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Study Says College Students Don't Learn Very Much

New research finds less studying, more socializing in marginally challenging college environments

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A new report, issued by the authors of the book Academically Adrift, bolsters the notion that college students are spending less time studying than earlier students and are "failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master." Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 3,000 students on 29 campuses and found that--based on transcripts, surveys and the standardized test the Collegiate Learning Assessment--45 percent of students showed "no significant gains in learning" after two years in college. Their research also finds that students spent 50 percent less time studying "compared with students a few decades ago."

Academics and reporters parse the implications of the report:

  • The U.S. Education System 'Living Off It's Reputation,' write Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in an excerpt of Academically Adrift republished in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "The findings in our study, however, should remind us that the system's international reputation--largely derived from graduate programs at a handful of elite public and private universities--serves as no guarantee that undergraduate students are being appropriately challenged or exposed to educational experiences that will lead to academic growth throughout the wide range of diverse U.S. colleges and universities," they note. U.S. higher education still enjoys a "competitive advantage" in relation to other nations, but "less-than-stellar comparative results observed in international comparisons of adult literacy, provides little reassurance that the system's reputation will not become increasingly challenged and debated."
  • 'I Am Part of a Great Credentialing Mill' writes college professor and GOOD magazine contributor Shamus Khan. "Colleges are increasingly places for the rich," he declares, before conceding that his assertion is "simplistic" but valid. "Colleges admit already advantaged Americans. They don't ask them to do much or learn much. At the end of four years, we give them a certificate. That certificate entitles them to higher earnings. Schools help obscure the aristocratic quality to American life. They do so by converting birthrights (which we all think are unfair) into credentials (which have the appearance of merit)," he argues. Khan also refers interested readers to another 2010 study that shows that "study time of students has fallen from 24 hours a week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in 2003."
  • 'The Book Rejects the Idea of Federal Mandates on Testing'  The authors suggest "that such requirements rarely work," observes Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed. Nevertheless, the authors do suggest that it's "time to consider real change." They prescribe that colleges should "shift attention" away from "social engagement" toward "academic engagement" even if "those measures of non-academic engagement help keep students engaged and enrolled." Arum is quoted by Jaschik as saying "It's a question of what outcome you want ... If the outcome is student retention and student satisfaction, then engagement is a great strategy. If, however, you want to improve learning and enhance the academic substance of what you are up to, it is not necessarily a good strategy."
  • Results in Keeping With Other Recent Findings, assesses Jacques Steinberg at The New York Times--particularly "the National Survey of Student Engagement, which has polled more than 2 million students at more than 1,000 colleges and universities over more than a decade--and reported that many spend little time studying or writing." Steinberg also observes the potential correctives that Arum and Roksa provide: In their research, "students 'who spent more hours studying alone' had greater gains on the standardized exam being used as a benchmark, as did students who took courses requiring 'significant' reading and writing."
  • The Old Academic Motto of 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore, writes Kevin Carey at the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Trust Us" seems to be the only type of reply colleges provide "when asked how much their students learn." They are not subject to "an independent evaluation process," standardized tests, external audits or "publicly available learning evidence of any kind," he argues, before noting that the study appears to divide students into two categories:
A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest--most college students--start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don't get even that.
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