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DEXTER PERKINS: UND should renew focus on teaching and learning

GRAND FORKS — A Herald editorial about UND pointed out that during the past decade, student enrollment has increased significantly while the number of faculty has decreased by a quarter (“Course availability helps or hinders graduation rates,” Page A4, Feb. 26).

Two weeks ago, a UND spokesperson bragged about the university’s ability to do more with less. The university also announced it was going to spend $189 million on new buildings. And recently, two articles pointed out that most UND students do not graduate in four or even five years.

One solution, according to the university, is to tighten up admission standards.

What’s wrong with all these reports? In a word, education. Nobody mentioned education, teaching or learning.

I believe the No. 1 measure of success for UND is how well we educate students. But none of the news stories, statements from the university or editorials mentioned it. The number of students we process or how long they take to graduate are unimportant if students don’t get the education they need while they are here.

And it doesn’t take a university graduate to realize that more students and fewer faculty almost certainly will decrease the quality of education, or to realize that $189 million could hire a lot more professors.

We have some great teachers at UND, but like instructors at just about every other large university in the country, we often don’t do what we should if we truly believed that educating students is our primary goal. We have too many large classes — and even in smaller classes, many instructors use outdated teaching techniques.

For example, in a 1999 book, Robert Leamnson said that “It’s not that lectures are bad, it is that they are inferior to almost any other form of instruction.” But a great many UND classes are based on lectures, and most of those classes rely on multiple-choice exams for assigning grades, even though it is well known that such exams are poor measures of learning.

As reported in the 2012 book, “Academically Adrift,” many students at colleges all across the country enter with poor writing and other communication abilities, an inability to synthesize knowledge and poorly developed critical thinking skills. UND is no exception.

These weaknesses are not the students’ fault and have little to do with intelligence, but instead reflect student preparation before attending college.

Sadly, many students leave college the same way they entered — without fully developed writing, thinking or analyzing skills, as “Academically Adrift” documented. This is mostly the fault of the colleges and instructors — and it doesn’t have to be this way if we are willing to focus much more time on teaching writing, thinking and other key competencies.

We can and should demand more of our students. But this will be effective only if we are willing to work with students to help them succeed.

Some college teachers, including teachers at UND, report that many students lack the motivation needed to stay on task, persevere in the face of difficulties, seek help when needed, meet deadlines, take pride in their work and perform other tasks that can make them successful in school and later in life.

These problems, too, do not reflect students’ innate abilities, but instead reflect their previous schooling and experiences.

Whatever the cause, we have an obligation to teach to students we have today, not the ones we wish we had or the ones we had in the past. So, we need to do things differently.

Some have suggested that we can increase student success by raising admission standards. Then, the students we admit might succeed no matter what we do. That approach may be practical but is irresponsible.

Rather than simply trying to keep unprepared students out, we should be working to help all students become better learners and thinkers. At UND, we have a few small programs designed for first-year students; we need more, and we need to help students in other ways while they are here, too.

And that’s the real point I want to make: We could teach all of our students how to learn, how to improve their reasoning ability, how to communicate and other important skills that will help them go on to successful careers and lives. We could help them develop their motivation as well as the curiosity, attitudes and compassion that will make them good citizens in the future.

And, while doing all this, we still could teach them the skills needed for specific careers.

If we are serious about doing all these things, it will mean focusing more time and resources on learning. We at UND can do much better, but it will require significant change in attitudes and priorities.

Perkins is a professor of geology at UND. In 2010, he was named North Dakota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.