on February 1, 2011
The authors' research and observations confirm what I see as very disturbing trends as I teach courses that involve complex, critical reasoning, and as I follow the experiences of current and recent undergraduates. Each year there has been a very noticeable decline in preparation for higher-level thinking. The students I encounter increasingly expect that they can succeed academically with shallow thinking and little effort by employing the social and strategic credential management skills that the authors describe. Those who seek a more meaningful intellectual experience feel surrounded.
The authors' observations about the importance of studious solitude and its increasing scarcity have obvious implications about the evolution of academic life. But I wonder if it is even worse than they describe. For example, the study hours they include in their data may be overly generous. Today, even those who want to learn and sit down to "study" are likely to be immersed in social media and other consumptive diversions. Students have many ways to avoid sinking into the depths of a subject or struggling with well-developed analytical writing, as the authors note. They rarely get honest and helpful criticism aimed at their individual intellectual and ethical development. I fear that the authors' important observations are only the tip of the iceberg. I hope that earnest students will read this book and set their own course.
This book couldn't be more potentially explosive if its contents were 100% highly-enriched uranium; unfortunately, the vested interests realize this and are already hard at work smothering the authors' findings. Authors Richard Arum (sociology and education professor at New York University) and Josipa Roksa (professor of sociology at the University of Virginia) studied over 2,000 undergraduates from Fall 2005 to Spring 2009 at two dozen universities (large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and institutions that historically serve blacks and Hispanics). They determined that 45% "demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college," and 36% showed no improvement over the entire four years. Including dropouts would have made the findings even worse. Further, those that did improve did so only modestly on average - eg. moving from the 50th percentile to the 68th in those four years. These findings severely undermine President Obama's proposal to boost the proportion of U.S. college graduates from 40% to 60% in ten years, parents' sacrifices to send their children to college, students incurring crushing amounts of college debt, and the rationale for average tuitions now having risen to 257% of their 1986 levels.
The author's assessment was made using the respected 'Collegiate Learning Assessment' (CLA) from the Council for Aid to Education. That group adds that "Academically Adrift" confirms their own findings, and that when combined with our 47 million high school dropouts and the fact that 40% of entering college students cannot read, write, or compute at a college-ready level makes our overall education outputs even dimmer - despite world-leading per-pupil expenditure levels.
The main culprit, per Arum and Roksa, is lack of academic rigor. The authors also found that 32% of the students they studied did not take any courses with 40 pages or more of reading/week, and 50% did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages during the semester. The authors also report that students spend an average of only 12-14 hours/week studying - 50% less than a few decades ago (per Babcock and Marks), and much of that study took place in fashionable but inefficient groups (per the data analysis). Another conclusion from the authors - instructors tend to be more focused on their own research than teaching. Despite this lack of effort, professor Arum also noes that the students studied averaged a 3.2 GPA. The 'good news' is that students reporting high expectations from faculty members did better, and 23% of the variation in CLA performance occurred across institutions.
The authors' findings are also consistent, per the New York Times (1/17/2010), with the National Survey of Student Engagement's previous review of thousands of students at almost six hundred colleges. That survey found that 12% of first-year students did essentially no quantitative reasoning activity in their coursework, and 51% of seniors had not written a paper during their final year that was at least 20 pages long - even at the top 10% of schools in the study. Similarly, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni study of more than 700 top educational institutions found that students can graduate with ever having exposure to composition, American history, or economics ("The Washington Post, 1/19/2011), while the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy decline from 40% to 31% in the past decade.
The authors found that students in traditional liberal-arts fields improved more on the CLA, education, business and social-work students didn't do so well. Business students not doing well is understandable, given the nonsensensical training they receive on free trade and illegal immigration, as well as logic derived from previously different levels of competition; education students receive even more fact-defying nonsense on the 'benefits' of class size reductions, extra years of teacher experience and training, and the general usefulness of certifications and added spending.
Authors Arum and Roksa recommend increased measurement of student learning, increased faculty expectations from their pupils, improved K-12 performance, and less emphasis on group study. They conclude with a question: "How much are students actually learning in higher education?" Their answer - "for many, not much." They may graduate (57%), but they're failing to develop higher-order cognitive skills - exactly the skills that educators use to excuse our dismal comparative performance on international assessments of K-12 learning.
