Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The State of Higher Education: Academically Adrift

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, was released by the University of Chicago Press. The Chronical of Higher Education, the book issues "a damning indictment of the American higher-education system."

As one might expect, the book is receiving sharp criticism, with various faculty assailing its findings as flawed, rejecting its analysis as falling short in its assessments of certain teaching and learning methods, questioning the scope of the study, etc. Nevertheless, the book is sure to stir the cauldron for at least a short time. Whether educators take the message to heart to remedy the mess we're in will, of course, remain to be seen. Throwing more money at the situation will hardly solve the problems.

Here are some of the findings the book reports:

  • "Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students."
  • Thirty-six percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the CLA) over four years of schooling.
  • Fewer than one half of seniors had written more than 20 pages worth of assignments for a course in the prior semester.
  • Students are academically engaged, typically, about 27 hours per week (combined class time and study time).
  • Comparing these findings with scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning.
  • While "collaborative learning," where students are encouraged/required to work in groups, is highly popular now, the Arum and Roksa study finds that studying alone is more effective than studying in groups.
  • Thirty-five percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.
As an educator, my anecdotal observations agree with these claims.

So, what can we do about students adrift? Jason Fertig offers help here, in an article posted at NAS, concerning "students who see school as a social and credentialing experience more than one of intellectual growth." Who handed them such a notion? Surely, they did not come up with it on their own. Fertig rightly notes that Arum and Roksa point to the necessary correction.

A renewed commitment to improving undergraduate education is unlikely to occur without changes to the organizational cultures of colleges and universities that reestablish the institutional primacy of these functions – instilling in the next generation of young adults a lifelong love of learning, an ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and a willingness to embrace and assume adult responsibilities.

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