taking the tough route

Wired has a facile article today about the reasons it “sucks” to be an engineering student. One of the reasons is the reality of grade inflation: it’s harder to maintain a high gpa with mathematics, chemistry, and physics courses than it is with the typical liberal arts or English department education. Students from the differing disciplines receive the same level of bachelor’s degree, but there is little comparison in the effort of achievement. This does not have to be so.

I learned this lesson in a year-long experience teaching high school English. Students who had transferred out of honors classes to take “college prep” classes in their senior year–counting on an easier time–had much the same curriculum they had taken in honors, including the same readings. What I found is that they had never actually “read” the books in honors. Each work was covered briefly. Students skimmed, read the cliff notes, listened to what the teacher told them the works were about, and received high grades despite their lack of comprehension. They were tested on what reviewers said the work was about, not on the words and ideas themselves. I learned that understanding text is not the same as comprehending.

When I instituted lessons to insure comprehension, there was much grumbling, particularly from the former honor students. I even had an honors teacher tell me it was counter-productive to spend so much time on Macbeth, that students would become bored if I actually expected them to read the whole thing and attempt to understand it. Other teachers were also of the same opinion that reading comprehension efforts in the classroom were counter-productive due to time constraints. They may be right, but so what? What else should text-based courses in k-12 through university-level be teaching?

If we expect the liberal arts to live up to its claim as worthy of a university degree, comparable to the sciences, then we have to adhere to the rigorousness that comprehension requires.

The Wired article’s most interesting points come in the comments. A few responders state that, for them, understanding math is much easier than reading and writing an essay on Shakespeare’s plays. Comprehension of and writing about ideas can be just as difficult as any math problem or abstract physics problem. If only teaching methods and grading reflected that reality.


Slashdot features the Wired article above, with running content from the mathematically-minded community in the comments section, which is so very interesting. I like what this reader had to say:

In my experience, engineering school isn’t geared specifically for content. It’s designed to teach you some basics (electronics, math, logic, assembly language in my case), and everything done above and beyond that was designed to teach you how to solve problems

This is exactly how text-based courses should be taught. Rigorous training in comprehension teaches us how to solve problems, not only how to appreciate content: function as well as aesthetics.


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