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VINE VOICEon February 18, 2011
Arum and Roksa mean this book as a strong indictment of the American undergraduate experience. The report received a lot of media attention when released in early 2011. Its headline findings are that undergraduates experience essentially no improvement in critical thinking in their first two years of college, and a much smaller improvement over four years than we would expect. There are two broad exceptions: elite national universities; and classes that require more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester.

It's important to recognize that Arum and Roksa stack the deck, by defining "learning" in ways that advantage students in the humanities and social sciences. Engineering schools train students in a different way of thinking rigorously and solving problems. Pre-med programs cram student brains with facts. Both evaluate their students with difficult exams leading to professional certification. It's fair to say that neither Arum nor Roksa could pass those professional exams, which demonstrates that these students have learned a lot along the way.

I'd like to see a subsequent study that gets at the problem-solving skills that we expect of engineers or medical diagnosticians, and see how well economists or English majors solve similar problems in their own area of substantive knowledge. Certainly good grad students in the various fields I know can solve problems effectively, but undergrads are a mixed bag.

Setting that aside, there is a lot of provocative material here. When we look at their preferred measure, "critical learning," students in math, science, social sciences and the humanities do make progress. Business students, or those in social work and (ahem) education - - not so much. Students who read and write learn critical thinking skills, apparently no matter what they read or write about.

Whatever one thinks of their specific findings, the book is valuable for a high-level view of the American undergraduate experience. They summarize many findings from the literature, often providing a disturbing view. Though they don't phrase it this way, I was left with the impression that too many undergraduates view college as a sabbatical between the rigors of high school and the rigors of full-time employment. During this time they socialize with friends, network, and borrow money to finance consumption (including but not limited to drinking). Academic work is a ticket to enable the sabbatical but they may not assign it any intrinsic value or view it as a necessary step toward their future.

Fortunately, Arun and Roksa's findings also show that institutions matter. Colleges and universities can provide academically-oriented environments in which students are motivated to learn, and motivate one another to learn. Some schools already do this. I hope this study sparks more to do so.
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"Current cultural norms among U.S. undergraduates support a conception of schooling as an important, but part-time activity. Other parts of life, notably social and leisure activities, are at least as important." This observation from the sociologist Steven Brint should certainly come as no surprise to anyone who is paying the least bit of attention to what is happening on our nation's college campuses. Several months ago I began exploring the state of higher education in America by reading Naomi Shaefer Riley's fine book "The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For". That book focused on the pros and cons of tenure for college professors. Riley believes that the tenure system increases costs and demonstrates why it often results in inferior classroom instruction as well. I was left eager to learn even more about the state of higher education in America. Recently, I heard about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's new offering "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses". I knew immediately that this was a book I simply had to read.

The main focus of "Academically Adrift" is a standardized test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment or CLA. This particular study was conducted among 2,300 undergraduate students from 24 different universities across the nation. The CLA is definitely not your typical multiple choice test. Rather, the CLA consists of three open-ended assessment components: a performance task and two analytical writing tasks. The purpose of this test is to try to evaluate a student's critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing skills. And what Arum and Roksa discovered is certainly cause for alarm. Essentially, the results of this study strongly suggest that after two years of college the vast majority of students show precious little improvement in their capacity for critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. While it is extremely important for students to master the material presented in textbooks and in class shouldn't we expect more from our colleges and universities?

As part of the research project that led to "Academically Adrift" Arum and Roksa also conducted a 26 question survey of the participating students that appears in the appendix of the book. Very revealing indeed! The results of this survey underscores the importance of rigorous coursework requirements, high faculty expectations, time devoted to studying and the potentially negative impact of employment and extracurricular activities. In altogether too many cases academics takes a back seat to working, socializing with friends and participating in campus activities. Too many students seem to buy into the notion of doing the least amount of work just to get by. According to statistics cited by the authors today's students spend considerably less time studying than their peers did 25 and 50 years ago. Furthermore, the study also found that half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during the prior semester and one-third did not take a single course requiring 40 pages of reading per week. Does this sound like college-level work to you? In doing some research for this review I came across a website from Alfred University. In commenting on Arum and Roksa's study an assistant professor of media studies joked "40 pages of what? How much would be gained if I were to assign 40 pages of comic books a week?" As far as I am concerned this is precisely the kind of attitude that we need to change. Trust me, there is an awful to chew on this book and time will simply not permit me to touch on all of the important issues the authors dicuss.

