Friday, February 17, 2006

Were students better in the past?

Guest Post by Sven-Ake Gustafson

During my active time I have taught in several countries including Sweden, Norway, the US, Germany and Australia. In all these countries there have been frequent complaints that students perform worse than in other countries and worse than ever before. It is often stated that in Russia, Eastern Europe and Japan students are much more diligent than in the West. Further, many statistics have been published, purporting to show that the quality of students is deteriorating by demonstrating that the average student performs worse with every year.

I doubt that this sad conclusion is established and I do not believe that it is correct to compare averages over the whole student population. Instead one should take into account that times are changing. When I finished high school in Malmö in Sweden in 1957 about 5% of the annual cohort went on to universities and colleges. At present this proportion is about 50% and, at least in Denmark, the government has the goal that 70% should get a bachelor's degree. The situation is similar in the other Nordic countries.

Universities have established programs in fields other than the classical ones which were studied in the first two decades after the Second World War. Maybe the number of students taking the classical subjects (for example, Economics, Astronomy and Theology) has not grown very much.

In Stavanger, Norway, the majority of students take new subjects like Service Management, Nursing and Entrepreneurship. We have students doing Petroleum Engineering, Biology and Chemistry but the demand for courses in advanced Applied Mathematics is low.

An interesting trend is that women do better than men and when they have advanced through the academic system we will see female professors in growing numbers.

I propose a different approach to the study of academic quality and its change over time: One should try to determine the absolute number of people who carry out successful studies e.g. of certain courses in Mathematics and compare their performance with what was achieved formerly. Maybe this will show that not everything goes down the drain as some fear. I would not be overly surprised if one then would establish that more people master, for example, the theory of analytic functions, which has applications in many branches of science and engineering, than ever before. Another interesting task would be to estimate the general level of knowledge in the entire population and study how it changes with time. I have no idea of how this can be done in practice.

(Professor Sven-Ake Gustafson is a mathematician I first met at the ANU in 1975 and who is interested in numerical mathematics. He now works at Stavanger Norway).

Rejoinder: Harry Clarke

Sven, Of course if a wider range of students are being taught a particular discipline at any point of time one might expect some diminution in skill levels among students. I think this sometimes happens via dumbing down of educational curricula but these reflect educational supply-side developments not reductions in skill levels.

Indeed, there is some evidence that skill levels are in fact increasing.

The Flynn effect suggests that scores of different groups of people on standard IQ tests have consistently increased over past decades. An average increase of over three IQ points per decade, is found for most intelligence tests delivered to most groups. The increase was highest, in Belgium, Holland and Israel and lowest in Denmark and Sweden. Moreover the increase has been accelerating. In Holland, Flynn found data spanning a century and concluded that someone who would be considered bright a century ago, should now be considered a moron!

With the accelerating production of scientific discoveries, technological innovations and cultural developments, the Flynn effect does not seem absurd. Maybe intellectual progress is caused by longer schooling, stimulation by media, improved health and nutrition and improved care of children by parents. Gary Becker has suggested that parents invest more in individual children rather than having many children. That life is more cognitively stimulating for many children might boost general knowledge, abstract reasoning and intellectual ability.

I don’t know anything about evidence of particular educational achievement by cultural type. There is the largely-discredited Bell Curve literature that looks at the relation between race and intelligence but you are, I suspect, thinking of cultural impacts (e.g. having Asian cultural values) on educational achievement. I'd be interested in getting some basic information on such issues.


Mike Hart said...

Sven and Harry, interesting discussion point. There seems to be some disquiet or anxiety about tertiary standards and educational attaintments generally, in Australia and the western world. I agree with Sven, it is not established and not supported by the students I work with.

I have been teaching and training people for some time but in the area of applied postgraduate skills. I train professional pilots to fly high speed aircraft. It is non commercial, that is you cannot pay to gain entrance, it is by merit. Two things distinguish it from some other educational endeavours, high intellectual entry requirements accompanied by top level educational qualifications. So we get to see both the output from the schools system without tertiary qualifications and those with university degrees. All entry students have to come to grips with very demanding high level mathematics, engineering, general science in a very short time period. Both groups do equally well. Our overall pass and fail rate moves up and down but does occur consistently, so I can only conclude some years the students are either brighter or more motivated other years they are not. We have not changed our assessment procedures except marginally to rebuild our curriculum to conform with competency based education criteria. Their is one standard pass or fail oral-applied for their final assessment. Some years the pool of candidates is deepened by lowering entry criteria marginally really only in percentile achievement rankings but that does not affect outcomes either.

I can't say I have ever seen any race effect, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

I actually think current young grads and students are sharper, have better knowledge levels and learn as well but seem emotionally younger than their skills, but then maybe I am getting older.

Sven-Ake Gustafson said...

Thank you for your message. My contribution has appeared correctly. Your answer is very encouraging since I have never heard about the Flynn effect, which points to a bright future. Some of my colleagues often complain about their terrible students and it is even complained that knowledge of mathematics may get extinct with time in Norway. Similar views are also often found in the Notes of the American Mathematical Society. I have also pointed to a more obvious reason for less encouraging results. Our students study engineering and take several courses each semester. I figut\re that we who learnt mathematics at a classical university had about 4 times as many hour to learn the same topics as our students have now. When I was to teach the First Course in Numerical Mathematics I realised that the students could only spend 8 hour each week on my course which is 20% of the full course-load. Thus the total time available was 13 x 8 =104 hours plus some time for preparing for the final exam. I selected the topics according to what I believed could be mastered in this time and the flunk-rate of my course rarely surpassed 5%. Another problem is that students seem to quickly forget even basic facts and seem unable to look for them in the literature or in Google. It is also possible that those who are interested in mathematics and science choose other universities than ours.
The upshot of my earlier remark is that we should study how the performance of the best students, say the best 10%, develops over time, not some averages.