Many college students aren’t learning “critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills,” concludes a study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. They followed undergraduates at a broad range of colleges and universities for four years.
Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event . . . The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.
Arum and Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, comes out this month.
Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.
Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.
Overall, students at highly selective schools made more gains than those at less selective schools, the study found. But there were “pockets of kids that are working hard and learning at very high rates” in each of the 24 colleges and universities, Arum said.
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”
Students who took courses that required lots of reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning. In an average semester, a third of students did not take a reading-intensive class; half did not take a writing-intensive class.
“I think that higher education in general is not demanding enough of students — academics are simply of less importance than they were a generation ago,” said Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor.
Learning was measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an essay test that asks students to solve real-world problems, “such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.”
The study found students who study alone outperform those who study in groups, notes David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “That insight cuts against the grain of the recent trends toward collaborative and experiential learning.”
Studying in groups “seems to be difficult for students to pull off in a way that promotes learning, as opposed to being a social occasion,” Ms. Roksa said.
“A lot of institutions and actors in higher education have invested a lot in this idea of collaborative education,” Mr. Arum said. “These are very well-intentioned folks, and I know that they’ve been taken aback by what we found.”
George D. Kuh, a professor emeritus of higher education and founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, believes collaborative learning works for less-prepared students. The Arum-Roksa study didn’t ask if students study in groups by preference or because they’re given group assignments.
The researchers concede that point, but Arum adds, “If professors aren’t even being trained in traditional pedagogy, it’s a lot to ask them to pull off these more-complex collaborative models.”
He also doubts students who aren’t progressing on CLA are learning a great deal in their major. They’re not working hard enough, Arum says.
“Thirty-five percent of students report that they spend five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Do we really think that there is going to be a lot subject-specific learning when students are giving so little effort? I actually think that you’d find much the same pattern with subject-specific knowledge.”
Here are excerpts from Academically Adrift.