Students can’t find Africa? I’m not surprised.

Prof. Pettigrew on why remedial courses aren’t the answer



Ask any university professor if their students come to university well prepared and you are likely to hear some laughter. And then more laughter. And then the word “no” spoken with emphasis. English students who don’t know what a semi-colon is, biology students who know nothing about evolution—none of this is a secret.

So it was hardly news to me that the students of Memorial University’s Judith Adler don’t know basic geography.

Despite its ubiquity, this lack of basic knowledge among high school graduates is frustrating because those students don’t make up for their lack of basic skills with an abundance of advanced skills. If they knew few facts but were, let’s say, excellent critical thinkers or writers, that might be okay—one can’t expect everything.

Sadly, however, most students arrive with neither basic factual knowledge nor critical thinking nor writing skills to speak of. How exactly they have spent their time in secondary school is actually a bit of a mystery to those of us in higher education.

This, of course, is not primarily the fault of students—most of whom presumably think they are getting the education they deserve. Still, the problem remains: how should universities handle these—well gaps doesn’t cover it–chasms in students’ understanding?

One theory holds that we must not—I’ve even seen it on a list of commandments—teach as if students know more than they do. In this view, courses must be adjusted to whatever level students show up at. But if universities reduce the rigour of their courses to accommodate the low level of their students, they are, to be sure, dumbing down the curriculum to make up for the deficiencies at lower levels. In effect, an inadequate public education system is poisoning the higher education system. Able professors become the slaves of a less-than-able school system.

One common alternative is to provide various non-credit venues where students can work on skills that may be inadequate. In this way, students can rise to the level they should be without watering down the courses themselves. Many universities have writing centres and math centres for this very reason. Frequently, there are free tutoring services for a variety of courses.

But such things require a good deal of student initiative and some students may be too overwhelmed or too insecure to take advantage of such aids. Another alternative then, and one that Adler recommends, is to provide students with remedial courses in the basics. They can learn for example, where Africa is. Or that the world didn’t begin in the year 1 AD.

I must admit that instituting such courses seems tempting, but I would argue that we must resist such temptation. Rather than simply concede that students aren’t learning anything in high school, universities should address the root of the problem and should demand that their provincial governments make university preparedness a priority for their education systems.

Judith Adler has gone on record saying her students don’t know enough. Neither do mine.

Governments, are you listening?


Students can’t find Africa? I’m not surprised.

  1. Professor, are you aware of any research that has been done in Canada concerning the rates, numbers or extent of remedial classes in post-secondary education?
    I have found a lot of material relating to the United States (at some urban colleges the rates are up around 60% of students taking at least one writing, reading or numeracy development course; these are just the ones who admit they need help with what they ought to have learned in K-12) but nothing Canadian.

  2. The universities need to require the higher standards and set up entrance exams for all students. This would force secondary schools to raise their standards to enable students to achieve the exam. The trick would be to police the schools who administer the tests.

  3. I was trained as an elementary teacher in the late 70s/early 80s but before that I was a product of the Ontario education system, where in grade 2 we could take apart sentences and knew all their parts, wrote full length stories on legal sized foolscap, had to take penmanship and write notes from the blackboard . And in high school had to take french and phys ed for the first year no option about it. We had SRA reading labs to help with our comprehension in elementary school . So as an elementary teacher or sub I was quite surprised to learn I couldn’t mark spelling wrong , there was no mental math with flashcards as we used to do in grades 1,2,3 and students were expected by grade six to write a paragraph of statements but not know any grammar. It’s become worse from what I hear as I left teaching in the early 90s. Oh and btw I’m legally blind and was one of the first children in a regular public school in my little city in Niagara South. No special ed teachers or aides in my day unless you thought my mum was one as she worked with me on my homework. I did it , not her. That’s the vast difference in education in the 60s as opposed to education in 80s onward. The students did their own work in my day without computers. Nowadays helicopter parents and myriads of technology and students still go uneducated .

  4. I believe it is not the responsibility of the universities. They have stringent admission requirements. When students arrive unprepared, they either step up or fail out. Cohorts of students failing will send a message to our education system.

