some students don’t learn a whole lot in college

A few years ago, researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa released a book called “Academically Adrift” that claims that many students don’t leave college with new knowledge and new skills [Link to an article in the Chronicle]: Here is what they found:

Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college. [Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.]

The CLA is a proxy measure for what students learned during college. This suggests that more than a third of college students do not demonstrate any improvement in critical thinking during college. This is a tragedy. College is expensive.

Now there are a few things to note. Most obviously, these results are averaged across all students in all majors at all universities. Your mileage may vary. I share this information with my students on the first day of class. I challenge my students, but I think they will get their money’s worth from my class and will leave with tangible improvements in critical thinking and complex reasoning (and sometimes written communication, but I could do more with writing).

Students who did the best didn’t always go to the best universities (but that helps). Students with high levels of learning:

  • studied alone (yeah for introverts!)
  • had professors with high academic expectations
  • studied traditional liberal arts and sciences (as compared to business, education and communications).

This suggests the only thing I can do as a professor is to have high expectations for students (and to give assignments that raise these expectations).

I realize that in the big picture, some programs are quite competitive and attract the types of students who like being challenged and as a result, are challenged. But I realize it’s more complicated than this: there is a push and pull between professors and students about expectations (see this article about a teaching assistant at Columbia who inflated grades because so many students complained and it’s been widely reported that college students study much less than they used to). In general, these researchers found that professors do not expect much of the students and assign almost no homework.

A follow up report is out [Link] called “Aspiring Adults Adrift.” The authors found that the same students who didn’t learn much in college continue to struggle with employment afterward. What they find is really interesting. The same students that didn’t do well on the CLA were more likely to be unemployed, under employed, employed in a job with low skill requirements, and laid off. In other words, employers are good at recognizing who developed more skills in college and who didn’t.

The research suggests that some students don’t want to be challenged or to learn; they just want a degree. It’s not fun to “teach” students who don’t want to learn anything.

Interestingly, the students themselves cannot tell if they’ve learned a lot in college. They all assume they’ve learned a lot! This is not good. It implies that students are not good consumers when it comes to investing in their educations, and don’t see implications of taking blow off courses or choosing easy programs. (Side note: this is a reason why students should not estimate how much they’ve learned in end of the semester teaching evaluations.) The article ends with an important point:

Yet those same students continue to believe they got a great education, even after two years of struggle [after graduation]. This suggests a fundamental failure in the higher education market — while employers can tell the difference between those who learned in college and those who were left academically adrift, the students themselves cannot.

Finally, correction at the end of the NY Times article made me cringe:

“An earlier version of this article incorrectly used a male courtesy title for Josipa Roksa. She is a woman.”

I am curious about how you challenge students in tough classes. I’ve been given a lot of teaching advice of the years, and most of it hasn’t been very useful or practical (“Just be an extroverted man with CEO hair and you’ll do great!”). Teaching is definitely all about managing expectations, and I’d like to do that without caving and giving everyone an A (I don’t!). I’m sure I have a lot to learn from my readers who I know teach a lot of “hard” courses.

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4 responses to “some students don’t learn a whole lot in college

  • ocanthus

    I am not very good at giving motivational speeches about the grand challenges of applying OR. I apply the principle of difficulty scaling that is important to game design. So I tend to split the workload into three levels of difficulty. Simple and straightforward exercices help students raise their confidence level. (The best students can just skip this). Then I give an ungraded assignment in which they have to apply the technique but where they have some thinking to do. Finally I give them a more complex puzzle, often a real-world situation where applying the skills or techniques is a challenge and where more creativity is required. It works fine with my teaching approach but I feel like I have much to improve.

  • orbythebeach

    I like to give practice exams that are harder than the actual exam.

  • prubin73

    I think there is some conflation of “absorption of facts” with “critical thinking”. The CLA seems to measure the latter; the impression students have that they’ve learned a bunch may be influenced by the former.

    During my time teaching, I witnessed academe making the “discovery” that students are customers (as if they weren’t before) and the students concurrently discovering their influence as consumers. Couple that with an overreliance on GPAs by recruiters (a pendulum that I think may be swinging back toward the center), and you have students demanding high grades for which they (or their parents) have paid. Now throw in the rising importance of student evaluations in determining faculty pay and promotions (and the fact that a student with a low grade is generally not the author of a complimentary evaluation form), and faculty quickly figure out where their own interests are best served. (Hint: it is not in demanding critical thinking and then giving lower grades for a lack thereof.)

    Grump, grump, grump …

  • Francisco

    Hi Laura:
    I’m very agree that teaching is all about managing expectations.
    In this case I have to be agree with Tallys said before in order to give to the students practice exams that are harder than the actual exam. I tested this strategy in the last semesters and worked fine for my operations research courses (for spanish-speaking students) in Chile.
    Best Regards,
    Francisco

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