Which College Students Learn? (Update)

Jim beat me to blogging this, but I have a slightly different take from the one he had. The Chronicle of Higher Education characterizes the new book Academically Adrift as a “damning indictment of the American higher-education system.” The headline finding? “[M]ore than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college.” The finding is based on a survey of a sample of college students who were tested on entering college and again in their second and fourth years.

That finding, shocking as it ought to be, does not actually surprise me very much. In my classes, despite my best efforts, I have always observed that a nontrivial fraction of students seems to be interested only in doing the minimum necessary to pass the class and get the degree. However, what I thought was more interesting about the study was what they found to correlate with learning.

The largest observed learning is found in students who say that their professors had “high academic standards.” Also, students at more selective colleges and who did more writing and reading in their classes did better. Finally, students in traditional arts and sciences majors improved more than students in nontraditional majors. The authors note that academic rigor is declining at American universities. One of the authors told NPR his explanation, with which I strongly agree: “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high,” Arum says.

Overall, the results vindicate the liberal arts model of college education. My own experience as an undergraduate at a highly selective liberal arts college and a graduate student and lecturer at an Ivy League university leads me to believe that the quality of education that undergraduates receive is higher at one of the top liberal arts colleges than at the Ivies – although the extracurricular and service opportunities at the Ivies are unparalleled. (Let alone most state universities, of course.)

To restore academic rigor at American universities, step one has to be the abolition of all the gimmicky, substandard majors: “communication,” “business,” “hotel management,” etc. I would even argue against teaching subjects like accounting and engineering as majors at the undergraduate level. If you want to be an accountant or engineer, you should do an internship or an apprenticeship or take classes at a technical school, possibly after having done a B.A. in a related discipline like economics or physics.

Step two is to restore teaching as the primary role of the professor at undergraduate universities. This would be a total revolution, one that faculty at most places will strongly resist. But if we want to have government subsidize basic research, then we need to separate that research from undergraduate education, freeing the best researchers from undergraduate teaching responsibilities altogether. Right now we have the top researchers doing indifferent lecturing and outsourcing the interaction with their students to teaching assistants – even in the Ivy League schools. There are plenty of academics who are extremely smart and follow the latest research, who would happily see teaching as their primary responsibility if our tenure standards were different.

These changes are not going to happen until voters demand them. The faculty won’t demand them – their prestige, for many of them, requires contempt for undergraduate teaching. The students won’t demand them – most of them don’t know what’s good for them, as the evaluations problem indicates. The only solution, it seems to me, is for businesses, who have to hire substandard workers who can’t reason or write, to undertake a massive policy campaign for radical reform of American university education.

American universities remain the cream of the global crop, unlike our K-12 system. But as Academically Adrift discovers, the continuation of that supremacy is increasingly uncertain.

UPDATE: My U at Buffalo colleague Phil Arena asks a good question about AA‘s findings: are colleges increasingly failing to teach, or have they simply lowered admissions standards substantially? No one disagrees that college admissions standards have fallen quite a bit since the 1970s. Now, are these new students in college less capable of learning? One might think the opposite: that students who learn less in high school and would not have gotten into college in earlier days might be more susceptible to the intervention effects of college – sort of like how poor countries grow faster than rich ones, all else equal. But all else isn’t equal, and it seems to me that students who learn less in high school are also likely to learn less in college, because the amount of learning one achieves at both levels has more to do with effort than native intelligence. Of course, falling admissions standards probably have a lot to do with the introduction of “easy-A” nontraditional majors as well.

11 thoughts on “Which College Students Learn? (Update)

  1. Reforms such as you propose are long overdue. Our daughter went to the College of William and Mary after 4 years in a local private high school. She readily admitted that she found college less demanding than high school. While W&M claimed to have a core set of courses, students were able to choose from a laundry list of cheap substitutes – I can’t remember what the “history” substitute was, but she managed to get through 4 years and get a degree without taking any American, European, or really any history classes.

    One problem lack of demand sets up is a ready conflict between parents who have an idea of what a broad liberal arts education should be, and the school, which allows broad choice. Students, often rebellious at this age, tend to side with the school and ignore the parents. After all, if the school thought basic disciplines were important, they would require them, right?

