When I received my first test score – a 3 out of 10 -- in college introductory psychology, I realized that I had some hard slogging ahead, especially after the professor told me that "there is a famous Sternberg in psychology and it is obvious there won’t be another one." I eventually pulled a C in the course, which the professor referred to as a "gift." That professor was probably as surprised as I was when I earned an A in his upper-level course, and I certainly was grateful to him when, as chair of the search committee, he hired me back to my alma mater (Yale University) as an assistant professor, where I would remain as a professor for 30 years. My instructor probably wondered, as did I, how I could have done so poorly in the introductory course and so much better in the upper-level course.
There may have been multiple contributing causes to the difference in performance, but one was almost certainly a difference in the styles of learning and thinking that were rewarded in the two courses. The lower-level course was pretty much a straight, memorize-the-book kind of course, whereas the upper-level course was one that encouraged students to formulate their own research studies and to analyze the research studies of others.
Psychologists and educators differ as to whether they believe in the existence of different styles of learning and thinking. Harold Pashler and his colleagues have claimed that the evidence for their existence is weak, but a number of scholars, whose work is summarized in a 2006 book I wrote with Li-fang Zhang entitled The Nature of Intellectual Styles, and in a forthcoming edited Handbook of Intellectual Styles, have provided what we believe to be compelling evidence for the existence and importance of diverse styles of learning and thinking. I have often felt that anyone who has raised two or more children will be aware, at an experiential level, that children learn and think in different ways.
My own thinking about styles of learning and thinking has been driven by my "theory of mental self-government," which I first presented in book format in a volume entitled Thinking Styles. According to this theory, the ways of governments in the world are external reflections of what goes on in people’s minds. There are 13 different styles in the theory, but consider now just three of them. People with a legislative style like to come up with their own ideas and to do things in their own way; people with an executive style prefer to be given more structure and guidance or even told what to do; people with a judicial style like to evaluate and judge things and especially the work of others.
From this point of view, the introductory psychology course I took, like many introductory courses, particularly rewarded students with an executive style – students who liked to memorize what they read in books or heard in lectures. In contrast, the advanced psychology lab course more rewarded students with a legislative or judicial style, in that students came up with ideas for their own experiments and evaluated the research of others.
In a series of studies I conducted with Elena Grigorenko of Yale University and later with Li-fang Zhang of the University of Hong Kong, we had both teachers and students fill out questionnaires based on my theory of mental self-government. In one set of studies with Grigorenko, we then computed a measure of the similarity of the profile of each student to his or her teacher. We also evaluated the styles preferred by the diverse educational institutions on the basis of their mission statements and descriptive literature. There are three findings from that study of particular importance to college classrooms.
The first finding was that institutions differ widely in the styles of thinking that they reward. For example, in the study, one tended to reward a conservative style (characterizing people who like things to remain more or less the way they are) and tended to penalize a liberal style (characterizing people who like things to change), whereas another rewarded exactly the opposite pattern. The correlations of styles with academic success were statistically significant in both schools, but in opposite directions. Teachers also value different styles. Hence it is important for students to select a college or university and, to the extent possible, professors who value at least to some degree the kinds of learning and thinking that best characterize a particular student. Similarly, it is important for professors to select a school at which to work that values the ways in which the professors prefer to think and to teach.
The second relevant finding was that teachers tend to overestimate the extent to which students match their own profile of learning and thinking styles. Teachers often teach in a way that reflects their own preferred styles of learning and thinking, not fully realizing that the styles that they prefer may not correspond to the styles that many of their students prefer. They believe they are teaching in ways that meet the needs of diverse students, when in fact they often are not. In essence, we are at risk for teaching to ourselves rather than to our students.
The third key finding was that teachers tended to grade more highly students whose profiles of learning and thinking better matched their own. In showing this pattern, the teachers were not purposely favoring, nor probably were they even aware they were favoring, people like themselves. But the fundamental principle of interpersonal attraction is that we are more attracted to people who are like ourselves, and so it is not surprising that teachers would value more students who think in the same ways they do. Ideally, teachers will be flexible, both within and between courses. (The psychology professor to whom I referred earlier was flexible between courses, but not within each course.)