Finally, reading "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses" may also cause you to rethink the whole subject of higher education in America. For example, has the time finally come to discard the "college for all" philosophy that has been in vogue in this country for the past 30 or 40 years? Clearly not everyone belongs in college and buying into this philosophy only serves to prop up an extremely bloated system. When I was in high school guidance counselors served as "gatekeepers" pointing the less academically gifted students in the direction of vocational schools and other career opportunities. Let's face it, there is an awful lot of money to be made in the trades these days. Furthermore, I believe it is time to reexamine the wisdom in taking out college loans in order to finance an education. A shocking number of students never even graduate and are left with nothing but a mountain of debt to show for it. At the same time, many students emerging from four year institutions are not only poorly educated but also find themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt to boot. I think there is an awful lot of wisdom in going the community college route. And what kind of a market is there for those individuals who choose to major in subjects like "area, ethnic, cultural and gender studies"? If these folks can't find a job please don't blame me or society-at-large. Frankly, we don't want to hear it! Finally, if parents and students make the decision to go to college it is extremely important that the student is fully focused on what he/she really wants to accomplish in school. All too often Arum and Roksa found students who had absolutely no idea what they were doing in college and really were "academically adrift". At the end of the day Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have given us a very scholarly and well-researched book. Since I am not from academia I found myself struggling with terminology from time to time. "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses" will challenge much of what you believe about higher education in the United States. This is a thought-provoking book that is well-worth your time. Highly recommended!
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on November 24, 2012
This is an important book because it puts a spotlight on corruption in higher education. The authors touch on most causes of the decline in quality of college education. I like the fact that the book is based on research, the results of which are presented in tables at the end of the book. The study described in this book gained wide recognition with publication of newspaper articles around the U.S. that summarized the findings. Also, the authors and their findings were mentioned in an article in The Economist magazine last year.

I think it is significant that this study "was organized by the Social Science Research Council as part of its collaborative partnership with the Pathways to College Network..." It is also significant that it was published by an academic publisher: The University of Chicago Press.

I agree with the authors when they say that restoration of quality in college education will have to result from influences outside the academic system. I think the likely outside influence will be declining popularity of college education as more college graduates find it difficult to find professional level employment.

I gave the book four stars instead of five for the reasons below.

The authors didn't go far enough in their analysis of the problem. Early in the book the authors ask why college faculty members are making their courses less rigorous. They didn't say that it is because some faculty are "buying" student evaluation results with high, undeserved grades. But, they did mention that another study by Valen Johnson showed that favorable "student evaluations of teaching" did not mean that students were learning. Instead these "evaluations" show that students prefer instructors who make courses easy. In fact, administrators who have no responsibility for the quality of college education use these "student evaluations" as a way to blackmail the faculty into giving undeserved passing grades. The blackmail involved is that the faculty member either gets high marks on "student evaluations" or fails to get tenure or promotion. Valen Johnson's study and my experience show that high marks on these "evaluations" from most students will result from giving out high, undeserved grades. I know that the study by Johnson is more applicable to this topic but Arum and Roksa needed to explain the connection between the use of "student evaluations" and the decline in quality of college education.

Near the end of the book, the authors tell us that college administrators are asked to focus their attention only on the bottom line, i.e., the level of enrollment and the amount of revenue from tuition. This is an accurate statement. However, the authors needed to describe some of the actual practices used by administrators to accomplish their goal - at least at schools that are "selective" and "less selective" as to admissions. Most administrators that I have known will do whatever they can to degrade the quality of education for the sake of keeping enrollment as high as possible. These administrators have a role in admitting (to universities) the unmotivated students that the authors describe. They aim to retain as many of these students as possible by making courses as easy as possible. By keeping enrollments high, administrators embellish their resumes for their next job move.

