Daily Archives: April 8, 2014

“Decreased quality of undergraduates” – how does this even happen?

Weimer writes in her book “Learner Centered Teaching”, that the quality of undergraduates entering higher education has declined. How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to have better access to knowledge via internet and media? Children as young as 3 years old can work a tablet computer. I highly doubt people are naturally getting more stupid.

I found an older opinion piece by Donald. E. Simanek describing the decline in student quality in the 1990’s. It is the opinion of a faculty member who retired in 1999 from a 16-year-long physics professorship at a university in Pennsylvania. The main causes of lowered student quality as summed by faculty in the text seemed to include three prominent areas of high school education:

1. Too many non-academic activities like sports

Penetration of sports in all levels of education is fairly unique to US. Communities take an interest in sports and the participants are considered special. According to Simanek sports are so special, that athletes get some perks on the academic front. Like days off to play the sport if the game is at a distant location, and special consideration for grades in some cases. This might not be the case in all high schools. But it does send a message of sports importance over academics.

2. Low quality of teachers

The teachers even on high school level are not required to have a masters degree on the subject they teach. This seemed really interesting to me. How are they going to answer student questions in a trustworthy way and with sensitivity to the underlying complications? For example meaning of statistical significance, or underlying forces behind evolution could be difficult to explain by someone who has not delved into the topics deeply. Simanek points out that the pay level is not perceived to be high enough. And the teachers education programs are not deemed rigorous. The teachers are not to blame directly, since the academic institutions are the ones preparing them for their career.

3. Grade inflation

In Simanek’s text grade inflation was tied to the teaching faculty needing great student reviews to gain tenure. To me it seems the problem could be consideration of education as a product students buy to get what they want. And some of them want a great degree with hardly any work. This is understandable. Most people will take the opportunity to work less if the payoff is still good. And if one wants tenure they might feel the need to give the great payoff and be rewarded a good student review in higher education. The whole business of “accountability” and standardized testing in K-12 education possibly follows the same pattern. Teaching for the test is rewarded, so that is what the teachers will do. Especially when bad scores lead to severe consequences for the whole school.

My thoughts on the issues

A disclaimer: I am not an expert on the issues and I did not go to US K-12 school. I just find the issues interesting as they affect me – a part of future faculty and possibly a teacher.

While taking the sports away from high school at this point does not seem viable, maybe the importance of academics could be brought to the fore front. Parents, teachers, and administrators should support the school’s academic endeavors just like they do sports. Excellence in either area can lead to scholarships in universities and can bring joy to every day life. I don’t see the reason why sports are put on the pedestal alone.

The quality of teachers education is also problematic as it has to do with perceptions. If the programs required rigorous academic work and perhaps even research on topic one is to teach at high school level, would the teachers be better? Or just different? What if no-one wants to be a teacher if entering the profession requires sometimes difficult and time consuming education? This concern was brought up by Simanek. If teaching in high school is not perceived as worthwhile and respected career, it is difficult to change what kinds of people who want to become teachers.

Grade inflation makes choosing the best students for any university difficult. Maybe this is why American universities require motivational letters, recommendations, and extracurricular activities from the applicants. They do give a more whole picture of any applicant. But could the high school grades be reinstated as a measure of candidates suitability for university admission? Since teachers are doing their best to make the students pass the tests, could the tests be different? Getting rid of multiple choice and using applied problem sets might help a bit. The changes in SAT could be a start of this rethinking of testing. It would be more work for the people grading them. They could no longer rely on machines to spit out the results.

Admissions machinery of universities in US has to support a system that gives everyone a common education in the form of core courses and majors are finalized later. The educational system of Finland does not expect everyone to get a bachelors degree. The trade school track is popular and respected. The Finnish universities admit students into specific majors, so admission requirements and entrance exams can be geared towards measuring suitability to study the field. While it is possible to change majors, one has to qualify to the new major via entrance exams.

I happen to like the idea of core courses and introduction of multiple academic fields. Would it be considered too confining to require a separate entrance exam to a desired major? It would increase the work load for faculty and possibly add to students stress. Would the payoff be worth it? Controlling the starting level of students entering the more challenging courses in any major could improve the overall results. Or is this already implemented by simply requiring remedial classes for everyone as is done now at most universities. How about the universities that need more students to attend to get the tuition income? As Simanek complained, the admissions and marketing side of education business in smaller schools gets different demands from the students. They might not want to take remedial classes and might just go somewhere else to get what they want.