Where these preferences particularly become a problem is when the styles that lead to success in a particular course do not match the styles that will be needed for success either in more advanced courses in the same discipline, or, worse, in the occupation for which the course prepares students. For example, in most occupations, one does not sit around taking short-answer or multiple-choice tests on the material one needs to succeed in the job. The risk, then, is that schools will reward students whose styles match the way they are taught but not the requirements of the work for which the teaching prepares them. As an example, 35 years after receiving the C in introductory psychology, I was president of the American Psychological Association — the largest association of psychologists in the world — and did not once have to sit down and take fact-based quizzes on the material I needed to succeed on the job. Indeed, the factual content that would be taught in an introductory-psychology course, and in many other courses, had changed radically in the 35 years that had passed since I took the course.
In my own teaching, I have had run-ins with the importance of styles. For example, when I first started teaching introductory psychology, I taught it the way I ideally would have liked the course, with lots of emphasis on "legislative" activities — students coming up with their own ideas for structuring their learning. It became obvious to me within a couple of weeks that the course was failing to meet the learning needs of the students. I later realized it was for the same reason that the introductory psychology course I had taken had not worked for me. I was teaching to my own style of learning, not to the diversity of students’ styles of learning. I now try to teach in ways that encourage a mix of legislative, executive, and judicial activities. For example, students come up with their own ideas for papers, but also have to answer some short-answer questions on tests and have to analyze the theories and research of various investigators.
Similarly, in teaching an advanced statistics course, I had pretty much pegged some of the students as "stronger learners" and other students as "weaker learners." One day, I read about how to teach a technique I was covering geometrically rather than in the algebraic way I had been teaching that and other material in the course. When I started teaching the material geometrically, I found that many of the students I had identified as "strong learners" were having difficulty, whereas many of the students I had identified as "weak learners" were easily absorbing the material. I had confounded strength of students’ learning skills with match of their learning style to the way I happened to be teaching.
In sum, styles of learning and thinking matter in the classroom. We best serve our students when we teach in a way that enables all students to capitalize on their preferred styles at least some of the time, but that recognizes that students must acquire flexibility in their use of styles and so cannot always learn in their preferred way. My own institution, Oklahoma State University, has a Learning and Student Success Opportunity Center that intervenes with students in ways specifically oriented toward meeting the needs of their diverse learning and thinking styles. Our Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence teaches teachers how to meet the stylistic needs of students. Our goal in higher education should be to prepare students for the diverse demands later courses and careers will make on their learning and thinking styles so that they can be successful not just in our course, but in their later studies and work.
Robert J. Sternberg
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University.
I’m not sure that I would have graduated from high school if it hadn't been for wrestling and lacrosse. During high school, where I performed very poorly academically, I wanted to enter our county's vocational education program and get a welding certificate. However, students had to be bussed to the county's vocational training center, and the buses returned too late in the day for vocational students to participate in athletics. Because I was literally in love with sport, I remained enrolled in "college prep" classes.
Toby (not his real name) flunked a graduate course I taught last year. He failed the in-class assignment (a mid-term essay exam) as well as the out-of-class assignments (a couple of case analyses and a take-home exam). Reviewing Toby’s work was excruciating; extracting coherence from his paragraphs was a futile exercise, even with repeated readings. Theoretical analysis in his writing was virtually nonexistent. Put simply, this was an academic train wreck.
As I interacted with Toby over the course of the term, I kept asking myself, “How did this pleasant young man ever manage to obtain an undergraduate degree?” He certainly had one, awarded by a regionally accredited institution (not mine). And how did he get into yet another institution (my institution, but not my program) to pursue a master’s degree?
