Are We Training Good Students or Good Learners?
New York University freshman Elif Koc writes in the Atlantic that high school taught her to be a good student, but not “a good learner.” After attempts at thoroughness hurt her grades, she began to ask, “How can I do as little as possible and still get an A?” At the end of her article, she expresses the hope that “college is where I can become a good learner.”
Sam Swift’s research, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, indicates that Koc may be disappointed, particularly if she hopes to attend a top graduate program. Swift found, both in the lab and real life, that students with the highest grades at grade-inflating institutions had the highest rate of acceptance into MBA programs. Swift demonstrated this result by comparing MBA program acceptance rates of students from institutions with and without grade inflation. The test admissions committee was also given data as to how candidates ranked against their classmates. Finally, the lab results were compared to an analysis of real-world MBA admissions data. From his findings, Swift draws out this important observation: “It’s really hard for people to look away from that glaring high number or that glaring low number of raw performance.”
Koc hoped to be afforded the opportunity to actually learn in a college environment, an opportunity she felt the college admissions push denied her. But Koc has the problem reversed: high schools have not radically misunderstood today’s learning culture. Rather, they take their cues from the norm in higher education, where high grades in college lead to post-college success. Academically Adrift, a study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, assesses data compiled between 2005 and 2007 through the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A. These researchers found that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.” Instead, the university model is oriented to monetary gain. In a culture enthralled with quantity, it is not surprising that this quantification, rather than the substance such quantification was intended to express, would take precedence. It has trickled down from our universities into secondary and elementary educational systems.
Koc’s experience in high school is a common phenomenon: students often seek good grades at the lowest possible cost. After four years of training, it will be all too tempting for her to continue in this mentality. How will she ever get into the right graduate school or be recruited by a good company otherwise? But perhaps Koc will represent an exception to Arum and Roksa’s findings. Perhaps one night, she will stay up until four a.m. discussing Plato’s Dialogues, Einstein, or the Civil War with her friend–not because she has an assignment on it, but because a question has caught her mind, and will not release her until she has answered it. Perhaps some of these questions will begin to consume her for days and weeks on end, until she finally arrives at a solution, or at least a senior thesis topic. By focusing on the questions and material, she will no longer be simply a good student: she will be a good learner as well.