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Study Suggests U.S. Colleges Fail to Challenge Undergrads

When you pay thousands of dollars for a college education, you expect to learn something in return. Right? Well, you may be disappointed to hear what's happening—or not—on college campuses according to a new study out today.

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) just released a report, Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the College Learning Assessment Longitudinal Study, and a book discussing the study's results, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

The study—the first large-scale national survey of its kind—is based on an analysis of about 2,300 undergraduates at 24 four-year institutions to measure students' learning and study habits.

Traditional-age college freshmen from schools varying in size, selectivity, and missions, from liberal arts colleges to large research institutions, were contacted in the fall of 2005, in 2007 during their sophomore year, and again in the spring of 2009 to take a survey and the College Learning Assessment. The CLA measures general competencies, such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communication. It included three, open-ended prompts. Students used background documents to respond to a real-world scenario and solve a dilemma. (For more detail about the CLA, go here.)

Among the study's findings:

• 45 percent of students had no significant gains in critical thinking, complex
reasoning, and written communication during the first two years of college; 36 percent demonstrated no significant gains in those area over four years of college.

• 50 percent of students did not take a course requiring more than 20 pages of writing during a typical semester, and one-third did not take a course requiring at least 40 pages of reading per week, according to survey results.

• On average, students spent 12 hours per week studying (one-third of that with peers), and they met with their professors outside of the classroom on average once a month.

To find out what all this means, I spoke with one of the authors of the research, Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University and program director of education research for the SSRC.

Arum said he was surprised to find that large numbers of students were being exposed to such modest levels of academic rigor.

Instead of placing a high priority on learning, he said, colleges value generating new knowledge, advancing science in the field, and using higher education to improve economic competitiveness. Administrators are focused on the financial bottom line, institutional rankings, and getting top researchers and endowment dollars, he said.

"Across the board, you don't see a great focus on traditional core mission—undergraduate learning," Arum said.

When freshman were interviewed for the study, they often said they were were surprised at how easy college was. They also were often driven more by getting a degree than by obtaining knowledge.

"Students have become increasingly obsessed with the idea of a credential that can be traded for labor market success," Arum said. "They are finding ways to navigate the system with minimal effort."

The answer, he said, is not to have top-down, federally imposed, well-intended accountability mandates, such as No Child Left Behind. "They often have unintended, profound negative consequences on systems, he said.

Instead, the report suggests that colleges should foster an institution-wide culture of learning and change incentives to make it a priority.

Just as K-12 teachers have high expectations for students, so should college faculty members—who often aren't trained in how to be effective teachers, Arum said. "Higher ed. has a lot to learn from K-12 in thinking about closing the achievement gap and measuring learning and designing accountability systems," he said.

The report suggests K-12 should help students be better prepared and "develop mature values and behaviors conducive to learning." In addition to the lack of gain in critical thinking skills, the authors were concerned about the lack of effort students put into studying. "Schools, for me, are about training not just kids in academic skills, they are about creating attitudes conducive to taking roles as productive citizens," Arum said.

This afternoon, the Social Science Research Council is holding a discussion of the the study in Washington, D.C., with a panel of experts, including authors of the research.

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