Adrift (or not) …

In addition to the journal articles and textbook I assign in my graduate educational psychology course, I ask that students read one book from a list I provide. The book I included for the higher ed types was Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. (My public Kindle notes).

The book was based on some research that seemed to suggest college students make little or no advances in critical thinking and writing skills as a consequence of college attendance. At a time when “higher order thinking skills” is the buzzword of the decade, this conclusion received a lot of attention.

A recent meta-analysis soon to be published in the Review of Educational Research disputes the dismal conclusions of the Academically Adrift authors. The review did not reach the same pessimistic conclusion:

Our study suggests that students make substantial gains in critical thinking during college. We estimate the overall effect of college on critical thinking skill at 0.59 SDs.

The review offers some other interesting points:

  • It appears that over time, the gains in critical thinking skills have declined in recent years (this would be a tamer version of the Academically Adrift conclusion). The authors of the meta-analysis speculate that either a) students are entering college having acquired a reasonable level of proficiency and hence have less room for improvement or b) more students are entering college unable to benefit from the instruction provided and hence the average improvement is lower. The data did not allow these hypotheses to be tested.
  • Research does not seem to suggest that direct efforts to teach critical thinking have been no more successful than courses focused on traditional content and methods. This is not inconsequential. The authors go further to speculate that efforts to directly teach critical thinking may reduce what is learned in other areas.

Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2015). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved from

Who comes to campus – it is complicated

It is time for new students to report to campus. An interesting controversy has developed over the issue of which students go where. Should institutions use the ACT or SAT to determine which students are allowed to attend. Some institutions have decided to drop these tests proposing that this move allows greater equity of access. The true motives of these institutions have been called into question.

I spent a good part of my academic career instructing and researching the study performance of beginning students. Let me say from personal experience and from the data I collected that allowing poorly prepared students into a college unsuited to their needs is not doing anyone a favor.

As a researcher, I did not use SAT or ACT data in my work. I primarily made use of a measure of reading skill. My course of interest was the Introduction to Psychology. I taught large groups of students and a major part of the student’s grade was based on several multiple-choice question exams based on student understanding and application of lecture and textbook content. My interest as a researcher was in study behavior and I made heavy use of an online study activities allowing me to operationalize how well, when, and how much students studied textbook content. My interest was in evaluating how such variables were related to examination performance.

As one would expect, reading comprehension skill was strongly correlated to examination performance. Without going further, in the large course environment in which I worked, I would suggest that poorly prepared students are going to struggle and allowing admission as an equity commitment may simply set certain students up for failure.

My research goes further to address related issues. I will say that my main research interest was to see if I could create online technology tools to assist poor readers in identifying specific areas of failed understanding to improve self-remediation. The biggest problem in publishing my research over the years was this. I continually ran into a problem that would call into question any effort I might make to evaluate the value of my intervention strategy. The problem was that more effective readers made greater use of the study tool than the poorer readers. This alone is a very interesting finding, but not of great value if what you want to do is develop cost-effective ways to assist poorly prepared students. Use of my study technique was predictive of higher examination performance, but use of my technique was also predicted by being a better student.

I am not defending the use of textbooks, multiple choice examinations, or large classes for the least experienced college students. Each of these issues would warrant a much longer analysis. Whatever one thinks of any of these issues, one important reality is that the commitment to each of these tactics is partly determined by the cost of higher education. I would have loved to work with groups of 25 intro students, but large state institutions cannot make this approach work on the tuition students are willing to pay.

So, having struggled with this situation for many years and having spent countless hours attempting to develop interventions that I felt would partly respond to the cost issue, I must say that  increasing the range of aptitude, background knowledge, motivation, etc. of students at the beginning level is not a strategy that will be successful without major interventions that are likely to be expensive. I would include as a short list – smaller classes and much more personal contact.


Project Noah

Project Noah is a favorite tech recommendation for a couple of reasons. First, it is participatory. It allows anyone to contribute and builds the resources it curates from these contributions. Second, it serves as an example that disputes the popular fallacy that technology limits your activity to staring at a screen indoors. To become actively involved in Project Noah, you must do the opposite and explore the outdoor world around you.

Project Noah may seem intimidating and only for experts, but the community associated with Project Noah can be very helpful (see the example of my own experience that follows) and some components of the service are designed specifically for teachers and students.

I have made a few contributions to Project Noah over the last couple of years based on photographs I have taken near our cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. We have many opportunities to view and photograph wildlife and I have submitted a few photos based on these experiences.

Recently, I encountered a couple of snakes on our property. I had no idea what these snakes were and wondered if they might be dangerous. The snakes were found very near play equipment we have for our grandchildren. I was able to get a pretty good picture of one of these snakes and I sent it to the Wisconsin DNR for identification. I was concerned that the snake might be a Timber Rattlesnake, but thought it was more likely a bull snake (based on my online research). The DNR person said it was most likely a Northern Water snake. This made some sense because we live on a lake.

I submitted the picture to Project Noah identifying the snake as a Northern Water snake and I was soon contacted to indicate that the snake was likely a Hognose Snake. I decided to remove my own identification and leave the picture as unnamed. This is part of the fun.



My contributions