Are undergraduates really less prepared than three years ago? – Trevor Holmes

So… last night Dave DeVidi of UW’s Philosophy Department (and current FAUW Prez) was on TV. I love it when philosophers are on TV (that’s an aside). I always like to hear what Dr. DeVidi has to say, and often find myself agreeing. In this case he was talking about a survey recently done by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, in which just over a thousand faculty of the 2000 surveyed believe that students are less prepared than they were even three years ago. Many people will suggest that we’ve always complained about students (since Greek times, at least), and this is nothing new. Others will say that high schools give too many chances to hand in late work or redo failed assignments, or do “alternate” work to pass (this does seem true in my experience watching a bunch of teens go through the system right now with my son, and squares with the questions I keep getting MORE of from first years). So, do we do more to inculcate our ways of doing research and thinking, or do we come up with other standards to help all those participating young people who may not have participated in higher ed to this extent the past? I struggle with this question as a teaching developer, usually insisting on keeping high standards and helping learners to see how they can reach them. The Kitchener Record has an opinion today on the topic…

What do faculty and students at UW think?

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

3 thoughts on “Are undergraduates really less prepared than three years ago? – Trevor Holmes”

  1. Very interesting questions, Trevor. Speaking as a sessional instructor in the Math faculty, when I look at UW’s annual performance indicator documents,

    entering grade averages of first year students in Math since 2003 have gone down slightly – by about 1%. Either A) high schools are becoming less lenient, or B) UW is accepting students who are less prepared than their predecessors, six years ago.

    Meanwhile, grades of Ontario high school students applying to universities in Ontario have steadily increased at a rate of roughly 0.25% per year from 1983 to 2004 (COU Report, June 2006). Grades have probably continued to increase after this (but who knows). So I wonder if we would have had to only accept high school students with higher grades (instead of lower grades) in order to hope that our students are as prepared as they were in 2003.

    My point is that it may be that high schools are preparing their graduates just as well as they did three years ago, but if UW is accepting weaker students, it may seem to UW instructors as though high schools aren’t preparing their students as well as they have in the past.

    But grades don’t give us the complete picture. It’s difficult (or just impossible) to separate the difficulty of an academic program from the performance of students when looking at grades.

    There are another factors we can look at. There was a significant change encountered when grade 13 was axed in Ontario in 2003. We know that since then, failure rates of 100 level courses in Math (and Engineering) have increased steadily since then.

    So overall, my answer to the question is “maybe”, for students in Math courses at UW (it may be that we’ve just lowered the cutoff entering average for enrollment into year 1). But in Math (and Engineering), I would say that students are probably less prepared than they were 3 years ago, and are definitely less prepared than they were 6 years ago when Ontario high school students had grade 13.

    I sometimes wonder how the cutoff average for year 1 students entering from high school is calculated.

    Your second question is also interesting. Instructors can provide meaningful feedback in a large classroom environment. It just requires a whole lot more work to do it, especially for every student. In the large math classes I’ve taught (over 100 students), I found it impossible to reach out to every student in the class to provide meaningful feedback. But we could overcome this problem by decreasing the student-instructor ratio.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dave!

    It’s absolutely clear that feedback is a key piece for students; is it equally clear that we can’t have a personal touch and give good/transformational feedback in large classes?

  3. Hi Trevor,
    I do think that it’s important from a University point of view to see the connection between our impressions of students being less prepared and the larger classes students typically face in early years compared to a couple of decades ago. There are degree programs, even in Arts, where students will not have to write an essay in the first two years. A student who is almost university ready will not get the detailed feedback on a piece of written work s/he might have received 20 years ago that will let them know “I could have written that more clearly, and I need to take the time to do it in future.” A low score on a multiple-choice test is a lot less informative for the student. And if all the student’s classes have 200 students in them, nobody will be saying “Dave, I can see that you are smart enough to do this stuff, but you’re going to have to put some work into it.” The detailed comments and personal touch can make a huge difference to a student, and might turn someone from “unprepared” to willing to do what it takes. But the possibility for that is disappearing.

    Secondly: last night at school council at my daughter’s school a bunch of parents and teachers took the opportunity to say “Right on. I made a point of telling my high school aged daughter/son/students that they have to grow up now, because otherwise they’re going to fall flat at university.” So maybe OCUFA has done us all a real service.

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