lördag 23 mars 2013

On students' cognitive inability


You might think the title of this blog post is bordering on the slanderous, well think again because I didn't choose it. It's the cover story in my union magazine "The University Teacher" (20 000 copies in print); "Students cognitive inability changes the teacher's role". And the term "cognitive inability" is used descriptively.

The article reads like a joke. I think we got the latest issue in the mailbox on Friday and I had to check the calendar, but no, it can't be an April Fool's joke since it's 10 days to early, right? And they would never have printed the April Fool's joke on the cover because that's way too obvious, right?

My number one most-read blog posts ever was published two years ago and is called "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?".  A high-traffic blog linked to it and drove people here in the hundreds. I wrote about problems in my daily practice with, let's say, "under-performing students". It spells out my position and I think I even succeeded in being both realistic, diplomatic and pretty empathic too in that text. "Severely underperforming students" are fortunately a rare problem in my everyday life at KTH.

This article describes a problem that is 10, or perhaps 100 times worse. The articles itself is called "Students at the level of 13 year-olds demands new ways of working" and the teaser continues "How should university teachers, without sacrificing academic quality, teach students who can't read, can't make themselves understood through written language and who have problems understanding simple instructions?". My counter-question (in line with the blog post I wrote way back) would of course be "what do these people do at a university in the first place?"

I'll refrain from expressing my own opinions for a while and will instead quote liberally from the article (here's the original text in Swedish). The article expresses the opinions of Ebba Lisberg Jensen who has a Ph.D. in human ecology, is an assistant professor and also program coordinator at Malmö University. The article is brimming with shocking quotes, so the lists goes on for quite a while:

- higher education now has to deal with an epidemic spread of a lack of knowledge and skills [on behalf of students]
- [Ebba] emphasizes that it is definitely not about teachers requiring advanced academic language or "older" traditional dissatisfaction with youth language. These are not students with dyslexia or those who do not have Swedish as their mother tongue. [...] she describes something completely different; students with a non-existent sense of what the written language should look like. 
- There are those who, to take two examples, do not know that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. The teacher must decide where sentences begin and end.
- The language becomes Lego bricks, they have a difficult time to read, to think and to write in their own words, and the practice of learning is gone. We can talk about cognitive apathy, a cognitive gap. One can not, and therefore it becomes impossible.
- three-four years ago, deficiencies that had been rare exceptions among individual students became increasingly frequent.
- Last fall, she and her colleagues were forced to flunk two-third of the students on the exam in an introductory course, "and we were still nice [passing as many as one-third of the students]."
- If university teachers ask their students to give three examples of something, they may get eight or fifteen examples back. Not to show that they can (the examples are not necessarily correct), but rather because many are unable to limit themselves. 
- She does furthermore not interpret it as these students making some kind of rebellion [statement] against, for example, the scientific forms, but rather as an inability to learn. 
- Substantial problems with a text that really disturbs the experience of reading the text in question will often remain even after the teacher has explained [what needs to be done] both verbally and in writing. An assignment can be re-submitted many times, without the student correcting what is wrong.
- From having been a demanding, but creative and free profession, the job of a university teacher has become something different. They risk losing the power over their profession if higher education merely comes to be regarded as a product that universities should deliver, a product without intellectual challenges.
- But you can't just wish it away, there are those [students] who in addition to severe problems with the course contents, assumes that the teacher will provides them with timetables for the buses and with other everyday problem solving, students who will be appalled and offended by criticism and by not getting "help".
- Many students are just not accustomed to face discomfort. We also notice the role of parents, those who call us and explain why their son or daughter did not arrive in time for the [course] enrollment.
- Many have great self-confidence, but low self-esteem. Some demand explicit positive feedback, even when it is obvious they have submitted something sub-par in great haste.
- As for her own behalf, Ebba Lisberg Jensen sees explanations in a school system the believes it is enough to give the students a number of books for them to learn.
- When [Ebba] was a student (in the 1990s), you were one of a mass of students up until C- [Bacherlor's] and D-[Master's] level studies. But that does not work [now], students nowadays must have a direct relationship with the teacher, from the beginning. We need to support, assist and coach. It is time to rethink higher education. The question is how we do it, without letting go of the academic content?

