Why are so many university students unprepared?

I came across this post yesterday at one of my favourite blogs — Ivory Tower Blues (ITB)  — by two Ontario professors. They and I have been complaining for some time now that far too many of today’s post-secondary students are completely unprepared for college or university.

In their most recent post, however, I was surprised to find out there is someone — who actually represents university teachers — who is denying the problem is any worse than it was in the past. The name discussed at ITB was that of  James Turk, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.  

That said, I have no doubt that the unreadiness sentiment is held by more professors throughout Canada and the U.S., than not. In fact, not long ago, I published an article here at Crux of the Matter titled “How to write a college/university essay” — in response to similar complaints in the media. 

So, what exactly are the problems? Are high school students being granted credits for little or no work based on the Ontario government’s “no-fail,” policy? Are high school students being allowed to complete independent study and/or make up courses with little or no supervision? Are university teachers expecting more from their students now than in the past? Or, is it some of all of the above? 

Whatever the case, before anyone is tempted to blame everything on high school teachers, I would ask visitors to first check out this link to the high school curriculum chart  for English — up to page 26 of 221 pages. It clearly shows the kinds of reading, research and writing skills that are supposed to be taught in Ontario’s high schools — no doubt similar to what is expected elsewhere. But, are those skills actually being taught to all students who will attend college or university?

Then, there is the “attitude” problem which may appear as though students are unready. For instance, as far back as the mid 1990’s (when I was still teaching undergraduate students), I began to notice a new pattern of behaviour. I referred to it at the time as “the chip on the shoulder problem.” Students would miss 50% or more of their classes and then seem surprised when they did badly on an exam or paper — often saying they had expected an “A.”

The crux of the matter is then, apart from the few who dismiss the charge of student unreadiness, why are so many college and university professors today finding that students are not prepared for the rigors of post secondary study?

20 thoughts on “Why are so many university students unprepared?

  1. We may need to re-evaluate how we give out degrees. When we reduced high school from five to four years, we didn’t adjust post-secondary education to reflect the lost year in high school. In the US, a bachelor of arts degree takes four years to complete. The same degree in Ontario takes 3 years to complete. Perhaps we need to increase post-secondary education so that a BA degree takes 4 years and an honours degree which takes 4 years right now should take 5 years to complete. Returning Grade 13 or OAC in the form of first year university would help deal with many of the problems facing students and universities today.

    I also agree with you Sandy about ” the chip on the shoulder problem”. Many students do not take reponsibility for their problems. They blame everyone else but themselves. In this age of technology as well, they feel that they don’t have to put in the same effort since everything they need is online. It would be interesting to see the percentage of students who borrow books from their university library. I suspect that the percentage has gone done over the last 10 to 15 years.

    It’s also interesting that the increasing “chip on the shoulder” problem may also relate to the increase in parental involvement in post-secondary university. I know people here are for parent choice and involvement, but university may be crossing the line. Many parents see it as an investment and want a good return. I have read about parents asking professors about their child’s marks – I thought university was a time to become independent and prepare for adulthood?

    I had an interesting conversation with a teacher a month or two ago. She mentioned how she had a phone call from a parent who was upset with the evaluation the teacher had given her child. The parent was not from one of her students, but the parent of her student-teacher.

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  2. We may need to re-evaluate how we give out degrees. When we reduced high school from five to four years, we didn’t adjust post-secondary education to reflect the lost year in high school. In the US, a bachelor of arts degree takes four years to complete. The same degree in Ontario takes 3 years to complete. Perhaps we need to increase post-secondary education so that a BA degree takes 4 years and an honours degree which takes 4 years right now should take 5 years to complete. Returning Grade 13 or OAC in the form of first year university would help deal with many of the problems facing students and universities today.

    I also agree with you Sandy about ” the chip on the shoulder problem”. Many students do not take reponsibility for their problems. They blame everyone else but themselves. In this age of technology as well, they feel that they don’t have to put in the same effort since everything they need is online. It would be interesting to see the percentage of students who borrow books from their university library. I suspect that the percentage has gone done over the last 10 to 15 years.

    It’s also interesting that the increasing “chip on the shoulder” problem may also relate to the increase in parental involvement in post-secondary university. I know people here are for parent choice and involvement, but university may be crossing the line. Many parents see it as an investment and want a good return. I have read about parents asking professors about their child’s marks – I thought university was a time to become independent and prepare for adulthood?