Also near the end of the book, the authors say that coercive accountability will not work in higher education because "the measurement and understanding of learning processes in higher education are considerably underdeveloped." I disagree. We know enough to design appropriate tests of learning. If such tests were used, administrators and faculty members should be held responsible for improving the results. This change in assessment procedure is necessary because the currently popular internal, self-assessment is not leading to improved quality of education. Current self-assessments are made as meaningless as possible because administrators do not require that the tests be a good representation of topics covered in courses and because students usually do not have to pass the tests. This situation with assessment results from the fact that the same people who have degraded college education are now trusted with doing "assessment."

The authors do not discuss all of the groups that have contributed to the decline in quality of college education. Those that aren't discussed are accrediting agencies, boards of governors of university systems, boards of trustees of colleges and universities, faculty unions, and state governments. State government encompasses politicians, university systems, and departments of education.

Finally, the authors lay the blame for the decline in quality of higher education on college administrators, faculty members, and parents of college students. I think one group should be singled out as primarily responsible for the situation: upper level administrators. Over half of faculty members these days are as corrupt as the administrators. But,it is the top level administrators who have the greatest power to affect the quality of education. They have this power through the evaluation processes for faculty members. These evaluation processes lead to decisions on tenure and promotions. Administrators evaluate teaching even though they take no responsibility for quality of education and don't have adequate means to evaluate teaching. These administrators also set the admissions standards for prospective students - the standards that are low except for highly selective institutions. Administrators are motivated by greed and job security concerns to continue empire building by increasing enrollments. I can't see any other explanation for their efforts to degrade the quality of college education.
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on April 1, 2012
This book is interesting and concise. The basic premise is that, based on results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, 4 year college students are making minimal progress on critical thinking and clear written communication skills. This test consists of three questions which require students to collate and analyze a set of information, and present their conclusions in written format. The assessment was given to a sample of students at the beginning of the freshman year and again at the end of the sophomore year. Though their sample size is small (24 institutes of higher learning) they seem to adequately control for other variables, and relationships between the reported variables. Their findings conclude that although in general, progress is limited, the following factors contribute to higher rates of improvement between the two iterations of the test:

- Students taking courses requiring more than 40 pages of reading a week and a paper of at least 20 pages of length in the course of a semester
- Studying alone rather than in groups (though the authors allow that this may be different among science students completing structured labs)
- Working 10 hours a week, but not much more, and preferably on campus
- Not devoting too much time to fraternities and sororities
- Concentrating in social sciences/humanities or math/science
- Receiving more funding from scholarships and grants as overall percentage of education funding
- Attending more selective schools
- High faculty expectations
- Academic and social preparation for higher education

They also note that on average students spend fewer hours per week studying now than in the past. These findings are not entirely surprising, but they do show that less emphasis on campus social pursuits and group work and more focus on academic rigor would likely be helpful, a refreshing thought. The authors additionally suggest that institutional accountability is a worthy goal, while clearly "consumer-driven" concerns like fancy facilities and social events should likely be de-emphasized. But this last is difficult in the age of "Rate My Professor" where students can share which professors are the least and most demanding, while campus websites highlight athletic facilities and posh dorms.