Ok, shocking as it is, I have to say that this is not my reality. Fortunately. I believe that the students Ebba refers to don't ever bother applying for an engineering degree from KTH. And how could they if (as Ebba implies) they think that 3 might very well equal 8 or 15? So I don't know how true this picture of "higher" education in Sweden is. To people reading this text - can you corroborate? Can it really be as bad as as what Ebba describes where you're at? Or even halfway close? (It's ok to answer anonymously...)

Second, if I felt this was a fair description of the place I was working, I'd seriously consider a rapid change or career paths. I have a hard time seeing the difference between being a "university teacher" of such students and of being in one of Dante's circles of suffering. Seriously. The only problem I would have is determining if this was just the first circle of hell, or if it was worse than that.

Searching the web, I of course found others who disagree with Ebba. The Chairman of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) doesn't disagree head-on, but he prefers to point at university teachers' lack of pedagogical skills (!). Yeah, right. Well, he does correctly point out that teaching skills systematically get sidelined on behalf of research skills in terms of university professors'/teachers' careers and salaries and all that, but while that is correct, what does that have to do with the experiences and problems Ebba describes above? Does he imply that she is only "experiencing" these problems because she and her colleagues are not skillful enough in their role as teachers? That's hard to believe.

Well, I was a lot more upset and indignant when me and my wife read the article the first time around Friday night. Now, the second time around, it feels like a bad dream or an urban legend. Or an April Fool's day joke on me. Let's hope that's what it is... Or can this be an accurate view of the present and the future of the university system in Sweden? That would certainly be depressing.

Some things make it possible for me to believe so. The funny-mirror system of financing higher education puts huge pressure and incentives on universities to accept all comers and make sure they "pass" their courses (we get money for each student and for each student who passes a course). There is, as far as I can see, little incentive for maintaining a high quality of the education, except for "traditions" in the form a high-demaning (or reasonable-demanding) teachers who continue to demand what is their due.

What I just can't get is why "everyone" has to have a university degree nowadays? I agree with my colleague Ambjörn who says that "we need to create a society for mediocrity". We can't create a society that "works" only for the best, or for the best of the best. And mediocrity is relative. Most of our engineering students are average engineering students and only a few are exceptional. Most people in society are average and, I would argue, most people don't (or shouldn't) need to go to university. It has to be possible to have a nice, satisfying, fulfilling life where you excel at what you work with (some craft for example) without an university education!

Let me conclude by being polemical and facetious. Emperor Caligula famously planned to make his favorite horse Incitatus into a consul. Let's say that some genius wants to "lift Sweden" to new levels of innovation and prosperity [insert more verbiage and airy rhetoric here] - by having the best-educated horses in the world and by forcing universities to start admitting horses to a variety of university educations. This will cause no end to the sorrow of husbandry-deficient "university teachers" who all of a sudden will have even less time for their human pupils (busy as they will be leading horses between lecture halls and shoveling shit all day long). It seems in fact that this would be a idea of outmost stupidity. The university is a specialized instrument and can in fact not do everything for everyone. A university teacher is a specialized instrument too - not suitable for teaching illiterate 20-year-olds to read or to administer therapy to (have long heartfelt talks with) those with large blustering unjustified self-confidence but tender egos (for example those who didn't pass the introductory course).

How different is the horse-scenario though compared to teaching students who "can't read, can't make themselves understood through written language and who have problems understanding simple instructions"? Please don't misunderstand me - my heart goes out to them as they have been terribly abused and betrayed by our educational system. But when did the education of these students become my problem as a university teacher? How would it ever be possible to teach them "without sacrificing academic quality"? Talk about mission impossible! I'm fond of the expression "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink". Well, the best I can do as a university teacher is to lead students to knowledge, but I can't force anyone to drink any of it. It requires both ability and hard work to acquire knowledge - even with the help of a teacher. But how can you teach those who are unteachable? That problem is up there together with making the blind see, and making those who suffer blissful.