    I had an interesting conversation with a teacher a month or two ago. She mentioned how she had a phone call from a parent who was upset with the evaluation the teacher had given her child. The parent was not from one of her students, but the parent of her student-teacher.

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  3. Matt – I hear you. I too had phone calls from parents when I taught university — usually mothers. I am not blaming mothers but I suspect the fathers simply didn’t want to do it.

    Anyway, I have had my share of mothers who actually made appointments with me. I would go through the assignment or exam, what I had expected, what the student had done and then say what should have been done. Most accepted my explanation.

    However, I had one mother “cry” because her daughter would lose her scholarship. I explained that it was her daughter’s responsibility and the consequences of her missing so many classes.

    Nevertheless, I gave the daughter a chance to do make up work. I typed out a plan and had the student sign for it. I also had the mother sign.

    Then, a week or so later, I got a phone call from the VP-academic about the situation. I explained what had happened and what I had done. His remark was that I did more than most faculty would have done. And, that was the end of it. Until three days before the end of class and the student handed in the make-up work.

    The good news is that she did an excellent job. Which means, she had the ability, just not the commitment.

    And, remember, this was at the end of her third year of a four year teacher education concurrent B.A./B.Ed program — meaning she would have been over 21 and she is probably teaching in the system as I write!

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  4. Matt – I hear you. I too had phone calls from parents when I taught university — usually mothers. I am not blaming mothers but I suspect the fathers simply didn’t want to do it.

    Anyway, I have had my share of mothers who actually made appointments with me. I would go through the assignment or exam, what I had expected, what the student had done and then say what should have been done. Most accepted my explanation.

    However, I had one mother “cry” because her daughter would lose her scholarship. I explained that it was her daughter’s responsibility and the consequences of her missing so many classes.

    Nevertheless, I gave the daughter a chance to do make up work. I typed out a plan and had the student sign for it. I also had the mother sign.

    Then, a week or so later, I got a phone call from the VP-academic about the situation. I explained what had happened and what I had done. His remark was that I did more than most faculty would have done. And, that was the end of it. Until three days before the end of class and the student handed in the make-up work.

    The good news is that she did an excellent job. Which means, she had the ability, just not the commitment.

    And, remember, this was at the end of her third year of a four year teacher education concurrent B.A./B.Ed program — meaning she would have been over 21 and she is probably teaching in the system as I write!

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  5. It’s scary to think that a 21 year old needs to sign a contract to make up the work. It’s even scarier that her mom had to sign the contract as well. Hopefully the student learned about commitment (which she should have learned years earlier).

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  6. It’s scary to think that a 21 year old needs to sign a contract to make up the work. It’s even scarier that her mom had to sign the contract as well. Hopefully the student learned about commitment (which she should have learned years earlier).

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  7. Matt — The signing was for legal reasons to cover me by verifying that the student and the mother had read what I had written. It wasn’t actually a contract for work to be done. That was totally up to her — which she eventually did.

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  8. Matt — The signing was for legal reasons to cover me by verifying that the student and the mother had read what I had written. It wasn’t actually a contract for work to be done. That was totally up to her — which she eventually did.

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  9. As an adult student coming back to school after nearly 20 years, (economy etc..) I am appalled by the lack of critical thinking, the butchering of English and the math (in)abilities of my younger classmates.

    When college level students have to be reminded of the correct usage of there and their, why it is important to think for yourself and what the marks on a ruler stand for, something is amiss.

    What strikes me the most is the lack of general cultural knowledge. I expected to be seen as being from a different planet and not up to speed with what is going on in my classmate’s world, but really..

    I was one of five ( out of forty) that passed a fifty question test on Canadian civics, and the only one who passed the world equivalent.

    My examples were all things taught to me by the sixth grade.What happened? These people are twenty years old!

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  10. As an adult student coming back to school after nearly 20 years, (economy etc..) I am appalled by the lack of critical thinking, the butchering of English and the math (in)abilities of my younger classmates.

    When college level students have to be reminded of the correct usage of there and their, why it is important to think for yourself and what the marks on a ruler stand for, something is amiss.

    What strikes me the most is the lack of general cultural knowledge. I expected to be seen as being from a different planet and not up to speed with what is going on in my classmate’s world, but really..

