Home > academic enterprise, careers, teaching > College students not learning much?–I beg to differ

College students not learning much?–I beg to differ

It has recently become fashionable to knock the quality of college education in this country.
A recent book by Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia entitled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” reports on the results of a study implying that a significant percentage of college students show no improvement in their critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. This book caught my attention when it was just released, and I remember skimming through it in the university library. The findings of the book immediately struck me as being at odds with what I experience as a Computer Science professor in our department, but I did not feel compelled to express my objections in public.

What convinced me to write about this topic was a recent New York Times editorial, “College the Easy Way,” penned by Bob Herbert. The editorial basically reflects on the book agreeing with its findings. Nowadays, reader comments are often as revealing as the piece upon which the readers chose to opine. What I found  staggering was that out of almost 200 reader comments on Herbert’s editorial, none of them disagreed with its main premises.

I am not going to refute the general findings of Profs. Arum and Roksa. But I would like to state unequivocally that Virginia Tech Computer Science students learn a whole lot in our program. Not to be making unsupported claims–a recent Wall Street Journal survey of close to 500 employers ranked out program as number 5 in the nation. So we must be doing something right.

I would like to refute some of the popular claims about the nature of college students, education, and faculty. In the following discussion, I am only going to reflect on my own experiences rather than make strict statistical arguments.

1.) Students nowadays are not academically prepared for college level work
Since I have been serving on the faculty only for five years, my experience is somewhat limited. I can only say that I am amazed how technologically savvy our students are. Our best students explore various Computer Science topics on their own and constantly learn new technologies. Besides in my view, to become a competent Information Technology professional, one only needs solid logical thinking, attention to detail, and perseverance. All other background knowledge and skills can be learned.

2.) Students do not have the right attitude to learn effectively
This is certainly not true for Computer Science students. We have a rigorous curriculum that requires multiple hours of out-of-classroom studying.  If anything, I constantly hear from our students about the all-nighters they had to pull to complete their course assignments. In fact, they take pride in how hard their major makes them work. Besides, I am constantly amazed and inspired by the “let’s do it” attitude of our best students. Whenever I get to work with our undergraduate students on research, they surprise me with with their ingenuity and productivity.

3.) The curriculum is not sufficiently demanding and obsolete
Let’s examine each part of this claim. It is certainly always possible to make any curriculum more challenging. But our students do spend hours working on their programming and other assignments outside the class. In addition, many of them are pursuing their own side projects. For example, one of the members of my original Bus Tracker team has recently created an application that shows which restaurants on campus are currently open. This application apparently already has thousands of users. It is important that Computer Science students have time to pursue such independent projects. In addition, we have an active undergraduate research program, where our undergraduate students get involved in cutting edge research with our faculty members.

With respect to the curriculum being obsolete, it is difficult to keep the material we teach always up with the latest technological developments. And being a university, we have a responsibility to teach the foundational concepts that are unlikely to change throughout the entire professional careers of our students. Nevertheless, we do teach current technologies and concepts. For example, in our introductory classes, we teach test-driven development. We also offer a class on mobile software engineering using smart phones. Overall, I believe that we teach our students a harmonious mix of fundamental concepts and latest technologies.

4.) Faculty do not care about teaching and do a poor job at it
There is this notion that particularly in a research university, faculty are rewarded and promoted mostly based on their research accomplishments. As a result, teaching gets the back seat to research and getting research funding. There is certainly some truth to this, but I have not encountered a single faculty member in our department who did not care about teaching. In fact, I constantly witness my fellow faculty members bragging about the educational innovations they have introduced.

Personally, even though I consider myself a researcher first and foremost, I treat teaching as an intrinsic part of what I do as a faculty member. In fact, I see my research program as a guarantee that my students are learning from an expert who is current in his knowledge. Besides, I have recently found myself engaged in educational research, which I find quite exciting. For example, currently we are working on revitalizing introductory CS classes by using real-time live data of relevance to the students. In particular, my students and I have exposed the real time data of VT Bus Tracker through a convenient Java API that our introductory student can use in their programs.

All in all, I am excited about preparing our students for exciting and remunerative careers in IT. In addition, we also send our students to the best graduate schools. Can things be improved? Is everything right with the way we teach our students? Of course there is always room for improvement, but this is the topic of a another blog post.

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