Welcome to the world of Lower Education. Toby’s case may be extreme, but it underscores a fundamental reality that shapes a major segment of higher education in the United States: Colleges cannot survive without students, so colleges that have a difficult time competing for the “best” students compete for the “next best” ones. And colleges that have trouble securing the “next best” students focus on the “next-next best” ones, and on and on and on, until a point is reached where the word “best” is no longer relevant. When this occurs, students who are not prepared to be in college, and certainly not prepared to be in graduate school, end up in our classrooms.
This is not startling news. It’s a rare college or university that does not have an academic remediation/triage center of some kind on campus, where an enormous amount of time is spent teaching students skills they should have learned in high school. To be sure, many of these unprepared students drop out of college before graduation, but a significant percentage do make it to the finish line. Some of the latter will have indeed earned their degree through great effort and what they’ve learned from us. But others will have muddled through without displaying the skills we should require of all students. My 35 years of university experience tell me that in these cases faculty collusion is often a contributing factor.
What is the nature of this collusion? In far too many instances, little is required of students in terms of the quality and quantity of their academic work, little is produced, and the little produced is, to put it mildly, graded generously. Some might argue that the mind-numbing proportions of A’s we often see these days, along with the relative scarcity of low grades, is a reflection of more effective teaching strategies being employed by professors, coupled with a growing population of bright students committed to academic excellence. Unfortunately, this uplifting scenario strikes me as much less persuasive than one that implicates factors such as transactional/contract grading (“5 article reviews equal an A, 4 equals a B,” etc.), faculty who wish to avoid arguing with increasingly aggressive students about grades, faculty who believe that awarding high grades generates positive student evaluations, faculty who express their philosophical opposition to grading by giving high grades, and the growing percentage of courses taught by part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members who might see the assigning of a conspicuous number of low grades as a threat to their being re-hired.
One of the most pernicious consequences of this state of affairs is cynicism toward higher education among those most directly responsible for delivering higher education -- the faculty. Research suggests that one of the most powerful sources of motivation for outstanding employee performance is goal/value internalization. This occurs when espoused organizational goals and values are “owned” by organizational members, who then strive to achieve the goals and live up to the values in their work. Colleges and universities have traditionally been in a privileged position with respect to drawing upon this type of motivation, given their educational mission. The beliefs associated with this mission can include a sizable chunk of myth, but as societal myths go, the ones embraced by higher education (e.g., the ability of research, knowledge, and analytical skill to enhance the public good) tend to have high social value.
In the current zeitgeist, however, many faculty are dismayed to see the provision of educational credentials trumping the actual provision of education. (Fifty might not be the new forty, but the master’s degree is certainly the new bachelor’s.) This perception is enhanced by a proliferation of curriculum-delivery formats (weekend courses, accelerated and online programs, etc.) whose pedagogical soundness often receives much less attention than the ability of the formats to penetrate untapped educational markets. It is difficult for a strong commitment to academic integrity to thrive in such environments.
Faculty who are distressed over all of this should not wait for presidents, provosts and deans to rescue higher education from itself. Moreover, regional accrediting bodies, despite their growing emphasis on outcomes assessment, do not typically focus on courses, programs and admissions standards in a way that allows them to adequately address these issues. For the most part it is faculty who teach the classes, design and implement curricula, and, at least at the graduate level, establish admissions policies for programs. What should faculty do? I offer three modest suggestions:
At the departmental level, work to develop a culture where expectations for student performance are high. When faculty members believe that teaching challenging courses is “the way we do things here,” they are less likely to offer non-challenging ones.
Advocate throughout the institution for the centrality of academic quality to policy making, program development, and program implementation. The question “What are we doing to ensure that X embodies a commitment to academic excellence?” should never be left implicit.
Create opportunities for faculty and administrators to come together in small groups to explore the issues raised by Lower Education. These two constituencies need to find a way to collaborate more effectively, and the mutual stereotyping that frequently characterizes their relationship represents a major obstacle. If we want our conversations relevant to Lower Education to change, let’s experiment with changing the structure within which some of those conversations take place.
