Thursday, June 21, 2007

Study Skills Courses?

Apparently, a new study suggests that 'study skills' courses for college freshmen improves eventual academic success rates.

This bothers me to no end.

Proprietary U required a study skills course of all matriculated students. Some students put it off until the semester before graduation, then used their high GPAs to argue that they obviously didn't need the class. Although I was tasked with enforcing the rule, I couldn't help but agree with the students. (This was especially true of adult students, many of whom had children at home. They were juggling full-time work, part-time study, and parenthood, and doing it all fairly well, and here I was telling them that they won't graduate because they didn't complete a non-credit requirement that teaches note-taking and time management?) That just never seemed right.

It was tough to convince a very skeptical, very utilitarian student population that charging tuition for a course that didn't count towards graduation was anything other than a scam. If they managed to get most of the way through their degree program and do it in style, the sell was even tougher.

I don't deny for a minute that some students arrive relatively clueless, and that some students may benefit from some basic life management skills. As CCPhysicist put it in the comments to the IHE piece,

Trust me, these kids need help with managing their time, their money, taking notes, even with going to class the next day. In my opinion, the biggest challenge they face is simply comprehending that they were lied to in high school about what level math or English they were passing and how much of it they were learning, not to mention whether passing the HS grad exam a year or three ago means they are ready for college algebra or English.

That's true for some, but I hesitate to paint with such a broad brush. As tempting as it is to paint the issue as one of “are you willing to do what needs to be done, or are you a starchy academic elitist who doesn't care about the students?,” the fact is that some students have these needs, and some don't. And to require those that don't to endure a patronizing and infantilizing course – for credits that don't transfer and don't count towards graduation, but for which we charge tuition anyway – is insulting and unproductive.

Where I can see a course like this making some degree of sense is with students who have already been identified as having unusually high risk of failure – those with multiple developmental needs (say, both remedial English and remedial math), or those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, or those who have flunked out of college before and are back on a probationary basis. In those cases, there's at least some reason to think that there may be a “rules of the game” deficit. But to assume that every cc student is deficient – after all, why are they here in the first place? -- is insulting, counterproductive, and false. Some students attend cc's because of skills deficits, but many attend for the low tuition, geographic convenience (that is, living at home), and quality of programs. (We have degrees in certain occupational fields that the local four-year schools simply don't have. If that's the degree you want, we're often the only game in town. Some of those students are quite good.)

I think of these as sort of like 'defensive driving' courses. Suppose someone does a study that shows that defensive driving courses reduce accidents. Should we require completion of a course as a condition of everybody's license renewal every four years? I'd have to say 'no,' and not because I'm a fan of traffic accidents. It's just an undue burden on people who've shown that they're quite capable as it is, thank you very much. I have no issue with requiring the Lindsay Lohans or Billy Joels of the world to take courses like these, but to generalize to everybody just strikes me as excessive.

I've written before on the three kinds of 'A' students – the brilliant, the dutiful, and the manaical. Study skills courses assume that the dutiful way is the right way, and that other approaches are fundamentally lesser. To me, the purpose of higher education isn't to teach how to outline your notes. (In my experience, the folks who are the best at 'outlines' are almost always the shallowest thinkers. PowerPoint is the triumph of outlining.) It's taking the “teach you how to think” motto entirely too literally. I've always interpreted “teach you how to think” as meaning “we challenge you, and you figure out how to answer the challenge.” Over time, through answering enough challenges, you figure out a method that works for you. Different people answer the challenge in different ways, and that's good – the diversity of styles leads to a wider range of strengths. If we establish a single style as The One True Faith, we're penalizing perfectly capable people who come at things in ways we haven't thought of yet.

In a way, I'm trying to defend the academic freedom of students. Students bring different backgrounds, strengths, gaps, and attention levels. Sometimes they learn by failing, as heretical as that is to admit. Sometimes they surprise themselves by discovering talents or tastes they didn't know they had. I want them to be able to use the approaches they develop for themselves, even at the cost of some of them failing. Our K-12 system worships the standardized, step-by-step approach to student work, which is why it sucks. Our higher ed system, which is far better than our K-12 system on a world scale, is founded on a certain kind of freedom – including the freedom to fail – and I suspect that's part of the reason it's good. Let's not model higher ed after K-12. If anything, it should be the other way around.