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.


Michele Jones
Michele Jones4 years ago

Are college students learning anything? HELL NO.

Well, they're learning how to rack up a huge student loan debt they'll never have the means to pay off.

Oh, and they are definitely learning how to cheat.

Nye S.
Nye Solover7 years ago

I swear this is true: I'm at a discount store in town where we have the states largest University. Two college students are looking at bottles of laundry detergent and talking "Is that a gallon?" "I don't know it just has 128 ounces on it" "How many ounces are in a gallon" "I don't know" this goes on for a few more exchanges. I interject "There are 8 ounces in a cup, two cups make a pint, 2 pints make a quart, 4 quarts make a the math?" They stand there with their mouths hanging open and say "How'd you know that?" I reply "I learned it in school" they say "Well we're still in school" and I say "Yes..but I learned it in GRADE school".

Part 2: My Mom goes to the store to use a coupon on a gallon of laundry detergent, She gets a 128 Oz bottle and goes to check out, the college student cashier says "I can't use the coupon, it's for a gallon and that is a 128 oz bottle" they had to call the manager who says "It's a gallon, use the coupon". Part 3: I go to a fast food place, place my order, college student cashier says "OMG, the computer froze, I can't make change" I say "I get 86 cents back. She whines "I can't make change the computer is stuck!" Me: "Just give me 86 cents" "I Caaaaaan't", me: "Trust me, I get 86 cents change" then the computer kicks in and she sighs and says "Your change is 86 cents" me: Isn't that what I just said it was 3 times? These are COLLEGE students? The products of our education system? Yet some want to cut funding for educatio

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli7 years ago

sadly they learn to drink too much, sleep around too much and then they learn how the culture favors anyone with a piece of paper saying they spent 4 years partying over those who went straight to work out of high school.

Demian v.
Wendy V7 years ago

I work with Americans and they can barely read let alone write properly... Just check on the Internet you'll see that Americans are at the bottom of the list when it's comes to education... That's why they import most of their great minds...

Virginia B.
Virginia B7 years ago

As a teacher of writing-intensive courses at the university level, I start out each course by stating: a) the the only person responsible for how good an education each student gets is that student him/herself and b) "the pen is mightier than the sword". After that I give the example of how I was able, through my persuasive writing (thunderous letters!) to convince an automobile insurance company to reimburse me $20,000 for pain and suffering. Had I hired a lawyer, it would have cost me $40,000, so $20,000 was a very good outcome. The better one is able to write, the more capable one becomes at self-defense. So who dares to say such upper-level training is "useless"??

Tiffany Doan
Tiffany Doan7 years ago

The CLA is a flawed test. I am a college professor and was asked to have my students participate. The test is voluntary, with no grade, so many of the students told me they didn't really try. This isn't a very good way to assess student learning.

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga7 years ago

well they make friends and party alot, that is important to besides study

Chloe M.
Chloe M7 years ago

Maybe I should get off Care2 and do my diabetes HW right now! I refuse to be who they are talking about.

Evelyn J.
Evy J7 years ago

The fallacy here is that the point of an undergraduate education is to create stellar reading and writing skills. That might be some theoretical ideal, but if it was true, then the job market and economy would be demanding of it. And it just isn't. Yes, the little box that is academia certainly prizes this liberal artsy type intelligence--but there are very, very few people earning a living primarily off this knowledge/ability. How many people outside of academia do you know who use their Latin, ancient Greek, and knowledge of philosophy on a daily basis? We're converting, rather painfully, to an economy based on intellectual capital, scientific skills, technical skills, very specific things. Sure there are a select few who are going to need to write or read 20 page papers, but guess what? Those people already had reading and writing skills long before they got to college. As for group work, the only good to come out of it is perhaps improved skills in verbal communication, compromise, and shmoozing, incidentally all very useful in the corporate world, but certainly not better quality output.

Emily P.
Emily M7 years ago

The participants in this study are only a few years younger than I am (I graduated from college in 2006), and the results aren't surprising to me. I lived with over 20 people in the course of 4 years, and only 3 of those people didn't spend every weekend (and some weekdays) binge drinking. I spent most of my time studying and participating in social justice clubs. That didn't seem to be the norm on my campus, unfortunately. I also took more challenging classes, although I had a small case of senioritis by my final semester, where I took French and Karate to not TOTALLY run myself ragged. I wanted to get the most out of my college education. I worked my butt off and managed a 3.2 GPA, which I think is pretty good. I'm sure some of the students who participated in that study will get higher GPAs than I did (and some of the drunkards that I lived with certainly did), but knowing that I worked hard and learned a lot is more important.