I'm left with a few questions. Is slightly less than two years an adequate gap between two iterations of this assessment? It's possible that general education classes do not increase analytic and writing skills as much as upper division classes. Have colleges and universities done a better job of teaching these kinds of skills in the past? Thinking about my own experiences, I learned to write concisely and factually from a journalist parent, before college, and gained more analytic skills as a graduate student, and especially on the job, than I did as an undergraduate. Analysis may best be learned by turning people loose on real problems with real consequences, at real work sites. That's my theory. Perhaps we should administer the College Learning Assessment to a sample of entry level and a sample of mid-career professionals, and find out. That would be some interesting data.
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on August 21, 2015
The premise of the book is that a college student does not get his money's worth, academically, from attending college. The book is clear on the methodology used to collect and organize data, and how conclusions are derived. One can disagree with the methods or results, but they are neither obscure nor hand-waved--they can be scientifically checked. This is the strong point of the book.
We do know that grade creep is well documented in other places; so, educators need to know what is happening. Have tenure and student evaluations caused professors to give higher grades? Are expectations lower? Are students smarter? Have professors become better teachers? Are text books better? Have didactic methods improved? The author, Richard Arun, tries to assess causes and effects, or at least relationships whether or not they proved to be causal, through the use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which determines "learning," by assessing generic problem solving. Learning is defined to encompass four outcomes--critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing. The author provides two examples of CLA problems, which include a scenario, reviewing supporting documents and making a written recommendation. They also provide some objections others have to the use of the CLA, but this is the assessment method used in the book.
Two issues the CLA does not address are what are student expectations, and does everyone need a college degree. Arun discusses the first issue, and a good CLA grade offers no solution. Most students want the degree and the specific professional knowledge needed to succeed in their career field; they are not interested in the type of knowledge for which the CLA tests. This leads to the second issue--why insist on a degree to enter a profession. The author implies that engineering, business and health profession degrees are more training than education, but does not follow up to the conclusion. Though not the focus of the book, it deserves some discussion, especially since much is repetitive and can be pared back.
Arun reaches some obvious conclusions: Spending some time out of class with a professor improves learning over spending no time; spending time reading and writing improves ones writing skills; going to a top tier school is better (on the average) than going to a lower tier school; and, entering college with a good high school foundation is more helpful than a bad foundation. Other conclusions are less important, but statistically relevant: Study groups that are not well organized do not improve learning; social organization detract more than help learning; and racial cultural attitudes do make a difference in learning.
I read the book on a B&W Kindle. Links were good--footnotes and index are linked and TOC links to chapters, though there are no links to chapter sections. Graphs are in B&W but adequately shaded to distinguish categories, so no loss reading on B&W Kindle.
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on July 4, 2013
Just because we want more people who are good at thinking about difficult and complex problems, think abstractly, and who can explain themselves well, it does not follow that we want more people to get university degrees. For this to follow, we need to know that getting a university degreee gives students those skills, and in this book it is shown that students are not forced to get these skills in order to get a degree. Students do not spend enough time doing academic work to build these skills. Quoting another study, the authors state that in 1961, 61% of full-time college students studied more than 20 hours per week, while in 2011, 20% of full-time college students studied more than 20 hours per week. Why students spend such a small amount of time studying is one of the things analyzed in this book. "Consistent with other studies, we find that students are not spending a great deal of time outside of the classroom on their coursework: on average, they report spending only 12 hours per week studying."

"Undergraduate learning is peripheral to the concerns of the vast majority of those involved with the higher-education system." Students want to spend time in college having memorable social experiences, professors want to write papers that are valued in their discipline, and administrators want to attract more students and retain them (which is certainly not done by making the requirements for a degree more demanding).

I think the people with the heaviest blame for undergraduates not learning at universities are administrators, who reward faculty for focusing on research rather than teaching, and who attract undergraduates and try to retain them but don't try nearly as hard to make them learn. Moreover, by adding lots of support professionals to the university rather than adding faculty and rewarding them for working with students, the faculty have lost the role of respected advisers to students. (I am thinking of advisers for course and program selection and for talking about careers, not of using faculty as psychologists.)

