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Is Student Performance Declining? A Look At Twenty Five Years Of Data

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

History of Aerospace Education

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

14.820.1 - 14.820.11



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Paper Authors


Kathy Schmidt University of Texas, Austin

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KATHY J. SCHMIDT is the Director of the Faculty Innovation Center for the Cockrell School of
Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In this position, she promotes the School's commitment to finding ways to enrich teaching and learning. She works in all
aspects of education including design and development, faculty training, learner support, and evaluation. Contact

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Mark Maughmer Penn State University

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MARK D. MAUGHMER is a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. When he is not teaching, he is involved in the design, analysis, and wind-tunnel testing of airfoils. Contact:

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Is Student Performance Declining? A Look at Twenty-Five Years of Data


Much of the emphasis on today’s teaching is on the process (how one acquires information) rather than on the product (the information acquired). Yet for those of us who have been in the classroom for years we know the product is also valued. In looking back over one engineering professor’s twenty-five years of teaching and testing, we observed a decline in the amount of material covered and in the level of performance in students’ grades. Recent research on undergraduates found that only about a third of fulltime students are spending 40 hours a week attending class and studying, and this 7% decline from the previous decade could be a factor in declining performance. Additionally research indicates that today’s students are spending less time trying to make connections between the facts and ideas to practical applications. In this paper, we look at grading trends and amount of content covered in two aerospace engineering courses in an attempt to quantify changes and to begin a conversation on how to address the need to engage students in the diligence of learning so that they can leave our classrooms schooled with enough depth of knowledge.


Funding, research activities, and autonomy help to make American institutions of higher education prestigious. Furthermore, the United States leads the way in access to higher education with a rate of growth since 1947 that is three times faster that of the population.1 Given that these institutions have resources along with large numbers of students to select from, you would expect increasing numbers of college graduates. Yet there is evidence to the contrary. For although the US is one of the leaders when it comes to college participation, it is in the bottom half of college completion.2 Some evidence suggests that graduation rates are declining because those entering college are less prepared than their predecessors.3 Broader views stress that the issue of assessing quality in higher education is a complex one and needs multiple measures. Reports such as “Measuring Up 2008: The State-By-State Report Card for Higher Education” offer systematic data on these six categories: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits, and learning.4 Other sources, such as the book, Declining by Degrees, paint a broad picture that suggests, “higher education, long viewed as the crown jewel of American education, is tarnished.” 5

Higher education is under scrutiny and currently the most commonly used outcome indicator is retention rates. Although retention is telling, we should note that “retention and graduation rates are a very primitive outcome measure: They beg the question of whether, and what, students have actually learned.” 6 One way to unearth what students are learning is to study, at a macro- level, what goes on in a classroom or a set of classrooms. Professors deal first hand with students’ readiness and willingness to learn and are able to capture student performance data. Perhaps there is hesitation though to share decreasing performance for as Trimble notes, “no college would embarrass itself by showing that the performance of its students was declining.” 3 In fact, college grade point averages are at a high and there are many reports that grades are

Proceedings of the 2009 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2009 American Society for Engineering Education

Schmidt, K., & Maughmer, M. (2009, June), Is Student Performance Declining? A Look At Twenty Five Years Of Data Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4728

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2009 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015