The Duck of Minerva

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F for the Professor?

February 4, 2011

Have you heard about a new study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authored by academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and released by University of Chicago Press? Their research question should be of interest to most of the people reading this blog: “are undergraduates really learning anything once they get” to college?**

The results are disturbing:

Their extensive research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and, for the first time, the state-of-the-art Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.

According to press reports, “36 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.”

The linked press report quotes education experts who frame this as a moral issue and describe the findings as “devastating.” The halls of academe, write the authors, are filled with too many students “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose.”

According to Arum and Roksa, the greatest problem from the institution’s perspective is lack of rigorous expectations for undergraduates:

They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.

The findings do suggest some good news for liberal arts majors:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.

Greek life, extracurricular activities, study groups, and other social experiences tend to be associated with reduced learning outcomes. Students who study alone for many hours per week achieve more.

Grade inflation is apparently another important part of the problem as students “earn” top grades without really learning anything. At an Arts and Sciences assembly last week, I learned that more than one-third of students receive a grade of A+, A or A- in University of Louisville classes. The portion of students earnign an A of any type in my classes is less than half of that number and I found the statistic quite disheartening.

The Social Science Research Council has published a short report “Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project” by the scholars (and Esther Cho of SSRC) that is available for free download.

What are the key recommendations of this SSRC report? Unsurprisingly, the authors call for more rigorous requirements:

Enhanced curriculum and instruction associated with academic rigor. More rigorous, appropriately demanding course requirements and standards must be put in place to ensure the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills (i.e., increased academic assignments requiring greater student effort, adequate student reading and writing, and high expectations by faculty).

They call for students, faculty and administrators to demand rigor — and for additional assessment to assure that it works (though not really via standarized tests). More funding would be needed to implement these measures at the undergraduate level. One huge current problem is that undergraduate education is often near the bottom of the priority list for major research institutions that are nonetheless considered top-notch institutions of higher learning.

** Faithful readers may recall that I have an additional personal stake in this topic.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.