Post-script (130327). This blog post was linked to from a high-traffic blog (Cornucopia) and will probably be my most-read text before the day is over. 

Post-cript (140319). This is a good Swedish-language summary (with further links) to the ongoing debate about the quality of higher education in Sweden.

21 kommentarer:

  1. Personally, I think Ebba Lisberg Jensen's account is true and that there are a number of reasons for me believing so. Firstly, it's very difficult for a 19-20-year-old to get a job, which leads to them deciding to go to university instead, without knowing what they want to do and they basically pick anything. Secondly, some university educations in Sweden will bring anyone on board, regardless of grades, even if that education is number fourteen on that particular student's list, which leads to students not being interested in what they are studying. Thirdly, I have noticed that many students seem to have little previous knowledge in how to analyse a text or express their ideas. They might not even know why this is relevant at all (see my blogpost here: http://miawb.blogspot.se/2013/03/attendance-and-analysis.html). Fourthly, I've noticed that my choice as a teacher on the university level is either to lower my standards or basically force the students to raise their bar. The latter requires the students to realise that this is necessary, which, on the one hand, makes them question the level of their previous education and, on the other hand, to work *really* hard.

    Personally, I always encourage them to work hard, say that I will be there if they have questions, and attempts to set an example for what they should aim to achieve. The easy way out would probably be to lower my own standards and expectations, but I'd hate myself if I did. At the same time, lowering of the standards tends to make the ambitious students itchy and even uninterested, which might be one of the reasons why they stay away from the classroom, with a low attendance as a result.

  2. Daniel, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. KTH is not yet in "The Shallows" (http://www.theshallowsbook.com/nicholascarr/Nicholas_Carrs_The_Shallows.html ). Yet if centres of excellence like KTH don't address these challenges head on, we risk a world lacking enough capable scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc to maintain our global knowledge base.
    Paul Lefrere

  3. Hi Mia!

    I think your reason number one is the most important one. Young people can't get a job and so we get 20-year olds without aptitude, ability or interest nominally "aiming for a university degree". That is wrong. As I wrote above, a university is a specialized instrument. It wasn't meant for, and isn't appropriate for taking care of the unemployed. It won't even make them employable because when finished, they compete against their (better) peers; those who *were* interested in the topic and *did* have the ability to cover a lot o ground without being spoon-fed or force-fed.

    As for the second reason, there must be a breaking point when accepting the totally unsuitable incurs costs, higher costs than what these students bring. These costs are not just monetary, but also exhibit themselves in terms of increased load on admin when illiterate students overload student services, decreased job satisfaction for university personnel (both teachers and admin) etc.

    It's commendable to make the students work hard, but my point is that some students start out at such a low level they are "underwater" or "below the floorboards" and shouldn't be there in the first place. For these students it's not enough to "work hard" (perhaps for the first time in their lives).

  4. I agree Paul, but exactly how do you propose we "address these challenges head on"?

  5. Maria, as to you blog post about attendance; I personally find that infuriating. As if they have 100 other things in their lives right now that are *more* important than the course they are taking? Right.

    I have fixed that problem by making attendance and active participation part of the examination when appropriate (i.e. when I consider the seminars to be an important part of the course - which basically is always). Miss 2/10 seminars and you still get top points. Miss 3, 4 seminars and your chances to get top grades on the course *automatically* decreases.

  6. Hi Daniel,
    Yes, I think you're right. Not everyone *will* work hard or, alternatively, won't be able to for various reasons. Subsequently, there will be a percentage that simply will fail and those might be the ones that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

    Low attendance is indeed infuriating, but we haven't been allowed to push for mandatory attendance or write that attendance might influence the grade because of the student union decisions back in the 1990s, I believe. We are allowed to encourage active participation, but if a student does well on the exam even if s/he hasn't been there at the seminars, we wouldn't be allowed to take low attendance into account when grading. Infuriating that too. Hopefully this is something that is about to change, since the entire university has seen attendance drop in the last few years.