Bottom-Line: "Academically Adrift's" findings are also consistent with studies of K-12 international achievement that found we're out-worked by our competitors. Why then do so many Asians come to American colleges: weekend observations at nearby Arizona State University indicate they're much more internally motivated, evidenced by my repeated observations that almost all the students in the library then are Asians, even though their overall enrollment is relatively small. American students must similarly become much more motivated. Meanwhile, Kevin Care, policy director of independent think tank Education Sector summarizes the situation well - colleges can no longer say "Trust Us" in response to questions about how much their students learn ("The Chronicle of Higher Education," 1/18/2011).
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.
on February 19, 2011
This is well written and analyzed (with good use of controls, etc.), and the findings are fascinating, though, unfortunately, not really surprising. The most significant problem is their mainly unexamined use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure "learning." They devote just a paragraph to discussions of the problems with CLA, with no mention, for instance, of Trudy Banta's insightful criticisms. So its arguments that certain groups of students fail to make gains at the rates of other groups are interesting and even useful, but these "gains" are gains of improvement in standardized testing. That's not necessarily the same as learning generally conceived.
Also because they surveyed students at only 20 schools, they are unable to say whether certain schools do a better job than others at fostering gains. For instance, do liberal arts colleges (there are two) do better? Do some schools perform better?
And they criticize surveys like the National Survey of Student Engagement because, as they ask, can we really depend on a self-report surveys to accurately measure learning, because respondents' memories are fallible. (Of course, that's true.) But they themselves depend on self-report surveys by students to describe which student-reported activities lead to more learning.
The book is worth buying, but one has to wonder whether their methods and findings warrant an entire book. Then again, it might take the publication of a book to engender the huge media coverage the study has received. And maybe that's a good thing. Higher education needs to pay more attention to teaching and learning, and this book brings that issue to public attention.
on June 2, 2011
The book will be of interest to anyone interested in how much students learn at college.
According to the authors, each "interested" party is actually focused on something quite different: Students want an enjoyable social experience and the diploma. Parents want a safe environment for their children and a prestigious credential. Faculty members consider teaching a secondary persuit. Administrators are more keen on recruitment and retention, and the government wants scientific research. Put this together in the market model, and higher education then caters to customers. Campuses are safe, classes are fun, and nothing stands between the student and their diploma.
That is fine, but this book asks the more important question: "are students learning?" Their short answer is no (45%), not much (55%). Five percent learn much.
Consider these sobering observations: Faculty spend an average of 11 hours per week in course preparation and delivery; teaching skills are gained mainly by doing; if they require less and entertain more, they better end-term student reviews -and these may be the only assessment their teaching gets, in matters of retention, tenure, and promotion. Students spend an average of just 12 hours a week studying for a full time course load. Result: after two years of college 45% of students had not measurably improved in critital thinking, complex reasoning or writing The rest: "barely noticable." Meanwhile, new since the 1990s, "a lot of other countries ... are now educating more of their citizens to a more advanced level than we are."
The authors surveyed a couple thousand students in a couple dozen schools using a lesser known and arguably insufficient standardized test known as the College Learning Assessment test. My opinion is that it should have been written up shorter and sent to a juried journal to be vetted by peers and added to other work on this topic -- not sent to
Richard Arum is a professor at New York University, and Josipa Roksa is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. They were irresponsible by overstating their findings, drawing sweeping conclusions from one nice but flawed study, and rushing to the publisher. And the University of Chicago Press was irresponsible printing it as something more weighty than it is. But they did, and did well for themselves I'd bet.
So I'll comment on the journal article it should have been. The broadest competencies on employer's wish lists and on university mission statements include critical thinking, complex/analytical reasoning, and writing. The authors claim that these are measured best, for aggregated scores, by the 90-minute Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) which uses a performance task and two analytical writing tasks. The authors used 2,322 sets of longitudinal scores (2005 and 2007) from 24 four-year institutions, and implemented a parallel survey. Then they exhaustively analyzed the results. It is likely to catch the eye of those in academic administration, but others will surely find it painfully tedious. In the back they even share the results tables, the instrument, and etc. (I suspect, to make it thicker).
