Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Do Students Learn in College?

They might attend their lectures, do additional hours of study and get good grades; but... what are students learning in college? A recent article in the New York Times asks just this question: "what are America's kids actually learning in college?". Thanks to Peter C for sending on the link. According to the NYT article, "a provocative new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, makes a strong case that for a large portion of the nation’s seemingly successful undergraduates, the years in college barely improve their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing." The authors are Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. A Google-Books preview is available here.

Arum and Roska's research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardised test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. More details on the authors' research project are available here. According to the authors' 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 the authors, "many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment."

In relation to academic commitment, education economists would draw attention to the idea of non-cognitive skills. Pedro Martins has shown that a targeted program related to non-cognitive ability – study skills, motivation, and self-esteem – can improve student achievement at state schools in Portugal. In work that I have done with Liam and Colm, there is a clear demonstration of academic advantage for Irish university students who are more future-orientated and more conscientious. A targeted program (providing academic and social supports) was evaluated in the setting of an Irish university by Denny, Doyle, O’Reilly and O’Sullivan (2010); the results suggesting it was an effective means of improving academic outcomes for socio-economically disadvantaged students attending Irish universities.

Returning to the NYT article, it interprets Arum and Roksa's research to indicate that "students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible." A study by three Cornell economists found a large increase in enrollment in courses with a median grade of A; after a new policy which introduced the publication of course median grades on the Internet. This is suggestive of students enrolling in classes where it easier to obtain higher grade-scores; an issue which I raised before in relation to the Irish Leaving Certificate: the final examination at the end of second-level education Ireland.

Recent research by Brian Jacob, Brian McCall and Kevin Stange (all from the University of Michigan) specifically addresses the issue of the consumption-value of college education. Jacob, McCall and Stange report that students "appear to value several college attributes which we categorize as consumption because their benefits arguably accrue only while actually enrolled, including college spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories." In addition, research by Babcock and Marks (discussed on this blog before) documents that academic time investment among full-time college students fell from 40 hours per in 1961 to 27 hours per week in 2003. Another article from the NYT tells us that Arum and Roksa's research is "consistent with the findings of 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."

According to this article in the Huffington Post, the Collegiate Learning Assessment "has its share of critics who say it doesn't capture learning in specialized majors or isn't a reliable measure of college performance because so many factors are beyond their control." Nonetheless, it looks like this debate is set to grow more widespread in the future. It also resonates with last year's debate in Ireland about the issue of grade inflation. Introducing a research component into the undergraduate curriculum could be one way to improve students' skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. In 2005, Trinity College Dublin launched a summer programme offering undergraduate students, typically from Science and Engineering, the opportunity to work in research for an 11 week period, on projects in laboratory environments.

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