THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 3, Fall 1991

William A. McEachern, Editor

Introduction

Incoming freshman, on average, appear less prepared for college work than ever. As you may have read, the National Assessment of Educational Progress recently surveyed the math proficiency of 126,000 students across the United States in grades 4, 8, and 12. Test scores have declined since the first such tests were given in 1973. The majority of 12th graders performed below the seventh-grade level; only five percent of them could do pre-calculus work.

This poor high school background is not limited to math. Results from the first-ever national tests in history and literature are equally troublesome. Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, in their book What Do 17-Year-Olds Know?, report that only one in three could place the Civil War as occurring sometime between 1850 and 1900. Only one in seven could identify Alexis de Tocqueville.

Though one must be careful about inferring casualty, there is a positive correlation between scores on these tests and time spent doing homework. Fewer than 40 percent of high school seniors average at least an hour per day on homework. Students on average spend triple the time watching TV as doing homework. Those who watched TV six or more hours per day had the lowest test scores. On average, high school seniors also spend more time on part-time jobs than on homework.

Thus, many students fail to develop good study habits in high school. Because of current demographics, however, few colleges can afford to be truly selective, so a mediocre high school performance is not necessarily a bar to college admission. The challenge for us is how to teach those who enter college with such a limited background and with such poor study habits.

My focus here is to study habits. One way to help students is to be quite explicit about what is expected from them. The place to begin is with the syllabus, which should provide detailed guidance about reading assignments, exams, and other information that might help the student who has little idea what to expect. In your syllabus or in your introductory remarks, you might also convey the nature of your exams and the level of mastery you expect. As Art Welch of Penn State says, our course should not be like some giant Easter egg hunt.

You might consider suggesting no only how to study but how much to study. I tell students that when they read the textbook, they should assume that every paragraph makes a point. As they read, they should be continually asking themselves, "What's the point?" With regard to graphs, I tell students that the level of mastery I expect is the ability to draw, label, and explain each graph without reference to the book or to class notes.

In terms of how much to study, I tell students I expect them to spend at least two hours studying for every hour of class. Student study time is the most elastic resource in the course, and it often goes untapped. We should keep in mind that even full-time students who never miss a class spend less than 10 percent of their total time in class. If we don't lay claim to some of the remaining 90 percent as study time for our course, other instructors and other activities surely will.

Incidentally, one instructor I know assures students that they will not be tested on material not covered in class. So what's to study? Review class notes? Read that subset of the chapter covered in class? Students no doubt find this approach comforting since it's so much like high school. (For more about study habits, see "The Grapevine.")

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