Let’s Apply Critical Thinking Outside the Classroom

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We shouldn’t delude ourselves.  Neither common sense, gut instincts, intuition, nor wishful thinking can beat critical thinking.

In an interview on Fox News, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Chris Murphy made a Michael Kinsley gaffe.  He blurted out an inconvenient truth.

He said that the Democratic party’s “focus on debt excuses the colleges” from the “dramatic increase in tuition.”

The problem underlying today’s student debt crisis, the governor stated, is “the cost of the degree.” “We’re going to be in a perpetual cycle of having to forgive debt if college continues to spiral upwards”

As the economists David H. Feldman and B. Robert Archibald have argued, restraining costs in the academy is nigh impossible, not just because of Baumol and Bowen’s cost disease theory – which states that it is extraordinarily difficult to increase productivity in personal service industries —  or because of the inflating costs of benefits, energy, financial aid, and technology but because of escalating expectations in virtually every college domain, including curriculum breadth, student support services, faculty compensation, facilities, and, yes, research and administration.

Nor, it turns out, can tuition increases be blamed primarily on public disinvestment. A just released report on state higher education finances from SHEEO, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, raises questions about the oft repeated claim that tuition increases are mainly a product of state disinvestment in public colleges and universities.  

Between 1995 and 2020, inflation-adjusted state funding per student for higher education fell by a grand total of 3 percent.  As New America’s Vice President for Education Policy Kevin Carey puts it: “There is not a nationwide public disinvestment crisis. It didn’t happen.”

In nominal dollars, state and local support for higher education rose from $72 billion to $109 billion between 2005 and 2020. The much publicized decline in state investment in higher education was in per-FTE inflation adjusted dollars, which peaked in 2000.  Using that as the baseline, inflation-adjusted state expenditures in 2020 were 14.6 percent below the 2001 level and 6 percent below the 2008 level.

Those figures mask wide variations by state.  In 2020, 18 states equaled or exceeded their 2008 inflation-adjusted appropriations, while 12 states remained 20 percent or more below their 2008 level, most notably Arizona, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.

At the same time, state-financed financial aid per FTE has risen in real terms in all but three years since 2001, and now stands at an all-time high in inflation-adjusted terms.

But as Carey points out, many of the claims about massive reductions in state higher education spending focus on a particular span of time, from just before the Great Recession to just before the recovery was completed, a period when enrollments rose sharply and per FTE inflation-adjusted state spending on higher education fell steeply.  In contrast, inflation-adjusted state expenditures per FTE increased during the 8 years preceding 2020.

As college enrollment has slipped and state spending has bounced back in most states, the earlier downturn looks like yet another example of the boom and bust that has long characterized state higher ed spending.

In other words, the reasons why tuition rose so steeply is much more complicated than any simple-minded story would suggest.

My take-away:  Reality is complicated.  We oversimplify at the expense of truth.  

Which leads me to two other ideas that I think are worth underscoring.  Facts that seem too good to be true probably aren’t.  And common sense often leads us astray.

I learned a bit about the dangers of wishful thinking on my very first day at the University of Texas System.  The government relations office introduced me to a few disconcerting facts of life:

  • That in the list of state spending priorities, higher education trails criminal justice, K-12 education, Medicaid, mental health, transportation, most of which fall under constitutional, statutory, or judicial mandates.
  • That it would be a big mistake to tell a legislator that the state is failing to invest sufficiently in higher education. Such an assertion will almost certainly prompt the following response: That state expenditures on higher education have risen sharply.
  • That if state expenditures cover a diminishing share of institutional costs, it’s not simply because colleges and universities are receiving less state revenue.  It’s also because the colleges and universities expanded their budgets faster.  

We always need to be careful not to confuse our predilections or gut instincts with truth. Here’s one example.

It makes a kind of intuitive sense that remedial courses offer the best way to ensure that students who are underprepared in math or English succeed in advanced college classes.  Yet this intuition turns out to be false.  Not only do remedial courses discourage students and deplete their financial aid, but an alternative, corequisite remediation, which gives students extra support in credit-bearing courses, produces better long-term outcomes.

We constantly hear that critical thinking is the skill most in demand.  If that’s true, then let’s exhibit that skill more broadly.  That will require us to subject all claims, no matter how attractive or intuitive, to close critical scrutiny.

Let me offer some examples.

I am increasingly struck by an outpouring of articles in the higher education press that seem designed to provoke, aggravate, or irritate.  Here are a few examples:

This hyperstylized, dishonest genre is useless for everyone.

Is it true that letters of recommendation “are mostly a waste,” “Kabuki theater without the artistry”? Is it the case that departments are well-equipped to evaluate every prospective applicant to their doctoral program or candidate for a faculty position without such letters?  

Certainly not letters that explain the significance of job candidates’ research, describe their methodological expertise, compare them to emerging figures in the field, or comment on their scholarly potential.  