  7. Ok, here is another remedy then, Mia.

    In one course (at one time), we didn't have a final exam at all. What we had were weekly assignments that each counted as "a question on a final exam".

    I think the assignments were directly (and otherwise loosely) connected to the seminars - that's anywhere where the assignments were examined (i.e. you could only get half the credits for *writing* the assignment, the other half was awarded for presenting, discussing, defending (whatever) the content of the assignment).

    The assignment of course presumed or indeed demanded that you read the course literature.


    I like attendance, but I dislike mandatory attendance. That's why I try to create some flexibility rather than just demand blanket full and mandatory attendance. However, if the student union pushes for a "consumer perspective" on attendance, how can they claim to be serious about working for higher quality in higher education? To be able to "encourage" active participation just isn't good enough. It's even harder for a weekday 08.15 or a Friday afternoon event...

  8. Well, once again, I'd like to point out that my students are very far away from the description by Ebba in the blog post. There's been a little to much trash-talkning of students here.

    I think most of *my* students are great; smart, capable, engaged, funny, honest, diligent (well, within limits). I think I'm fortunate and I'm happy (very much also on their behalf) that our education can be conducted on a high level.

  9. Thank you for your suggestion, Daniel! We'll see what we can do. The problem is that these types of actions only are needed in groups that "don't work," which definitely aren't the majority. Like you, I don't like mandatory attendance, since my guiding idea is that the students are there because they want to be and have their own reasons for wanting to learn. These are the students for which our courses are intended and the study guides are written. To alter the concept at a point, usually a few weeks into the course, when we realise that some of the students might not perform at that level or show that type of commitment, is often too late. This blogpost and its comments highlight the struggle we experience with the small portion of students that are at the university for other reasons than learning, but I agree with you that most of the students are indeed "smart, capable, engaged, funny, honest" (and sometimes diligent) and that the discussions we have are both informed and interesting. In fact, most of the time I consider my job the most inspiring one there is.

  10. Great blog.

    / Followers on www.diforum.se

  11. While I agree that the role of higher education as the first instance of mitigating youth unemployment is a very bad idea (which nonetheless is getting very established), that is not the only issue here. Even in the ambitious goals of the Social Democratic party, universities should accept only 50 % of the population - presumably the most academically interested 50 %. If even this group contains masses of people suffering from "cognitive apathy" in the sense described, we are indeed in a very bad place as a society. The very idea that you would be able to fulfil entrance requirements to a university without being able to form sentences or understand simple instructions is mind-blowing and I cannot imagine it would be the case anywhere else in the world.

    Which is why I'm also a bit sceptical to the referred article. I understand that the school system is not what it used to, but still you need to pass 90 % of your high school courses and how can you do that without basic reading and writing skills? That is exactly what is tested in the "nationella prov" in Swedish, for example, but also the other subjects require reading and writing skills on some level. I'm sure there are a few students that end up in higher education without these skills, but I cannot really believe that it is a widespread phenomenon.

  12. Det är ok att skriva på svenska i kommentarfältet!

    Yes, I've never really understood the goal of 50% having a university education if the university education in itself is turning out to be what people more or less knew when they finished high school (gymnasieskolan) some decades ago? It must be a monumental waste of societal resources.

    The article (with all the frightening examples) still refers only to a minority of the students. But the pace in the classroom is partly set by this group - especially as/if it grows in size... One of the huge losers of all this are other, more capable students who sit in the same classroom. The value of taking years off to go to university and the value of their resulting education is decreasing. Also employers suffer when a nice diploma can mean pretty much anything (or nothing).

    But these effects are hard to see. Decreased unemployment and an increased number of students (educating themselves for their own and for Sweden's betterment!) is easy to see for a near-sighted politician (who might not have that much education him- or herself).