You'll have to read it to appreciate the subtleties of the results, but let's say they perform multivariate regression on the dependent variable (change of CLA from 2005-07, i.e., learning) using the following independent variables, and I may have missed some:
STUDENT DATA (survey and documents)
Race/ethnicity and gender
Parent's education level
Language at home
Number of AP classes taken
GPA and SAT/ACT scores
Number of siblings
Field of study
Courses enrolled in (college transcript information)
Approachability of faculty
Faculty - student interaction outside of classroom
Expectations/standards of peers
Peer efforts toward learning
Peer helpfulness in one's own learning
Hours spent studying alone
Hours spent studying with peers
Reading requirements of courses taken
Writing requirements of courses taken
Dorm or off campus living
Hours spent with fraternities/sororities
Hours spent working on, and off campus
Loans, grants, scholarships
HIGH SCHOOL CHARACTERISTICS
Region and urbanicity
Minority dominitated (70%) high school
Highly selective, selective, less selective (based on avg. SATs)
All these data were placed against the dependent variable: change in CLA scores between 2005 and 2007. In other words the authors asked: "what, or what in combination, explains/predicts learning?" Some factors seemed to help learning (e.g., initial academic preparation leads to faster learning, as does hours of studying alone, working on campus up to 10 hours, grants and scholarships, faculty's high expectations, and studying social science/humanities/science/math). Some things impede learning (e.g., time spent studying with peers, time spend in fraternities/sororities or working off campus, choice of business/education/social work). Some, surprisingly, don't seem to matter (faculty interaction out of class, peer expectations/effort/helpfulness). There are many observations like these. I'll mention that when they threw all the data in the model, still 58 percent of learning was not accounted for; they captured less than half the variation in learning with their large and elaborate net. This alone suggests caution when interpreting the results.
Their methods seem sound and their analyses are thorough. It's mostly well cited and includes a long appendix on method (the last chapter ends on p 144/258). This could have been published in an academic journal, and on the first read I thought its social importance and the chance of a wider readership justified sprucing it up with a nice cover and integrated literature review. After hearing some criticism from my peers, I reconsidered. It's good, but overreaching. If you're an academic administrator, please read it anyway.
This is a thoughtful and interesting book, but readers should be wary of the reviews, responses and attention that it has received. It was hyped mightily in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and it has received a great deal of attention in the popular press and throughout the media. Variously characterized as somewhere between cataclysmic and apocalyptic, it has since been attacked as the (educational establishment) empire struck back.
Basically, the book looks at the results of the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment) instrument that was administered over several years to 2,000+ students at two dozen diverse American colleges/universities. The CLA instrument does not assess content; it assesses the takers' ability to understand information, sort through it and propose answers/interpretations/solutions in clear and persuasive prose. In short, it measures those skills (written communication, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.) that the educational establishment in general and individual institutions in particular claim to be enhanced, refined and expanded by the college experience.
The bottom line is that for many students these skills are not expanded in the course of their undergraduate experience. This epiphany is an epiphany only in the sense that it has been supported by elaborate testing and elaborate, skilled analysis. There are, of course, loopholes. Not all institutions and not all students were tested. How could they be? And, of course, whenever we are talking about human performance or behavior there are a multiplicity of possible reasons that can be adduced as being causal. Critics, including defenders of the current situation, have seized upon these loopholes in an attempt to reduce the force of Arum and Roksa's argument.
The main point that I would make is that that argument is made very convincingly and in great detail, with full awareness that the authors are providing reputable social science, not an apodictic proof that will absolutely compel belief and silence any possible opponents. Readers should be aware that this is a piece of thoughtful research (supported by a 60+ pp. methodological appendix), not a polemic, not a screed, not a phillipic.
The reasons for students' lack of academic progress (in this particular sense and area) has been addressed by dozens of commentators. Arum and Roksa are well aware of their work and they present it clearly and effectively. Very little of this work is counter-intuitive and very few if any of Arum and Roksa's own conclusions are counter-intuitive. The conclusions do, however, step on toes. Some of the conclusions include the following: a) more progress is made by students of the sciences, social sciences and humanities than by students in business, education and social work; b) individual study is generally more effective than group study; c) participation in the activities of sororities and fraternities does not notably enhance the learning process; d) students are not being challenged by faculty in the ways that they should be challenged; e) students are often avoiding courses that involve decent levels of writing (20 pp. per course) and reading (40 pp. per week), and so on.
