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A Lot of Stress, Not a Lot of Learning

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The front page of The New York Times features a story about the stress levels of American college students. College freshmen are apparently just overmedicated, tightly-wound balls of tension and fear. But then, they're also not learning anything.

This disturbing stress information comes from the Higher Education Research Institute's "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010." The report indicates that:

First-year college students' self-ratings of their emotional health dropped to record low levels in 2010.

...

Only 51.9 percent of students reported that their emotional health was in the "highest 10 percent" or "above average," a drop of 3.4 percentage points from 2009 and a significant decline from the 63.6 percent who placed themselves in those categories when self-ratings of emotional health were first measured in 1985.

College freshman eagerly seek the help of college counselors and take wide-ranging prescription drugs to combat feelings of crushing anxiety.

Oddly, all this stress is for naught. Earlier this month the Social Science Research Council put out its own report indicating that college students didn't actually learn much in college. Some 45 percent of students showed no improvement in critical thinking or complex reasoning from the beginning of college to the end of their freshman years.

Some took this to mean that college courses were too easy. George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy wrote that,

At many colleges and universities, students who are academically weak and disengaged constitute the bulk of the student body, enjoying themselves at the expense of their families and taxpayers. Wishing to keep such "students" happy and enrolled, many schools have acquiesced in or even encouraged the faculty to lower academic standards. High grades are encouraged lest students get angry and drop out when graded on their true performance. Intellectually vapid courses and programs that will attract customers have proliferated.

Slackers, right. Wait, then why are kids so stressed out?

In fact, people like Leef are largely wrong. Actually college courses are very demanding; they're just not very good.

Most college freshmen now spend the majority of their class time in soul-crushing courses that are bewilderingly large. Survey courses at universities of significant size now routinely contain 200 or 300 students.

In classes like these, the whole grade is generally determined by the midterm and the final examination, exclusively. This means that no one cares if you're learning the material from week to week and it's hard to address any initial problems encountered. It encourages cramming and discourages further inquiry or independent study.

So yea, these courses are really hard and very stressful. But let's not confuse difficult with valuable. Large survey courses are also pretty bad at imparting students with actual knowledge and skills.

We shouldn't be surprised that this isn't working very well.