Is the K-12 education to blame for the perceived downward spiral of undergraduate learning skills? It would seem so from the view point of some faculty members. But in reality it could be just a symptom of a more messy set of problems. Political issues, public perception, and changes in society have certainly played a role in the decline. And students should not be just punished for this development. I’d rather we find ways to fix the situation.

Sabotage of scholarly integrity

Science relies on integrity and trust between scientists, between scientists and public, as well as universities and their employees. The public needs to trust us to not waste their tax-money and to produce information that serves them. Universities need to trust that the employees don’t misrepresent the institution. The university employees trust the universities treat them fairly in employment and their bosses treat them fairly.

A case from the office of research integrity brought up a situation where primary investigator suspected falsification of data by a technician. A duplication of a result of an experiment was presented as a separate set of results. A method for detecting radiolabeled proteins by exposure to films was used. The duplication was detected as the method used results in varying imperfections in each film due to air bubbles, dust, or other artifacts on film. The two films were identical. That does not happen in this technique.

The technician was confronted by the primary investigator twice and denied the duplication at both times. The results were viewed by other scientists per request of the primary investigator and confirmed as copies. The case seems straight forward at first, but when you start thinking of the severity of consequences the parties face if action is taken, the “what if”s start to appear. What if the technician truly believes the results are from two separate experiments and does not knowingly lie about it.

The primary investigator takes on a huge amount of responsibility if the case goes forward. Their responsibility as a mentor to the technician would be to prevent the possible misconduct, by making them aware of the types of scientific misconduct and the consequences. As a result of misconduct the primary investigators integrity could be brought to question. The consequences for the technician could include sanctions like loosing their job. Also their integrity would be questioned and they might not be able to work in a laboratory again.

There are proper channels to go through for this kind of suspicion of misconduct. University research integrity office (ORI) is the first place to contact. Since there is physical evidence, it should be handled carefully as instructed by ORI. Since the technician is not a student, the case does not go through honor court system, but directly to  research integrity officer. The following graphic simplifies how Virginia Tech research integrity office processes misconduct allegations:

Misconduct handling. Modified from http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

Misconduct handling. Parties are requested to review reports from inquiry and investigation committees. Appeal of decision is made to university president and dismissal of charges is followed by restoration of reputation. Modified from http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

But what if this type of misconduct procedure does not apply? This was the case at University of Michigan in 2010. A postdoctoral researcher sabotaged a graduate students laboratory work by killing her cell cultures. The case was reported in Nature news in 2010 by Brendan Maher. Sabotage does not apparently fit the federal definition of misconduct (plagiarism of work, cooking up data, or falsifying data), and therefore won’t be addressed by any of the federal funding agencies.


From the article: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/pdf/467516a.pdf

The graduate student had to go to the police to report the case as a crime. After the campus police had first interrogated her and performed lie detection test, they started investigation. The day after installing cameras to record the cell culture space, the postdoc was caught. Court ordered him to pay for lost reagents and court fees ($9400), serve probation and 40 hours of community service. His visa however prevented him from staying in the country after losing his job. Further hearings along with greater damage payments did not go through. Punishment did not reach its full scale. And the graduate student lost her trust in scientific community as mutually respective for a while. (Maher, 2010)

The investigated person leaving the country to either escape or to avoid immigration problems, is an additional issue. It is related to research as many researchers are in US on some kind of a visa with strict rules to allow them to stay in the country. This is just an extra layer of trouble on top of the core issue of ethical misconduct.

To me it is unbelievable, that sabotage is not considered research misconduct. It violates ethical codes of universities, hinders research on purpose, and in the end shakes everyone’s trust in scientific community in the long run. Could the federal definition be changed to include sabotage? And how would one formally document those cases, if acquiring physical evidence could potentially damage individuals rights (eg. filming without subject’s knowledge)? Do we have to involve the police in a clearly research related ethical issue? Or does that route actually provide harsher punishments for the perpetrators?


  • Maher, Brendan. 2010. Sabotage!, Nature 467, 516-518 | doi:10.1038/467516a (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467516a.html)
  • Office of Research Integrity website, RCR casebook, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://ori.hhs.gov/rcr-casebook-stories-about-researchers-worth-discussing)
  • Research Integrity Office website of Virginia Tech, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/)