For the most part, the book confirms what many have long known and believed. It does so within the context of multiple applications of an important assessment instrument, but it also adduces a great deal of other evidence that is part of the ongoing research into the experience of students in the contemporary American college or university.
"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!
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.
This book is an attempt to measure adequate yearly progress (AYP) in higher education. Stated another way, are university students getting an adequate return on the money and time invested in their education?
Adequate yearly progress was defined under the Bush administration's highly unpopular No Child Left Behind law. The idea was to use standardized tests to measure student competence at different grade levels, and see whether their classroom teachers and the schools they attended were developing their academic abilities at a suitable rate. This task has proven almost impossible in a primary/secondary school environment.
The obstacles are even greater in a university environment. Colleges and universities are not accountable to any state or federal authority. Whereas K-12 schools have a single objective, preparing children for college, each college is expected to have a unique mission statement. They are not all trying to do the same thing. And whereas you can impose a testing regime such as the National Assessment Of Educational Progress (NAEP) on K-12 institutions, at the University level you have to beg for permission.
The authors mind up getting permission from 24 colleges and universities and had participation from 2322 students. While the institutions are not identified, the authors go into some detail on the efforts they took to make sure that they were representative. Likewise, since participation on the part of the students was voluntary, there is no guarantee that they were representative. The study falls short of the gold standard of random selection of samples, but it is as good as could be done, and the authors are forthright about the limitations of the study and therefore the statistical inferences they can draw.
Their measurement instrument, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, was devised to measure a person's critical thinking ability. It presents a hypothetical situation which requires the examinee to read a number of documents, draw a conclusion, and present a written analysis. While this type of test is a better representation of real world problems than a multiple-choice test, its subjectivity makes it more difficult to grade, and leaves it open to quibbling about questions of bias, applicability, and so on. Once again, it isn't perfect but it is as good as can be done. The authors expect, and I likewise expect, other researchers to develop the CLA assessment concept further. It is something like the recent addition of essays to the college board SATs and graduate record exam (GRE).
The authors acknowledge support from a wide range of institutional players, such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford foundation, the Lumina foundation and others. This subjects them to certain protocols of political correctness. To be specific, they could not have included intelligence as one of their independent variables even if they wanted to. Secondary schools do not measure it, and nobody wants to hear about it. Intelligence is defined as ability to learn; the precise variable that they want. Instead, they had to make do with the closest available proxies, SAT test scores and grade point averages. In the end, they knowingly echo some of the errors of No Child Left Behind, asking whether or not colleges and universities are doing a good job of educating children without asking precisely the degree to which those children are able to learn. To their credit, they acknowledge this limitation.
Their conclusion is that colleges and universities generally do a poor job with the resources they are given in the way of faculty salaries and students to educate. Teaching is often a low priority for faculty, especially compared with research. Student evaluations played a large role in faculty tenure and compensation. There is an incentive not to ask the students to learn. The faculty and students make a compact: the faculty entertains the students and does not ask much of them, gives them good grades, and the students give high evaluations to the faculty.
One strong conclusion from the study is that collaborative learning is not effective. The more time the student spends studying with others, the less they actually learn. The key factors in improving critical thinking ability are the time spent studying, studying alone, the number of pages of assigned reading per week, and the number of pages of assigned writing per semester. The standards are appallingly low. Many students get through college never having been asked to read 40 pages a week in any course, or having been asked to write 20 pages over the course of a semester for any single course. Without practice in these critical skills, it is no wonder that they do not improve them.
A surprising outcome in this study is that whites and Hispanics do better than Asians. Most studies of academic performance in the United States show Asians outperforming every other group. This suggests to me that the authors are right in saying that more work needs to be done.
Lastly, it is good to see another book by Richard Arum. Judging School Discipline, which came out in 2005, was an excellent analysis of the effects of the public schools' conceding their moral authority over the past few decades. When you cannot enforce discipline, you cannot teach. Academically Adrift retains some of that flavor. When college students are treated as consumers, and the college has no moral authority to even suggest to them how to spend their time, how to study, or how to live, it is not surprising that they do not get as much out of the college experience as their parents did, and as those parents might expect.
on May 16, 2012
It is important to read this book correctly and place its argument in the proper socio-economic context. First of course the results are tentative based on tentative data. Nonetheless the corruption of American higher education is real. The real culprit behind the corruption of American higher education is not lazy students, unhelpful professors, and useless administrators, but decades of tight labor markets for fewer and fewer well-paying jobs (in 2010 more the 50 percent of Americans make less than $25,000 per year, less than 25 percent make more than $50,000, more than 30 percent of Americans have college degrees, the math than is very simple) which has placed a particular urgency on credentialism over real learning and personal development, especially when individual students finance 100 percent of their social education.