  13. Can´t help but commenting on your English... your poor English combined with the topic... well, I am happy to see that at least you don´t teach English.

  14. That was helpful Anonymous Ann. Anything specific?

    In my humble ways I'm always happy to have people who have a better command of the the English language help me improve.

    Since we are exchanging insults right now and you have just amply demonstrated your own appalling lack of pedagogical skills, I very much hope you are not a teacher of English, of any other language, or indeed any other subject at any level of schooling from preschool to university...!

    I hope you have a nice day too!

  15. Oj, haha, här är det visst bäst att hålla sig till svenska så man inte blir nedgjord. ;-) Antar att de allra flesta läsare förstår svenska ändå?

    Jag håller helt med om att det är de mest intresserade och motiverade studenterna som framförallt drabbas. Det finns nog fortfarande ett antal i varje A-kurs som har sett universitetet framför sig som en plats där man tillsammans med likasinnade på heltid får ägna sig åt ett ämne som man finner extra intressant, bara för att konfronteras med dagens verklighet där det exempelvis vid seminarieövningar är helt normalt att bara en minoritet av studenterna har läst litteraturen och/eller har någon som helst åsikt om den. Det är tråkigt men är minst lika mycket en fråga om motivation som om förmåga, och antagligen mer. Vilket, återigen, har att göra med högskolan som arbetsmarknadsinstrument, det är vansinnigt på flera plan men det är inte direkt relaterat till en total oförmåga hos studenterna, som jag ser det.

    För i den artikeln du refererar är det så oerhört extremt; de exempel hon tar upp klarar sig naturligtvis inte på universitetet men de klarar sig i så fall inte heller på en arbetsplats och, får man anta, nätt och jämnt i vardagslivet. De språksvårigheter som diskuteras leder snarare tankarna till utvecklingsstörning än till brist på utbildning.

    Jag är inte lärare, så jag har förstås inte alls sett lika många studenter som ni som undervisar möter varje termin. Men under mina år på universitetet kan jag faktiskt bara minnas en enda person som hade så uppenbara problem att hen inte alls borde ha antagits - och jag gick inte alls någon beryktat utmanande utbildning som t.ex. ingenjör. Hur stort kan problemet verkligen vara?


    Anonym 09:53

  16. Jag håller med angående motivation och intresse (som kan kompensera för väldigt mycket eftersom resultat inte minst är en effekt av nedlagd tid).

    Och, en av de frågor jag själv grunnar mest över är "hur vanligt är det?". Det är därför jag frågor det i texten ovan, kan ni (läsare) bekräfta bilden som tecknas, eller...

    Jag hade seminarier med min studenter tidigare i veckan, tre korta seminarier med mycket små grupper (ca 6 studenter per grupp). I slutet av seminariet fick de läsa artikeln och sedan diskutera vi den kort. Ingen såg några större likheter mellan bilden respektive deras egen situation på KTH. Men, flera kunde se hur deras gymnasieskolor inte direkt förberett dem (klassen) för högre studier. Någon hade kompisar som läste strökurser i väntan på att gripas av "inspiration" ang. vad man ska göra med sitt liv och kunde gott tänka sig en person som stämde in på beskrivningen. EN person hade läst engelska A-kurs (30 hp) på Stockholms universitet och sa att "så där är faktiskt där".

    Jag vet inte vad det bevisar. Själv kan jag ibland (inte så ofta) se vissa "underliga attityder" hos studenter som de själva inte är medvetna om är väldigt knasiga ("jag kommer att missa det obligatoriska seminariet för jag ska resa till New York men jag vill inte ha en restuppgift för jag gillar inte restuppgifter"). Det är å andra sidan vanligt att studenter läser instruktioner slarvigt och istället för att läsa dem igen/noggrannare slänger de iväg ett mail till läraren och ber om ett förtydligande - av det som redan är skrivet med omsorg för att vara just otvetydigt.

