Two weeks ago, for the second time in this semester, I taught a block course on “research skills” for students in our international master programs here at the faculty. Topics were how to develop a hypothesis, design experiments, do analysis, write it down, do graphs etc.
It believe these courses have been a quite a good benchmark for how well prepared students are to do research (or even think research) when coming into those programs, and a few things clearly stood out for me, some expected, some rather surprising (at least to me).
- There was a clear lack of statistical and mathematical training; even those that had statistics in their undergrad degrees (by far not all) had a very hard time to apply this knowledge when on their own, the number of people who would have been able to design and analyze a very simple experiment without help was exactly zero.
- The students clearly exceeded our expectations regarding their skills in oral and visual presentation
- There was a major problem with logical thinking and, connected to that, clear writing. The problems went really through all aspects of writing, paragraph structure, sentence connection, fundamental logic
Now, problems with statistics are probably no surprise to many, but the problems of making a compelling logical argument was somewhat surprising to me. Of course students just ain’t what they (we) used to be ;), but this problem was so clear and went through all cultural backgrounds (including the native speakers) that I would say the problem must be system-inherent; there seems to be too little that prepares students for independent logical or scientific thinking in their undergrad degrees (by that I mean in the widest sense thinking about how I could show whether a certain hypothesis is true or not). Let’s take the typical statistics lecture as an example, where a lot of options for regressions and hypothesis tests pass by the students, but they are seldom just presented with a more complex problem they don’t know anything about such that they have to think for themselves (to potentially fail, which is important experience I think).
Is that a new problem? I don’t know, but it seems to me it is exacerbated by the recent European reforms in higher eduction which tend to encourage streamlining teaching towards the “smalled testable multiple-choice unit”. On the other hand, I believe already Humboldt said (my translation from memory): “the foundation of the German education system is much exalted, but there is no one standing on it”. Would be interested to hear about other people’s experience.