Underprepared students: reality or nostalgia?

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College faculty tend to complain that this generation of students is less prepared for college than students used to be.  It's the old "kids these days" argument.  However, complaints about underprepared students date back to the 1700s and 1800s.  Schools like Harvard, Cornell, and Yale struggled to balance high academic standards with a need for students, and several formed "preparatory" departments to bring underprepared students up to college level.  Pressure for increased access to higher education continued throughout the 19th and 20th century, and universities continued to struggle with high standards versus open access. 

And we always think that our own preparation was the proper type, and that later generations' preparation is lacking.  Hmmm . . . I'm detecting more nostalgia than logic.  At the same time, there IS a study by the National Endowment of the Arts suggesting that reading comprehension and general literacy are in a state of decline.  Not sure what I think at this point . . .

2 Comments

Mike Arnzen said:

Likin' the new blog!

Thanks for calling attention to that update to the NEA study! It's sad, and I think that maybe the underprepared state of students we perceive may be BOTH a social reality and a predicament made only worse by nostalgia of the older generation?

It may not be the case that literacy rates are lower, only that they are literacies of a different kind (say, screen literacy vs. print)...but SO much is lost when comprehension of historical documents and the cultural legacy in books falters or their value is ignored.

That article you pointed to mentioned something called "The Big Read" which sounds really cool. Maybe there's a title in that, or in that article?

Thanks for the links!

I think Mike is probably onto something when he suggests that students have digital literacy and cultural literacy that does not always prepare them for reading monographs or any other book that doesn't guide their interpretation with study questions and vocabulary lists.

Students in my "EL200: Media Lab" class were supposed to have an open workshop day, but the computers in Admin 405 weren't working. While I was occupied in a one-on-one with one student, the others pulled their chairs into a circle and talked about thesis statements and how lower-level courses prepared them for upper-level courses. I told them I was glad that they didn't just throw up their hands and give up when the technology failed them, since computers are just one tool among many.

Kids these days have access to so much more information than I did... because so much information is just a few clicks away, I probably hold them accountable for more information than my professors expected me to know -- even though I pay far more attention to my students' process writing, and thus give my students more changes to adjust their ideas along the way. So it's true they're probably not as independent as I was, but they are also far more skilled at working collaboratively.

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