Monday, February 11, 2013

Tomorrow's college students

Empathy in college age students has declined over the last 30 years, according to a University of Michigan study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review. The researchers measured two components of interpersonal sensitivity: empathic concern (a person's feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others) and perspective taking (a person's tendency to imagine other people's points of view).

While the Partnership for 21st Century Skills includes critical thinking, problem solving, and information literacy in its framework for college and career readiness, it also includes communication and collaboration, personal and social responsibility, and empathy. Ironically, the UM study found the sharpest declines in empathy have occurred since the 21st century began.

So how do we help students cultivate social skills while also helping them develop the more demonstrable skills they will need to participate economically and politically in today's world?

Several colleagues and I recently visited a Southeast Texas elementary school that has adopted a discovery learning model. Based on a protocol similar to what is commonly called project-based learning (PBL), this school's instructional model is designed to facilitate active student inquiry and collaboration. We saw students questioning, researching, writing, reporting, teaching, creating, and doing much of this by working together.

There is considerable research that suggests that the inquiry protocols that characterize discovery or project-based learning models can help facilitate greater long-term comprehension and application, more opportunities for creativity, greater achievement motivation, enhanced bonding to school, and even better scores on standardized tests. Furthermore, the social benefits of participating in collaborative learning environments are beginning to turn up in the research regarding PBL. A study published in Education 3-13 found that primary students in PBL learning environments not only exhibited improved content knowledge and an enhanced view of experiential learning compared to traditional models, they also developed more positive attitudes about working in collaborative environments and toward peers from different ethnic backgrounds.

I don't know if the UM researchers will replicate their study of empathy in college students in the years to come, but perhaps we should keep in mind that many of today's primary and secondary students will be tomorrow's college students.
  • Kaldi, S., Filippatou, D., & Govaris, C. (2011). Project-based learning in primary schools: Effects on pupils’ learning and attitudes. Education 3-13, 39(1), 35–47. doi:10.1080/03004270903179538
  • Konrath, S., O'Brien, E., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198

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