Academically Adrift

[This post refers to a study with a large sample, but which has not been replicated]

One of the arguments in favor of college is that, regardless of whether you learn practical content in college or whether it helps you find a better job, at least it teaches you to “learn how to learn” and enriches you with knowledge. Unfortunately, according to research presented in the book Academically Adrift, colleges aren’t doing a very good job of this. The authors used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures skills like critical thinking and analytic reasoning to assess 2,300 students enrolled in several different colleges.

According to Inside Higher Education, the authors found:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

Inside Higher Education: Academically Adrift

There are various causes for this lack of learning, but low expectations from professors is allegedly the biggest cause. Students are getting by with less and less work and being rewarded for it. But what’s causing the grade inflation? The demand to keep enrollment up may be one cause, exacerbated by professors desire to reduce the amount of work they must grade. This avoidance assigning more work may itself be caused by budget cutting at universities, and by professors’ focus on their own research instead of teaching.

Another interesting finding is that business, education and social work majors learn less than those in other majors. This lengthy New York Times piece looks at the sorry state of undergraduate business education, and notes that my own major (communications) was among the worst as well.

This study has not, to my knowledge, been replicated. But according to New York Times higher education blogger Jacques Steinberg, it is consistent with the finds of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which found that students spend relatively little time studying.