Are Students Getting Worse??
I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy on this topic, but I got something via e-mail yesterday that seemed to offer concrete evidence that, at least in calculus, today's students are worse than their counterparts 17 years ago. Professor Stephen Wilson of Johns Hopkins University gave his 1989 calculus test to his 2006 students. The full report can be found by following this link, but I'll try to give the 'highlights' here.
The course was Calculus 1 and the student population in 1989 was much the same as 2006. Professor Wilson notes the following similarities:
(1) SAT math scores : 662.6 in 1989 and 664.9 in 2006
(2) Class Size: 147 1989; 180 2006 both representing about 23% of the freshman class.
(3) Both classes took the same 77 point final exam
Here is a comparison of the raw scores on the exam:
Wilson goes on to give possible explanations for the discrepancy in grades:
It must be confronted that the 2006 students did not do as well as the
1989 students, no matter how one tries to explain it. An easy
explanation is to assume that this is the result of a slowly
degenerating mathematics professor. I am not inclined to look
favorably upon that explanation. Aside from my belief that I
get better at teaching every successive year, I received a
teaching award, The Johns Hopkins University Homewood
Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching, in 2000-
closer to 2006 than 1989. My student course evaluations have
remained consistently high (although the results for this class
will not be available for months).
If the percentage of Arts and Sciences freshmen taking
Calculus had increased, then we might be encountering weaker
students who, in 1989, would not have taken Calculus at all.
Since the percentage in Calculus I is the same, this explanation
would require an increased percentage of freshmen taking
Calculus II. However, the corresponding fall semester
percentages for Calculus II are 11.1% for 1989 and 11.4%
I think it is unlikely that the phenomenon we are seeing is a result of
something happening at JHU once students arrive. I am inclined to
conclude that these 2006 students are not as well prepared as the
corresponding group was in 1989, despite there being many more
American high school graduates now and significantly more
competition to get into JHU today than ever before.
In the end, Wilson blames the decrease on the use of calculators for the SAT and also on an overall decline in math education in the US. Clearly this is but one study, but it's an interesting one and it would be nice to see this repeated across campuses. In my opinion, I am not so sure that students are less well educated now than in 1989 or 1979, but they do enter college with a different set of skills and expectations.