Letters that fail to do those things are, indeed, drivel, and a waste of paper or pixels.  Letters that are formulaic or lacking in specific detail should be dismissed out of hand.  But serious letters that describe a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses deserve close scrutiny.  

Rather than dismissing letters of recommendation out of hand, we need to hold letter writers to a much higher standard of professionalism.

I sometimes quip that I’d teach for free, but must be paid to grade.  Grading is an arduous, demanding, and thankless task, and grades, we’re told, are subjective, arbitrary, inequitable, and stress-inducing.  Not only does grading vary widely across disciplines, but, it’s claimed, demotivates and demoralizes students and undermines learning.  

Indeed, a recent Inside Higher Ed article concluded that “grades are making students physically, emotionally and psychologically unwell.”

Yet grades serve many positive purposes.  They’re informational, telling students how they’re doing.  They allow instructors to identify students who are struggling.  Grades are also motivational, encouraging students to study and master essential material. In addition, grades are diagnostic, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and evaluative, providing a measure of students’ skills and knowledge.

Serious grading must take into account not only student’ level of accomplishment, but their effort, engagement, and intellectual growth.  Done right, effective grading practices require instructors to share their criteria ahead of time; assess performance in varied ways; focus on higher-order skills, such as analysis, application, and synthesis, rather than simply on memorization and recall; and sequence assignments and assessments in ways that allow an instructor to evaluate students’ increasing mastery of essential skills and knowledge.

If I truly believed that instructors would write the highly individualized, detailed narrative evaluations of students’ learning and progress across multiple dimensions, I might consider these an acceptable alternative to grades.  But given how hard many faculty find it to grade at all, I’m doubtful that such an approach is scalable.

The author of this article takes issue “with the idea that once you’ve assigned a certain number of pages of weekly reading, you’ve accomplished something resembling ‘academic rigor.’”  

True, but potentially misleading.

By most accounts, professors are assigning, and students are reading, fewer books (and even scholarly articles).  Partly this reflects intense pressures to cut textbook costs by replacing books with online or open educational resources.  It also reveals a growing recognition among instructors that many students regard textbooks as “increasingly optional purchases,” which, in many cases can be replaced by research on the web.

In addition, it signals a growing belief among many faculty members that the amount of reading that students will actual undertake is quite low — currently averaging between 6-7 hours a week.  Even in the humanities, a significant share of their students don’t read the texts themselves, and either wing it or rely on Wikipedia or SparkNotes or some equivalent.  

How, you might well ask, is this any different from an earlier generation’s reliance on Cliffs Notes?  For better or worse, it has fundamentally altered the kinds of activities that take place in many classes, with shorter excerpts replacing the close reading of lengthy and complex texts, and other activities substituting for texts altogether.  There also appears to be a decline in undergraduates’ use of library resources, not only the physical books and journals but even online databases (as opposed to the use of the open internet).  

Of course, we can encourage students to read more if the assigned books and articles truly are integral to the course and to students’ academic success.  We might, for example, require students to highlight and annotate the course readings and append comments to passages in a text or respond to prompts that require students to go beyond the information or interpretations readily available on Wikipedia.  But if students sense that reading isn’t essential, we shouldn’t be surprised that they won’t do it. 

“The quality of a well-run synchronous (i.e., live, as opposed to pre-recorded) online class,” a Brookings Institution Senior Fellow who is also a professor of electrical engineering, law, public policy, and management at UCLA, tells us, “can now rival—and in some respects exceed—the quality of the in-person equivalent.”

He insists that such classes are superior to face-to-face instruction in many ways. Online learning can support a broader range of learning styles and address a wider range of student needs. The chat window can offer a nonstop stream of insightful ideas, reactions, and web links – a mode of engagement and interaction that has no analogue in in-person classes.  Online instruction also makes it easier to invite guest speakers.

All plausible, yet none of these assertions are substantiated with empirical evidence. The data we do have appears to indicate that highly interactive online education works well for some students, especially those with strong organizational, goal setting, self-motivation, and time management skills, and less well for others.  But much more research will be needed to determine whether online learning can reduce equity gaps and what teaching techniques are most likely to produce equivalent learning outcomes.

As Malcolm Gladwell observed in his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, intuition and snap judgments can result in correct decisions in some circumstances, but misdirect us in others. It’s better, whenever possible, to base our judgments and decisions on critical thinking: the reasoned, logical, and open-minded analysis and evaluation of relevant evidence and conflicting arguments.  We need to identify, evaluate, and question the information before us.  We must reflect upon the implications, including the ethical consequences, of our judgments.  We must recognize our implicit biases.

In today’s social media environment, the quickest path to celebrity (or notoriety) is to make bold claims.  But those assertions don’t always hold up.  We need more nuance and respect for complexity in our public debates.  

It’s not enough to teach our students about critical thinking.  We need to practice what we preach.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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