Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, have generated a lot of buzz with their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press).
The argument: students are not learning very much in college
The evidence: the authors track 2,300 students enrolled at a range of four-year colleges and universities, assessing their progress with the Collegiate Learning Assessment. The test assesses gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and other “high level” skills—it is NOT a subject matter test. Almost half of students demonstrated no significant improvement in learning in the first two years of college, and after four years of college over one-third (36 per cent) still had not learned much. Even students who did improve showed only modest gains.
The explanation: lack of rigor – student surveys show that about a third of students avoid classes with more than 40 pages of reading and more than 20 pages of writing, and students only spend about 12-14 hours/week studying, often studying with other students rather than on their own. (So about 2-3 hours per course/week.) They found that students who took demanding courses and studied more actually learned more than students who took less demanding courses and studied less. (Shocker!) Notably, students majoring in the liberal arts demonstrated "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study," although the authors were uncertain whether this is caused by greater rigor or the subject matter in the liberal arts. Another interesting finding is that students who received grant-based financial aid learned more than those who had student loans. There are also some disturbing findings about ethnic and racial disparities in learning.
Implications: There are a bunch, some that the authors stress, others that they don’t, but here are some obvious ones
- Courses need to be more rigorous (esp. more reading and writing)
- Reduce class size – grading writing is more time consuming than grading multiple choice tests
- Reduce teaching load/pay adjuncts more! – at schools where faculty have crushing teaching loads, and for most adjuncts, there are not enough hours in the day to do the grading for writing-intensive courses. Adjuncts are paid so little that they must teach many courses to make ends meet—if they were better compensated they could teach fewer courses.
- Grade harder – are 40-60% of the students in your course really doing A-level work? When students receive As for mediocre (or worse) work, they leave the classroom thinking, “I totally rocked on that assignment!” So why strive to do the reading or put more time into your essay when you’re getting As without doing the reading and half-assing the written work? Of course, the elephant in the room is student evals, which are the main tool for evaluating teaching effectiveness. It’s well known that the anticipated grade affects how students evaluate a course/instructor. Are assistant profs and adjuncts going to turn the screws on students if the outcome could be losing their jobs? Another issue is that some faculty, jealous of protecting their research time, may prefer to assign less work.
- The obsession with 4-year graduation rates must end – we should be more worried about the quality of the education that students receive and less concerned that they don’t finish in four years. Many of my students work 20-30 hours/week—few of them can manage a full course load of rigorous courses. They would get a better education if they took more time to complete their degree.
- High student debt impairs learning – students taking out huge loans work more and have less time to study. Ever-rising tuition means more debt. Tuition hikes need to be kept under control if we expect our students to be able to concentrate on their studies.
- Back to basics – stop flushing millions of dollars down the toilet on fancy facilities, sports, and administrative overhead. Shift the money to instruction.