Academically Adrift, this picturesque fantasy of a university campus is nothing more than that, a fantasy. The book, authored by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, displays the results of a student survey done to assess the academic improvement of university students over a four-year period in campuses around North America. The results were less than encouraging.

The survey assessed the amount of improvement students achieve in writing, critical thinking, and complex reasoning. What Arum and Roksa found is that almost half of all students don’t show “any significant improvement in these skills” during their time at university, and the ones that do improve, do minimally. The study essentially asserts that many university students are nothing more than memorization machines who never develop higher level critical thinking and reasoning skills.

The issue of critical thinking is something that has come up in conversations among professors on campuses around the country. Dr. Robert Biezenski, a sociology professor here at the U of R, has seen this pattern for some time. “If the study focuses on critical thinking, then I’m not surprised by these results.” Biezenski has been teaching at the U of R for almost 20 years, and as he puts it, the structure of our current education system doesn’t encourage students to exercise the skills assessed in the Arum and Roksa study. The focus seems to be less on critical thinking, and more on memorization and regurgitation.

“We have noticed certain patterns of thought that have been established by the time kids get to university, many of them think ‘well this is what school is about, this is what learning is about. I’m supposed to memorize what the teacher says, give it back to him on the exam, and then forget it five minutes later.’ And unfortunately that is still the attitude that the majority of our students have.”

According to the Arum and Roksa study, 45 per cent of students showed “no significant improvement in critical thinking, writing, or complex reasoning” over their first two years, and 36 per cent showed no improvement over 4 years. The students who did improve did so by only miniscule margins.

The reason for this, according to Biezenski, is rooted in universities’ financial need to align themselves with individual corporations because of repeated funding cuts from the government. 

“Let’s face it, we live in a culture and economy today where more and more of our universities are expected to serve the interests of the economy in general and independent corporations in particular. The government has been steadily cutting funding to universities, which has forced universities, like the U of R, to look to the private sector. And of course these people aren’t interested in critical thinkers, they’re interested in people who can come up with a new gadget they can make a million bucks with.”

This is a sad but true fact about our universities today, and the Arum and Roska study has illuminated what many teachers have known for a long time. Critical thinking and higher-level reasoning are slowly seeping their way out of universities.

But why should this be alarming? Is it really important that our universities are developing students’ ability to think critically? Biezenski would argue yes. As he puts it, critical thinking is not a necessity – you’re not going to die without it – but society’s growth as a whole will be slowed by a world of people who are simply programmed to do as they are told, and not rock the boat.

“Society needs critical thinkers, because if you can’t criticize society, then you can’t improve. Criticism is the first step towards improvement. Unfortunately, we have reached a point today where hardly anyone is taught to think critically.”

Without critical thinking skills, people can’t see the world for what it really is, and they become susceptible to deception and manipulation. They can’t be an impetus in societal change. If students don’t develop these skills, they are losing their ability to think outside the box, and they are learning to take everything as it is.

The Arum and Roksa study also pointed to a “lack of rigor” amongst students being the main culprit for the upsetting statistics. This means that for the most part, students were not willing to dedicate adequate time to their homework and studying. This is a more complicated problem, as getting the majority of students to suddenly become homework terminators is an impossible task.

“Everyone is lazy, not just students. Everyone. Everyone is going to take the path of least resistance. Expecting students to change into some superhuman creatures that always give maximum effort is just not realistic. There is always a minority of students that are excited about school. But sorry, most students are just trying to get by, doing very much the minimum amount of work, and I don’t really think that is ever going to change.”

But why do most students come to school if they don’t really want to learn?  The answer is simple and obvious: the degree. If you take away the reward of a degree, and the potential to get a fancy job that makes you lots of money, the majority of students are gone. This is a something that Biezenski has been aware of for some time.

“No question the attendance at universities would plummet. It wouldn’t vanish altogether; there have always been students that are interested in learning for its own sake. But unfortunately, I would argue they are the minority. I believe that most people that come here are motivated economically, because they know that you can get a good job these days without some kind of degree,” Biezenski said. “If you cut the connection to the job market, you would only be left with that minority.”

The next question that needs to be asked is whether there is anything we can do about the problem. The study also found that the students with highest improvements in critical thinking and complex reasoning were involved in more challenging classes. It appears that a simple fix would be to increase the challenge, make classes harder. But, the problem with increasing the workload is that fewer students want to take part.  Like Biezenski noted earlier, the majority of people want to put in the minimum amount of effort they can. If they can avoid a challenging class, most students will.

Biezenski suggests that there is only one way to get students more willing to deal with a challenge, and that is to make classes more interesting.

“I do think it is possible to increase the level of commitment from students, and really there is only one way to do that, and that is to make courses more interesting to them, make them more relevant to them, and make something that students can relate to.”

And he’s right. If universities can get students interested in what they’re teaching them, then the commitment to excellence will follow. If they can make students passionate about what they are learning, it is only natural that the students will stay engaged in the material.

“It is viewer identification that is the ultimate goal for success,” Biezenski added.  “If your audience identifies with you, if they get it, then they will go with it. But if they are just sitting there with some glazed looks on their faces listening to the professor drone on, then they’re not going to stay engaged.”

And if universities can’t get students involved in the class, if they can’t make them care, there is no way the students are going to do anything other than the usual routine of memorizing facts and regurgitating them on an exam, and then forgetting it later. If a student doesn’t care about the course, there is literally no motivation to learn. Students who are truly interested enough in school to learn for the sake of learning are a rare breed. But Biezenski argues that the blame for this should not be leveled on students. It is the structure of the education system that needs to be changed.

Unfortunately there is no easy fix. Universities need to make money and need to keep attendance up. So they have two options: they can make classes more interesting, or make them easy. The latter is much simpler and much more boring, but are a clear draw for a certain type of student. Those classes don’t ask students to really connect with dry material that is usually delivered in a way which is one step removed from reading a textbook. And the type of student who’s interested in that kind of class isn’t here to learn. They are here to get a degree, and if they could get that piece of paper without coming to a place like this, they would.

As the Arum and Roksa study has shown, nowadays, students are not developing the skill of critical thinking, they are simply memorizing, repeating, and repeating again. Critical thinking and complex reasoning are part of what help to make someone smarter.  If we do develop critical thinking skills, we not only grow as people, but as a society. If a student never gains an ability to think critically, then they lose their ability to solve unique, real world challenges.

They become followers, not leaders.

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