College professors still overwhelmingly rely on lectures to teach their subject and then wonder why students don’t perform as expected. I was reminded of this after reading an essay by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg (“Beyond the midterms: Helping students overcome the impact of No Child Left Behind,” brookings.edu, Nov. 21).
They say they’ve been teaching and grading undergraduates for more than 35 years. During that time, they’ve seen a decline in the ability of their students to write a coherent and well-structured essay even after distributing a series of questions in advance of the test day. They blame the problem on No Child Left Behind, which relied heavily on multiple-choice tests.
But what about their responsibility in the matter? They claim that with “adequate preparation” everyone should get a good grade. I submit that unless their students are given frequent practice writing coherent and well-structured essays their students will continue to disappoint them. I doubt the two professors do anything even close to that.
The most effective way is to give students appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. If the goal is to have students write an essay that meets their criteria, then it behooves them to provide their students with the opportunity to do exactly that. Instead, they likely lecture what an acceptable essay looks like and then assume their students will miraculously produce one.
When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, we spent afternoons in a writing lab. We were given a topic to write about and then sat down at our typewriters while the professor circled the room making suggestions as he looked over our shoulders. It worked beautifully.
I know that lecture halls are not conducive to such a practice. But why can’t the two professors break up the students into small groups and ask them to compose an essay on their ubiquitous laptops while they visit each group to make comments? The best essay can then be displayed as a model. I know this will never happen because tradition dies hard in higher education.
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