  5. I agree that the best solution is proper preparedness. But not just in K-12, as critical as that is, but more importantly at home. So many parents are failing their children by not preparing them for the real world. Self esteem will never be achieved by watering everything down. So many adults have grown up expecting to be able to have everything they want, and having it NOW. I keep having the feeling that the root of so many of today’s problems go back to the 60’s (I was there). But back to the topic of education. As an article in Macleans showed, maybe we’re leading too many students into thinking that going to university will solve all their problems. And maybe K-12 curriculum and teaching methods should be developed by teachers who have at least 5-10 years of teaching experience and are recognized for their teaching abilities. It’s not a simple issue and there will never be a perfect solution. But let’s not be afraid to recognize that some of the ‘old’ ways are still the best ways. IMHO

  6. I taught Social Studies for over 15 years at the high school level and all these sopics were more than adequately covered. The Alberta Curriculum is very intense. I believe the problem lies somewhere else. The majority of students now seem to invest everything they do and hear with the same level of importance initially, and then mentally discard that which does not seem immediately relevant at the time. With the provincial examination systems in place, students learn to the test and then forget. They know where ‘Africa’ is on the day of the exam but don’t remember by September. As long as Universities emphasise grade 12 marks, students will cram for short time fact collection and regurgitation, but will miss out on the slow process of deep knowledge and understanding.

    Schools cannot do it all, they also have to teach the 75% who are not bound for the Ivory Tower. Parents need to step up and take responsibility for their children’s general knowledge of the world. This can start at a very early age.

  7. When you have an education system where students can not fail no

    matter how little they know, then you get the obvious results.

    Teachers , as in England, should only get their annual step up payment

    based on results, not seniority. Their impossible union does

    everything to devalue teaching to a typical factory job.

  8. Some years ago, I had been teaching at one Ukrainian Saturday school in Toronto; all students attended regular public schools from Monday to Friday. During one lesson on literature, only three students (grade 11) knew the answer to my question “What’s the difference between prose and poetry?” All of them attended middle school in their native country before their parents immigrated to Canada. The rest of the class, who could not tell ‘prose’ from ‘poetry’ and struggled with simple rhyming, had studied in Toronto or Mississauga public schools. I was shocked by their ignorance.

  9. I spent many years as a School Board member and listened to the critism from Universities regarding the preparednees of the students they were receiving and their opinion “that students aren’t learning anything in high school” and I can tell you that high school teachers probably feel the same way about the preparedness of the students they receive. As a person who was responsible for the money being spent on this education I thought long and hard about the reasons for some of these opinions. Instead of the kind of superior attitudes I saw being expressed it was always my opinion that blaming each other got us nowhere. Although I had no funds for research it occurred to me to wonder about the difference between my learning experiences and those of the three children I raised and now the generation being referred to in this article. I do not think my generation had perfect educational experiences and I have concluded that the difference between then and now is books (gasp…I am old!). I spent a lot of my spare time reading. I learned spelling, grammer, sentence structure, composition, geography, biology, social studies,etc,etc,etc. Most of what I learned as a child I learned from independant reading which in turn enabled me to get the most from my school experience. It seems to me that the children coming into the system are not that different, the elementary system is not that different, the secondary system is not that different…in fact a lot of time and expense has been put into making them better, but children do not spend time reading. Again, this is intuative on my part and I have only anecdotal evidence for my opinion but I have and will do my utmost to make sure that my family spends time each day reading.

  10. Surprised a bit that a university prof hasn’t learned about ‘dumbing down’ yet – been going on a long time – the new ignorant, passive serf class for the upcoming new feudalism that is being created around us. Check out a guy called John Taylor Gatto, and the Underground History of American Education for some info that might explain a lot of things about what is going on in our schools these days. For the bigger Cdn picture – What Happened

  11. I am a public Middle School teacher in British Columbia. It was my lot to be teaching Social Studies 9 when 911 happened. On average those students not only kept up with the set curriculum but followed the events as they developed after September 11. The took an intense interest in what was happening and shrewdly analyzed each step of the escalation in rhetoric and action. In comparison, this year’s Social Studies 9 can’t even be bothered to try to grasp the most basic elements of the ‘Arab Spring.” Homework completion is less than 50%; assignments are, on average, so poorly done that I would be ashamed if my grade 5 daughter handed tried to hand them in; etc.

    To blame teachers (or union) for this decline, as some parents and others seem wont to do, is to add insult to this sad lack of competency: the teachers I know are trying just as hard or harder than ever as class sizes keep growing, class composition keeps deteriorating, and support services keep shrinking.

    I think this is not merely an public school issue – it is a social and cultural issue that we ignore at our own peril. If we continue to believe in our own entitlement and encourage it in our children then we can be certain that we will lose our privileged position in the global economy. Our future foreign overlords will not find us entitled nor grant us an extension to “get our act together”