Are College Students Learning Anything?
College students are learning less than ever according to a just-published book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press). Sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia have found that more than a third of college seniors in the US are ‘no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college’ and, on average, only devote twelve hours per week to study.
In other words, four years of ‘higher education’ aren’t really doing, well, enough, if anything.
I’m a college professor at a small, Jesuit college in Jersey City, New Jersey, so these findings—even if they don’t altogether apply to my college and students—are giving me a lot to think about. Friday is my first day of teaching in spring semester 2011 and have been thinking about Arum’s and Roksa’s findings not only in regard to the students I teach, but to how I teach them.
The study tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges (not specified by the authors) in the fall of 2005. Arum and Roksa noted that the colleges assessed are ‘geographically and institutionally representative of the full range of American higher education,’ including ‘large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.’ The January 18th Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes the results:
Three times in their college careers—in the fall of 2005, the spring of 2007, and the spring of 2009—the students were asked to take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, a widely-used essay test that measures reasoning and writing skills. Thirty-six percent of the students saw no statistically significant gains in their CLA scores between their freshman and senior years. (The book itself covers the students only through their sophomore year. The full four-year data are described in a separate report released today by the Social Science Research Council.)
Students aren’t studying much because, the authors speculate, courses ‘aren’t that demanding.’ And students’ studying methods are often not that rigorous: According to the study, students who did more of their studying with friends instead of alone scored lower on the CLA. This finding ‘cuts against the grain of the recent trends toward collaborative and experiential learning’ in which students are required to work with each other on group projects.
Arum’s and Roksa’s findings about disparities in the amount of writing that students are assigned based on their majors suggests that some students are not being given sufficient preparation in this most important skill:
Most students take few courses that demand intensive writing (defined here as 20 or more pages across the semester) or intensive reading (40 or more pages per week). Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa’s finding was based on students’ self-reports, but a new analysis of Texas syllabi by The Chronicle offers additional evidence of the same point: Business and education majors at public four-year colleges in Texas are typically required to take only a small number of writing-intensive courses.
The Chronicle found that, in contrast, ‘history majors typically take 14 courses that require 10 or more pages of writing.’
On a further dispiriting note, Arum and Roksa found that ‘racial and ethnic gaps in CLA scores persist—and even widen, in the case of African-American students—over the course of four years of college.’
Critics are already responding, saying that the study’s means of assessing certain teaching and learning methods was insufficiently detailed. In regard to the findings correlating lower CLA scores and group studying, it’s noted that researchers did not make a distinction between students just choosing to study with friends versus being assigned to work on a group project with students: If ‘group study’ means mostly the former, it is perhaps no wonder that students might score lower, as studying with friends can become, in the words of Roksa ‘”a social occasion.”‘
But I wonder if these quibbles are making too fine of distinctions. The finding that troubles me the most is about the lack of gains made in writing and reasoning skills, from freshman to senior year. When I think about how much writing is involved in many jobs—teachers writing progress reports (like the ones I rely on from my son’s special ed teacher), for instance—this lack of improvement in students’ writing is a real cause for concern, especially as colleges and universities (including Ivy League ones) all have composition and writing programs whose courses students are required to take.
Most of my classes are primarily language classes, in Latin and ancient Greek—-in two subjects that can be quite challenging. Most of students do learn something, simply because they have never taken Latin or a foreign language before; too many have never learned what passive verbs or participles are. Translating even a short sentence of Latin or ancient Greek requires that students draw on their knowledge of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and is always challenging (plus, I make up new quizzes and tests ever semester for each new group of students).
No wonder the likes of Inside Higher Ed has articles about whether or not college is worth it. In light of the rising costs of college tuition and the recession’s effect on the job market for recent graduates—that effect too often being no jobs in the subjects that students trained for—-colleges and those who work at them ought to take a hard look at what they do, in order to give our students an education that will prepare them for what’s ahead.
It’s a a big assignment. Can we make the grade?
Photo of the University of Oregon campus by ozvoldjj.