Contemplating Lower Education reminds us that faculty members will always face pressures to compromise their academic principles. But explanations of unethical behavior should never be confused with justifications for such behavior. Ultimately, it was the faculty who gave Toby his credential of a bachelor’s degree. They shouldn’t have.
Michael Morris is professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, where he directs the master’s program in community psychology. Since 1998 he has served as an evaluator for NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
I am an Edu-Traitor. I am a college professor. What I am about to say may well be perceived as supporting attitudes thought to be against the interests and well-being of college professors. Here goes: I do not think going to university should be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education. The importance of going to college should be intrinsically the rationale by which we justify public support of higher education. Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.
Do I think it is criminal that we are de-funding higher education now? Yes. Do I think it is appalling to think we are charging larger and larger tuitions at state institutions (and private ones, but that is a different issue)? Of course. Is it shocking that such a rich country is not supporting free education? Absolutely. Do I believe there are benefits that accrue from a highly educated workforce, with an appreciation of an array of subjects (liberal arts to computer science) that are not strictly pre-professional training? Definitely. But here’s the Edu-Traitor part: Do I believe we need to justify the investment in higher education in terms of it being a necessity for the 21st century for everyone? Absolutely not.
We justify higher ed so often because many of the careers of the 21st century need (reformed, definitely it needs to be reformed) higher ed. But many occupations do not. That is not my main concern, however. I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education, from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of, "Will this help you get into college?" The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, "college material."
The world of work -- the world we live in -- is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nanny’s, elder-care professionals, nurse's aids, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.
All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called "manual skills" not just at the bottom but absent.
Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.
I have been teaching in higher ed since I was 25. I am a passionate and dedicated college teacher, a researcher, and I’ve been privileged to teach at many kinds and types of institutions. And I think we have education all wrong. Since the end of the 19th century, with the birth of the modern research university and the beginning of professional schools of education and graduate schools for training teachers, the grail of all education, from preschool to the present, is implicitly higher education. All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for "brilliance." For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.
The abolishing of art, music, physical education, and shop from schools means that the requirement for excellence has shrunk more and more right at the time when creativity, imagination, dexterity, adaptability to change, and all the rest require more, not less, diversity. The shrinking of "what counts" would be counterproductive and dehumanizing in any era, but in this world of constant, global change it is simply destructive. (For an excellent and inspiring and witty discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Ken Robinson’s TED talk.)
By funneling all the different ways we learn the world into a very few subjects that count and are tested – what I’ll call "pre-professorial training" – we make education hell for so many kids, we undermine their skills and their knowledge, we underscore their resentment, we emphasize class division and hierarchy, and we shortchange their future and ours, underestimating talents that should be nourished and thereby forcing them to fight for themselves against odds, giving them obstacles to their own integrity and self-worth and value to fight when we should be giving them inspiration to flourish.
I’m appalled that we judge learning in such narrow collegiate terms as that which is taught in college and "gets you into" college. Decoupling the goal of "going to college" from the goal of “learning” is not actually detrimental to the importance of higher ed for society; it’s not even detrimental to college professors, those putatively in a position to be most privileged by the current system. The opposite is the case. For now, many kids who have the means are going to college because they are supposed to. That’s not good for anyone. Conversely, many brilliant kids who passionately want to go to college cannot afford to. Another travesty. And, finally, many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades, the skills, and the careers that inspire them.
Right now, they feel like failures. They are not. They are only "failures" if judged by the narrow hierarchy of values by which we currently construct educational success. As an educator, I want to change that hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not.
Many of the students in today's college writing classroom are career-oriented and have little interest in literature; they also may not be native speakers of English. A traditional approach to teaching writing -- through reading and writing about classic literature -- may not reach these students.
The American Association of University Professors is today issuing a report that finds Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge violated the rights of two faculty members who, in separate cases, took stands that were unpopular with administrators.