    I was one of five ( out of forty) that passed a fifty question test on Canadian civics, and the only one who passed the world equivalent.

    My examples were all things taught to me by the sixth grade.What happened? These people are twenty years old!

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  11. I just put up another post on “cheating for sale — about the student writing services on the Internet.” I’ve been meaning to write about this topic and felt it related somewhat to this thread.

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  12. I just put up another post on “cheating for sale — about the student writing services on the Internet.” I’ve been meaning to write about this topic and felt it related somewhat to this thread.

    Like

  13. Procrastination and the removal of Responsibility from our households is playing it’s part from reading through this and knowing how my peers took on University and College 20 years ago when I was in school… The current generation has an abundance of the first ability and is extremely lacking in the second one… But who’s to blame? Parents? Society? the system? All of the above?

    Our culture at its very core back in the 70’s, started down the slippery slope of blaming everyone else for our faults… It’s not my fault, my dad’s a drunk… It’s not my fault, my mommy beat me… The big one that most celebrities have jumped on is being sexually abused as a child….give me a frickin break people… if you had bad parents it’s not an excuse to go out into the world and think the world owes you something more… news flash and wake up call…and please feel free to quote me on this… The World Owes us Nothing!!! If you want something, have the perseverance and determination to go out and do what you need to do to go and get it.

    Now apply that to education and schools and the “no one fails” principle and there’s the recipe that’s created what University’s are now dealing with today… and why students of foreign enrollments are doing better than kids raised in Canada and the USA.

    We’ve become lazy…and my spelling is proof… 🙂

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  14. Procrastination and the removal of Responsibility from our households is playing it’s part from reading through this and knowing how my peers took on University and College 20 years ago when I was in school… The current generation has an abundance of the first ability and is extremely lacking in the second one… But who’s to blame? Parents? Society? the system? All of the above?

    Our culture at its very core back in the 70’s, started down the slippery slope of blaming everyone else for our faults… It’s not my fault, my dad’s a drunk… It’s not my fault, my mommy beat me… The big one that most celebrities have jumped on is being sexually abused as a child….give me a frickin break people… if you had bad parents it’s not an excuse to go out into the world and think the world owes you something more… news flash and wake up call…and please feel free to quote me on this… The World Owes us Nothing!!! If you want something, have the perseverance and determination to go out and do what you need to do to go and get it.

    Now apply that to education and schools and the “no one fails” principle and there’s the recipe that’s created what University’s are now dealing with today… and why students of foreign enrollments are doing better than kids raised in Canada and the USA.

    We’ve become lazy…and my spelling is proof… 🙂

    Like

  15. Thx Sandy… Now I’m off to find somewhere to rant regarding our first Olympic Gold in Vancouver and Quebec complaining there’s not enough French representation at the games…FDLMAO…every announcement starts in French and really it’s not the third or even 4th most common language in BC…

    I live in Vancouver….the Quebec complaint is we only have 15% of the volinteers able to speak french… if you watched the openning of the games or were there live you might expect to leave the show and bump into either a native or French Canadian… odds are the first people you saw were Asian or from India… they make up 50% of Vancouvers population now… since the people working the games are for the most part volenteers the 15% are likely civil servants who were drafted and still on the provincial payroll… there are very few French Canadians in Vancouver and likely for the simple fact their province is on the other side of the country some 3000 miles away and it’s hard to find good beaver tail or Poutine here…don’t get me started on Pepsi… 😛

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  16. Thx Sandy… Now I’m off to find somewhere to rant regarding our first Olympic Gold in Vancouver and Quebec complaining there’s not enough French representation at the games…FDLMAO…every announcement starts in French and really it’s not the third or even 4th most common language in BC…

    I live in Vancouver….the Quebec complaint is we only have 15% of the volinteers able to speak french… if you watched the openning of the games or were there live you might expect to leave the show and bump into either a native or French Canadian… odds are the first people you saw were Asian or from India… they make up 50% of Vancouvers population now… since the people working the games are for the most part volenteers the 15% are likely civil servants who were drafted and still on the provincial payroll… there are very few French Canadians in Vancouver and likely for the simple fact their province is on the other side of the country some 3000 miles away and it’s hard to find good beaver tail or Poutine here…don’t get me started on Pepsi… 😛

    Like

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