  17. We used to have 2-year (practical) high school, AFAIK we don't anymore. So kids who shouldn't do 3 years are forced to anyway, and they're being let through by private for profit schools for economical reasons. They then can't get a job and jump on college courses to just have something to do. IMO this has more to do with the above than some kind of failure on the part of the elementary/secondary school system. Academically challenged high school students were probably as common 20 years ago as they are now. It's a political f**k up as usual.

  18. Egentligen är det kanske en fråga om olika kategorier av problem. Det största problemet kanske är att gymnasieutbildningen i många fall helt enkelt ger sämre ämneskunskaper, så att vi får ingenjörsstudenter som inte behärskar gymnasiematten eller historiestudenter som inte har fått lära sig grunddragen i Sveriges historia. Detta måste tas igen på universitet vilket förstås både är ett resursslöseri och dessutom trist för de som har adekvata förkunskaper och får ägna första terminen åt repetition. Men det har ju inget med begåvning att göra utan är mer ett symptom på att skolsystemet har problem.

    Ett annat problem verkar vara en slags "infantilisering" av studentkåren, där många inte vill eller kan ta eget ansvar för sina studier (mamma eller pappa sköter kontakterna med universitet, man kräver specialbehandling av läraren, vill själv välja uppgifter o.s.v.). Vad detta märkliga fenomen beror på kan man ju spekulera i men det är väl någon slags tidsanda i grund och botten.

    Och sen till sist har vi den grupp studenter som helt enkelt saknar intellektuella förutsättningar för högre studier. Min spontana tanke är att denna grupp ändå är väldigt liten, och att problemen framförallt handlar om de två andra kategorierna.

    /Anonym 09:53

  19. Angående tre kategorier av studenter

    Kategori 1: jag har ingeting med matematikundervisningen att göra men det är ett känt problem att förkunskaperna är sämre nu än tidigare och att man därför inte kan hålla samma nivå som tidigare, eller så måste studenterna "läsa in" det de missat på gymnasiet innan de påbörjar högskole-/ingenjörsstudier

    Kategori 3: dessa träffar jag nog inte på KTH. Det är åtminstone inte ett stort problem för har man klarat det första året/två åren med svåra mattekurser så ska det mycket till för att man inte ska klara resten

    Kategori 2: det här är intressant, jag upplever att duktiga ambitiösa studenter har mycket för sig i sina liv (kåraktiviteter, extraarbete, träning etc.) och att studierna inte alltid är det viktigaste i deras liv. Dessutom kan det finnas en något mer ansvarslös attityd än tidigare, man tar inte 100% ansvar för sina studier (se mina exempel ovan); kommer sent, tar sovmorgon om föreläsningen är 08.15 på morgonen, utgår från att det är högskolans/lärarens ansvar att se till att man fixar kursen även om man var iväg på skidresa första veckan, förbereder sig inte till seminariet enligt instruktionerna (eller inte alls), sitter och läser Metro (ljudligt) längst bak i klassrummet och så vidare.

    En gång kom en student med en kebab och satt och åt den på föreläsningen - det luktade i hela klassrummet och många blev irriterade. En annan gång svarade en student i telefonen under föreläsningen och lade sig ner i bänkraderna (så han inte sågs - men han hördes) från katedern. Detta är i och för sig två enskilda exempel, men underligt är det likväl.

    Kanske som sagt någon slags tidsanda, men det kan också vara ett problem med den lokala "studiekulturen" som mycket väl skulle kunna åtgärdas (om det börjades i tid, dvs direkt när man kom till högskolan).

  20. Tråkig engelska:

    since it's 10 days to early (too early)

    The articles itself (article)

    what do these people do at a university (what are these people doing)

    I was a lot more upset and indignant when me and my wife read the article (I and my wife)

    except for "traditions" in the form a high-demaning (typisk svengelska, ska vara "in the shape of a a high-demanding")


  21. It might have been worth going through and correcting the text if it was to be published in a journal or a book rather than on my personal blog, so, who cares?

    Writing this blog is my "hobby" and readers are at liberty or reading the texts or not. English isn't my first language. Get a life.

    Any opinions about the content?