Myths and Beliefs That Limit Effectiveness of Higher Education

Effectiveness of higher education

In an era promoting the science of learning, it is difficult to accept the continuation of myths and beliefs that undermine both student learning and academic institutions’ effective performance. Nevertheless, it is part of the human condition that groups and organizations, as well as societies, create myths that support a particular world view. Higher education is not immune from this human tendency.

Academic leaders in higher education, as well as many faculty members, communicate myths and beliefs often and with much conviction, never realizing or admitting to their weak factual bases. A number of these myths and beliefs are seriously injurious. They interfere with student learning and create harmful misallocations of limited financial resources within academic institutions. It is important that we examine these myths and beliefs to minimize their negative effects within the higher education community.

Major Myths and Beliefs Negatively Affecting Higher Education Performance

What are some of the major myths and beliefs undermining student learning and higher education institutional performance today?

One of the most fundamental beliefs undermining student learning is that maximal course coverage of material is the hallmark of a high-quality course. This myth assumes that mere presentation of material leads to learning.

While some osmosis learning occurs through coverage, much more occurs from a well-constructed curriculum focusing on significant student learning experiences. Students’ lives are dramatically changed by those kinds of learning experiences, and they become for students a vital part of their approach to life and their interpretations of reality.

Simple coverage of material does not do that. In fact, a number of studies over a 30- year period conclude that the major strategy for achieving maximal course coverage, namely lecturing, does not create long lasting or meaningful learning. A study of studies by Lion Gardiner in 1994, Redesigning Higher Education: Producing Dramatic Gains in Student Learning, makes clear that students rarely retain learning in a course even one week after listening to a lecture. Over a longer period, students taking a course scored as little as 20 percent higher on content tests than those not taking the course. Clearly these kinds of findings in extensive educational research studies strongly support the work of L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003). Integrated course design, which he advocates, supports student learning much more effectively than maximum course coverage. Course syllabus construction in his model includes consideration of situational learning factors, such as characteristics of students to be served and their prior knowledge.

Another damaging myth is that the value of learning is for its own sake. Learning that has meaning in students’ lives, whether traditional college age students or adult learners, has apparent usefulness in one’s life. Learning that cannot be applied to something specifically or readily assist in developing a skill, such as critical thinking or ethical judgment, is not likely to be remembered long. Many teaching faculty do not make any significant effort to relate their disciplinary models, theories, and perspectives to the daily lives of their students; to clarify how available career paths are rooted in their disciplines; or to explain how their disciplines’ relevance to important changes in the world is likely to affect their students. When teaching faculty don’t make those kinds of connection efforts, they undermine student motivation. They also limit long-term sustainable learning.

A third damaging myth is that the best research faculty make for the best teaching faculty. Many colleges and universities reward through their tenure and promotion systems faculty with strong publications records. While some of the greatest faculty researchers are effective teachers, they are clearly not the norm. Many more effective teachers are especially devoted to their students as much as they are to their disciplines. They spend significant amounts of time and energy finding differing ways to clearly connect, and they compellingly relate course learning to all forms of previous student learning. Doctoral education programs focus on original research and the successful completion of a dissertation. Entering college, teaching faculty rarely have significant experience in pedagogy, student learning theories, educational research, or even practice teaching. They generally become more effective teachers over time from the professional mentoring of their successful colleagues and from learning from their students what works in classes.

A fourth damaging myth concerns liberal arts education. Many institutions require a series of survey courses in liberal arts disciplines as a prerequisite for graduation, theoretically producing liberally educated graduates. These survey courses are not rooted in potential student meaning or use. Frequently, they are courses constructed for majors as introductions to their discipline. Given their construction and their lack of connection to other parts of the curriculum, they remain isolated experiences that in no way create the cumulative effect needed to ensure liberally educated graduates. General education coursework is rarely integrated with major field coursework in any meaningful fashion.

A fifth devastating myth is that financial support for higher education will remain in the future what it has been in the past. Clearly, the pressures of health care costs, limits of federal debt and deficit spending, and slowing levels of economic growth and productivity in the United States will negatively affect college and university financial resources for the foreseeable future. Families do not have available to them the financial resources of significantly increasing home values or salaried income to sustain the higher education enterprise as it is has been funded and supported in the past through ever-increasing student loans.

While there are many other myths, one final one needs serious attention: the idea that four-year college education is for everyone and that the achievement of a college degree is necessary or will guarantee access to a lifetime middle class standard of living for all four-year graduates. Recent research has shown dramatically that different majors lead to very different lifetime results for graduates. Large numbers of college graduates continued, long after the Great Recession, to struggle to find jobs consistent with their majors or their graduation status. In fact, a number of graduates in high-skill and technology-enhanced manufacturing positions, as well as those in the traditional trades, are and will continue to be very successful in achieving middle class economic status. Today, as in the past, many students entering college do not graduate within six years of entering, and they therefore only achieve a delayed entrance into the job market while acquiring devastating levels of student loan debt.

Strategies for Addressing Damaging Myths and Beliefs

First, academic administrators and faculty must come to grips with damaging myths. Without honest recognition of myths, necessary reforms will not take place.

Second, myths that affect student learning most should be addressed first. Doing so would mean a strong movement toward integrated course design and stronger support for significant student learning experiences in all courses. Active learning would replace most passive learning. Additionally, faculties would commit themselves to communicate and integrate the value of general education courses in their major field courses. Additionally, true interdisciplinary general education courses would replace introductory courses in majors to better support liberal learning. Faculty hiring, mentoring, and reward systems would more consistently reflect and support faculty excellence in teaching over research achievements. Finally, student advising would be more thorough and honest about the likely employment and salary levels for majors.

A third action colleges and universities must take is to commit to use community resources more in their educational programs for field experiences, internships, and practicums, collaborating extensively with businesses, other educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations to reduce educational costs. Also, institutions should review their curriculum offerings systematically and periodically to reduce course offerings to better support new disciplines and fields of learning from existent budget lines rather than looking for governmental funding increases to do so. Additionally, all institutions must seek to increase philanthropic giving to their institutions by better bonding to their graduates and to organizations their graduates make a difference in.


Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardiner, Lion. 1994. Reshaping Higher Education: Producing Dramatic Gains in Student Learning. ASHE-Eric Higher Education Report 7. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University.

Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, is a Midland University leadership fellow.