As a preface to my review, I have my students in principle of microeconomics read this book. It helps introduce education as a _public good_ (what Milton Friedman calls "Neighborhood Effects") and gets deep into issues of social and economic _inequality_.
According to the argument in this book the typical college student is learning very little. The authors demonstrate that the classwork expectations of professors are impressively low. Analysis of the results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) show that 45 percent of 2300 students fail to demonstrate any significant improvement in learning and critical thinking during the first two years of college. After four years of college, still 36 percent fail to demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.
The authors claim that the main culprit behind the lack of academic improvement is the lack of professors' expectations of students and a general lack of rigor.
The authors employ a surrogate for rigor as 40 pages of reading per week in a course and/or a course requiring 20 pages of written work during a semester. When students have at least one course requiring 40 pages per week of reading and/or 20 pages of writing in a semester, learning improves significantly. Unfortunately, only 36 percent of students have even one class requiring 40 pages of reading per week; worse still, less than one-half of seniors had completed over 20 pages of writing in any one course in the prior semester.
Students are academically engaged in less than 30 hours a week, and study on average 12-14 hours a week. The authors maintain there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort of students and student learning over the last several decades.
Students today report an increasing number of hours on nonacademic activities, such as work, rather than study. They enroll and seek out courses that have no substantial reading and writing expectations, there is little if any interaction with professors outside of the classroom, and the typical student believes their college years are more importantly a social experience, rather than academic development. The goal for many students is to maximize the social experience and minimize the distraction of academic development.
In my opinion the most important finding of Arum and Roksa is a persistent and growing inequality of academic ability between students. Indeed, the inequality between students tends to persist or even widen during their four years of college. This implies that college and universities are enabling nonacademic students to remain nonacademic, while at the same time providing an academic experience for those students interested in academic development.
Many people believe that education is a solution to social inequality. However, Arum and Roksa's supports the view that education reproduces social inequality.
According to the authors, when it comes to financing school, poor students borrow more to finance their education and are more likely to work. This would imply that those students coming in with low-academic abilities, who are poor, are not only not closing the social inequality gap, but are likely to fail to close the economic inequality gap (Arum and Roksa do not pursue this very important economic area).
Much of the attention this book has received has been toward a condemnation of higher education. Indeed, Arum and Roksa argue that there is notable variation in student experiences and outcomes, both across and within academic institutions. This suggests that school can engender a more academic orientation. Nonetheless, before condemning schools for failing students, and condemning students for failing themselves, we need a more systemic analysis of these phenomena.
The main highlights of this book are gloomy. Too many students are not learning on our college campuses, students do not work very hard at academics, one reason students do not work hard academically is because no one, especially professors, expect them to. Moreover, far from closing inequality gaps, institutions of higher education reproduce them.
However, it is very important to point out that the overarching message from this book is optimistic. Arum and Roksa report that offering the right "resources" matter, expectations from professors make a difference, challenge and high expectations from professors to student (when performed properly) can inspire young minds, enhance leaning and understanding, and encourage personal development.
Arum and Roksa's book is not necessarily an attack on higher education. No! They are pointing out these historically heroic institutions have been corrupted systematically. Too many Professors are motivated by their personal careerism rather than real teaching and fail to foster real mentoring relationships with students. Students are motivated by their own careerism desires, wherefore they demand and expect a curriculum that is vocationalized, and the fact that students finance 100 percent of their education themselves places urgency on this vocationalization of curriculum. In the end learning and personal development has been replaced by credentialism, i.e. obtaining the degree is more urgent than what is learned and how much personal development occurs during the obtainment process.
The primary lesson from Arum and Roska is not how awful are Professors (although they may be) or how lazy are students (although they may be) but of a society and culture that has allowed educational institutions and academic pursuits to adrift into a credentialism abyss. Arum and Roska suggest that this can be reclaimed internally, by enlightened professors and students, not by politicians and philanthropists.