The writing in this book is bad. Things don't "happen", they "transpire". The books ends with a sentence long quote from JFK, and ending with a long quote is a way of avoiding the hard work of writing a memorable conclusion to what you've said. The authors keep repeating the phrase "critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication", and also the word "adrift". Moreover, I came across padding like "in an increasingly globalized and competitive world". These are probably signals that their writing could be trimmed; the repeated phrases makes me think of a student repeating a thesis statement throughout an essay to convince the teacher that their writing is focused. I have another criticism of the book. The authors often talk about how much students have to read and how much they have to write, but this is grossly inapplicable to mathematics, at least. To read 40 pages of serious mathematics could, depending on the mathematics, take dozens of hours, and a PhD thesis in mathematics is often (typically?) less than 100 pages.
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on February 24, 2011
This book is packed full of data on what is really happening with the $ spent in higher education! Not an easy read (dry, factual, academic style), but the authors have tackled the real problems facing higher education from institutions' drastically decreased emphasis on undergraduate learning to students' unwillingness to devote time or energy to learning. Their studies look across types of educational institutions and take into account the academic and socioeconomic backgrounds of students. Not a pretty picture, but good documentation of the info needed to begin any process of change.
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on December 4, 2011
This is a difficult book to read, but I think it is a worthwhile one for several reasons. First of all, the discussion put forth in this book is one that is very important not only educationally, but politically as well: "the future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young dults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively" (31). So, finding out if our college-age population can actually do these things is an important investigation to undertake. I have no objections as to the measurement these authors use, i.e. the CLA tests, after all, one must use something, and, as long as it is consistent and fairly reliable, it will produce a valuable result.

The predominant conclusion of the book is that a great deal of college students are not studying very much, as little as 13 hours per week, which is embarrassingly little. The authors soon reveal that the modern American university has indeed far more important goals than academic study: it is the social crucible through which most people must pass in order to achieve their vocational and social goals. Academic goals are not primary.

This is not a crisis our authors declare, since they (rightly) note that (in quoting Stanley Katz) "This is a market system, and the customers are buying" (24).
So, from a societal perspective, the new focus of university attendance in not a real problem. Still, there is that lingering, Jeffersonian political ideal of education, but, ignoring that, universities are indeed flourishing: Americans now owe more money on education loans than credit cards. Not because they desire to become informed voters; rather, they desire to meet their vocational and social goals by strolling through the ancient groves of academe, not for intellectual development, but for personal and societal advancement.

Like so much else in American life (all else, in fact), a college degree has become commodified and removed from its original, narrow focus (e.g. Harvard in 1636). Students are now consumers and look at schools in a much different way than they did even a few years ago (cf.137). And, as in food, once an item becomes the object of consumers' desire, the nutritional value will fall in proportion to the rise of the new sugar content. Universities are now wonderful "pleasure domes" with little emphasis on tough, academic work (administrators and professors do not escape blame in this, and that is good). Why should they emphasize that which their customers (i.e. students) do not desire? It is only logical that universities, as money-making institutions, should become attractive to their buyers in ways that,well, attract them.

This may be a bit depressing (it certainly is if one extrapolates the political angle here: we grab at simple political solutions since, increasingly neither candidate nor voter can even understand complex issues anymore); but, it follows an unswerving reality: in a world run by money, money always wins. Where money sets the standards, those standards will respond only to marketplace dynamics. With very few exceptions, the students at the lowest economic levels, the book affirms, will likely remain at the lowest levels, despite college. Those students whose parents are well-off and who attend affluent secondary schools already have the game won before they even get to college. All they have to do is not mess up. College sends these folks into the economic stratosphere that few others can ever hope to reach. But all this has little to do with intellectual development.

These are all conclusions of the fine work of these two authors. I appreciate this work a great deal. Their unarticulated subtext, however, might be just as important as their well-articulated, well-documented conclusions: hard academic work is not valued in today's America. There are too many other, easier, pathways to success than the crooked, solitary trail of intellectual challenge and growth. Besides, judging from the state of education in America today, that crooked trail is truly in this money-driven place, a path to nowhere.
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on January 4, 2014
I started reading this when it was first published. I just finished it and the delay helped me appreciate the authors' call for action.

I agreed with many of the authors' recommendations about increased rigor and correspondingly increased resources
In education. Yet many students are unprepared so as individual faculty increased rigor can be completely impractical. And for adjuncts it is nearly impossible. Their job security depends on good student evaluations. Yet they teach the vast majority of the foundation courses. They, even more than tenured faculty need institutional support for rigor in teaching.
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on October 4, 2012
Thorough data gathering that provides an expansive understanding of the factors impacting the current collegiate climate. I found it well reasoned and objective.
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