Monday, January 31, 2011

Don't know much about...well, anything

A side note before I start: I want to blog a little about Egypt, but I'm going to first re-read Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage, her memoir about immigrating to the US from Cairo. It's got a solid bit about Egyptian history, and I think I need that refresher.

There's this new book out that's causing a stir. It's called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and published by the University of Chicago press. I haven't read it (it's about $70), so I'm drawing on the many articles that are summarizing and analyzing it.

In their book, Arum and Roksa posit that students don't learn very much in their four years in college. How did they come to this conclusion? They tracked 2,300 students in 24 colleges and universities, using a variety of methods, including surveys, transcript analyses, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that (according to their website) "presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials and determine the relevance to the task and credibility.  Students' written responses to the tasks are evaluated to  assess their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently." Arum and Roksa found that 45 percent of (traditional, full-time) students didn't improve significantly in those areas during their first two years, that 36 percent didn't improve significantly over all four years, and that those who did improve only improved a little.

In other words, we're not learning in college. It's quite a damning conclusion.

It seems, just from reading these articles, that Arum and Roksa lay the blame on 1) lack of rigor in classes and 2) lack of time spent studying and in academic pursuits--most students spent 30 hours (or less) a week engaged academically. They also say this (quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Ed review):  “[S]tudents…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated 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 had the lowest measurable gains.” There's nothing about the sciences in the article, so I can't speak to those. (Does feel kinda nice, though, to have a little bit of vindication after having majored in such a "useless" field as literature.)

I'm a bit academically inclined myself, so perhaps I shouldn't really respond with my own experiences. But I do think about my college days, especially my first two years. I have distinct memories of my freshman year, sitting in the hallway (because for some reason, I couldn't read in my room) and puzzling over Aristotle's Metaphysics (it made my head hurt). I also have memories of holing myself up for hours and hours in order to study for Cosmology exams, of reading Beowulf at two in the morning because I couldn't sleep--damn insomnia--of being in study groups for Betsy Morgan's lit exams and Dr. Jenkins' Byzantine Empire exams, of sitting in my room senior year trying to piece together bits of research for my thesis.

If anything, I learned to think in college. Not that I hadn't been able to in high school, but it's certainly a different level of thought. I also read. I read a lot. I devoured books and plays and poems. Some of that I did on my own, but I credit many of my professors with pushing me to be academically curious.

Perhaps, in some cases, this "academic adriftness" is our fault as students--after all, learning is what we make of it. And perhaps it's the fault of colleges--that their expectations have lowered over the years, and, as a result, so has our level of learning. I don't know. There have been criticisms of the study, of course, and those should be taken seriously. But we should take Arum and Roksa's book seriously as well, because an examination of college learning is necessary to our growth (and perhaps our survival, but that may be taking it too far). Education, after all, isn't a static thing, and if we can make it better, we should.


  1. My experience with college is akin with yours. I am predisposed to love learning, and I truly learned to think in college. I remember wishing high school was as intriguing.

    But now as a graduate student, I do see what they are talking about. Sometimes I have to take classes with undergraduates, and it's amazing how little they care about learning. They are on their iPhones all of class and zone out the entire time. Not all of them, but I would say a good majority of them.

    Even yesterday, one of my professors was telling me an undergraduate couldn't remember if she had taken a class or not. She expected my professor to know because "why else is she spending so much money" if he doesn't know whether or not she took a course? My professor was like, "Well, I can look it up, but shouldn't you REMEMBER whether or not you took the course?"

    I don't know what is going on, but the education system is broken from the top down and the bottom up. Kids aren't being taught to think at the elementary and secondary level, and they come into college looking to be spoon-fed.

  2. In the UK at least, a university degree (typically studied from age 18-21) is used as a first-pass filter for most non-trivial jobs. I.e. you need to have one to be taken even semi-seriously (unless you are old enough to have a solid track record), but the details (subject studied, particular academic excellence) usually aren't important.

    Therefore "a degree" is a thing with a monetary value.

    Therefore people try to get them for the monetary value, rather than because they actually want to learn anything. (Hence the rise of cheating.)

    Therefore institutions arise which exist purely to grant this monetary value (and make a profit in doing so) - and there's constant pressure even on real universities to run courses that just churn out the bits of paper.

  3. @Rachel: There are probably classes that I didn't learn anything in while I was in college, but I don't think I actively *forgot* that I ever took them. Wow.
    I was recently talking to a friend (Chris Haw) who's adjuncting at Cabrini, and he said that he's absolutely discouraged by the state of student writing.
    I think you're right about the education system being broken--it starts when kids are young. The problem's so big that I don't know to even start addressing it.

    @Firedrake: A degree's becoming the same thing in the US, unfortunately. I also think one of the problems here is that a lot of solid blue-collar jobs have disappeared over the years, and now, as you said, you need a degree to get a non-trivial job.
    We shouldn't go back to the way things used to be, with a permanent underclass who couldn't go to college and an upperclass who could just get in wherever they wanted--though you could argue that with the way the US public education system is funded, that's still how it works. That, too, is a problem.
    I don't know. I want to see students learning when they come to college (and I work at one, so I'm invested in this). I don't want a degree to just be a piece of paper. But, like I said, I'm sort of at a loss when it comes to large-scale reform.

  4. sarah, I think what I'd prefer is a decoupling of the two concepts "I can wipe my own backside and turn up somewhere on time for four years, give me a job" and "I actually want to learn something". If the former is what employers feel they need because the schools don't provide any guarantee of that ability, fine; just don't call it a degree...