In the past five
years or so, I've become increasingly aware of a gradual decline
in the performance of students, especially at the undergraduate level.
And I'm not alone. Colleagues in other disciplinesfrom engineering
to musichave made similar observations. Yet, when we look at enrollment
statistics of engineering students at my institution, indicators such
as standardized test scores and class rankings suggest that we are getting
better and stronger engineering students. So what's going on?
Recently, I taught
a senior level course in vibrations, a class I last taught 10 years
ago. The basic content of the course had changed little over time. In
contrast to the gradual decline I've seen in courses I teach frequently,
the difference in performance between now and 10 years ago was abundantly
clear. The amount of material I could cover was less, and students were
not grasping the basic concepts as well as before. Although the computer
projects were the same as those I assigned 10 years ago and could be
done by writing less codethanks to new softwarefewer students
submitted their projects on time or did them correctly. At Rutgers,
like at most universities today, students have unrestricted access to
computers that are loaded with sophisticated software that makes programming
easier. Even though these students have much more experience using computers,
their programming skills weren't as good. Abstract concepts, such
as coordinate transformations, seemed to fly right over their heads.
started me thinking about why today's generation doesn't perform
as well as earlier ones, and I believe I have an explanation. It's
not that the level of education or the competence of students has changed
that much. What is different now is how students think and what their
expectations are. I believe this has come about because of computers
and the information revolution. In 1983, in K-12 institutions, there
was one computer for every 125 students, on average. By 1995, there
was a computer for about every nine students, and that ratio has since
been cut in half.
students are used to getting information quickly. They no longer have
to memorize things, even certain basics such as the value of the sine
function at 60 degrees. They can get the answer from their computers.
Because of the
revolution in computer technology, today's young people think,
learn, and visualize differently than their peers of earlier years.
Because information can be found so easily and quickly, they often skip
over the basics. For the most part, abstract concepts that require deeper
thought aren't part of the equation. Independent thinking has been
replaced by double clicking.
It's my belief
that the proliferation of computers, software, and the Internet has
had a dumbing down effect on today's young men and
women. An extensive Educational Testing Service (ETS) study of more
than 6,000 fourth-graders and 7,000 eighth-graders found that while
higher-order thinking skills are affected positively by the frequency
of computer use, lower-order thinking skills are affected negatively.
The study, which looks at both home and school use of computers, concluded
that home use of computers has a positive effect, but the net
effect of school computer use is negative.
I am concerned
that unless we use computers wisely, the decline in student performance
will continue. There's a major push across the nation to make moreand
bettercomputers available at K-12 schools. I fear that such increased
exposure will have a harmful effect unless we also emphasize proper
teacher training, quality software, and an education plan that focuses
on fundamentals. The most significant recommendations of the ETS study
are to increase efforts to ensure that teachers are properly trained
to use computers and to focus on using computers to apply
What can we do
at the college level? As educators, we must be aware of the effects
that computers and information technology have hadand continue
to haveon society. Today's students require different basic
skills. We need to communicate with students in ways that reflects these
changes. We need to emphasize that computers are extremely useful tools
for accomplishing tasks but are not solutions in themselves.
How can we do this?
We can begin by giving students more hands-on visualization. This can
be done by increasing the laboratory components of courses and emphasizing
the need to conceptualize and formulate problems. We must also adopt
textbooks that contain sizable numbers of realistic examples. And we
must develop challenging assignments that make use of the fundamentals
as well as programming skills. But most important, we have to recognize
that added exposure to computers and information technology is a double-edged
sword, and treat this new technology in productive ways.
Baruh is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
at Rutgers University.