    Our daughter went back to school for three more years and got a nursing degree at Penn. She admitted later, as a more mature adult, that her education at W&M was pretty thin. She is now doing what autodidacts do and trying to catch up by doing alot of reading.

    Our son went to James Madison – it did somewhat better at core courses, but very little was demanded in the way of study. He too is doing catchup now and is astonished at how interesting reading history can be.

    I focus on history, but all of the liberal arts were neglected.

    1. In fact, elite universities led the way in abolishing or abridging the core curriculum, which I agree has been a failure. A related problem is that universities hand out AP credit like candy to entering students. I knew students from my high school class, 17 years ago, who received more than 30 credits on indifferent AP scores from places like the University of Texas.

      Now, I’m not such an educational conservative that I think an undergraduate education has to focus on the “great books.” In most disciplines, knowledge really does progress, and teaching from the great books would have use mostly to demonstrate that process and teach methodology or philosophy of science.

  2. A fine education is still possible for fall who desire it. Yes, our universities admit more students than will seek such an education. Could that access be the price paid for wide social support for subsidizing an education system that still provides significant benefits for a subset of the admitted students? Any given university is a marketplace like any other. Students who want an education will learn who to take, what to major in, and how not to let the syllabus and ways to game the grading system get in the way of learning. Doubtless, the system could be organized better to facilitate good choices by our students. However, a large enough portion of admitted students wouldn’t make “better” choices. They want a degree with the smallest investment of time and effort possible. Until external factors (often not experienced until after their college years) demonstrate the utility of learning, there’s little benefit to reforming the system. Yes, we might save some squandered resources for more valuable aspects of the university, but we might also lose some support. Our current system allows for significant degrees of self-deception among faculty and citizens regarding the viability (financially and humanly) of near-universally accessible higher education.

  3. I radically agree with all aspets of your diagnosis–despite the fact that I’m a tenured prof budgeted 1/2 teaching, 1/2 research. But what I cannot for the life of me see is the necessary reform impulse coming from the business community. The only kind of “massive policy campaign” the business community ever undertakes is in its own short-term narrowly-defined self-interest.

    1. Also: look at the majors you suggest should be done away with: “business”, “communications”, “hotel mgmt”, “accounting”. These are precisely the kinds of majors the business community loves and which were instituted primarily to respond to impulses from the business community!

    2. These are good points, and I generally agree that the business community is unlikely to do much here – but they seem like the ones who have some stake in reform, however tenuous. What we really probably need is someone like Gates or Buffett or Thiel to take on the issue as a personal crusade.

  4. Great post! It amazes me how few people (outside academia) realize that assigning rigorous work to undergraduates is detrimental to the academic career. First, it will almost undoubtedly reduce your evaluations. Second, you have to think critically about the assignment or assessment yourself; this takes time if done properly. Finally, you have to grade all of this work. And if students want to come by and discuss the assignment or assessment, that requires yet more of your time. Better to use multiple choice tests, assign no homework, and give A’s & B’s; then you can use your time to write papers and proposals. The low regard with which undergraduate teaching is held in the academe is at times shocking.

    I think one of the most interesting things about Clay Christensen’s Disrupting College is his observation that as soon as research driven prestige is separated from undergraduate university choice, the current system will come crashing down. I am not sure how this will happen, but I too wouldn’t mind focusing more on my teaching.

    1. With regard to Christensen’s prediction (hadn’t heard of the book, thanks for mentioning), is it really plausible that most or even many undergraduates will actually seek out an academically rigorous education without incentives to do so? Lots of criteria that undergrads seem to use to choose their colleges seem impervious to any possible revelations about teaching efficacy: ease of completing a degree, closeness to home, winningness of football team, etc.

      1. No, I doubt most students would seek out a rigorous education on their own. However, I would argue that the vast majority of people who influence college selections are too concerned with research inspired prestige and not enough with learning outcomes. This suits the faculty, as a majority of them would rather tend to their research than worry with undergraduate teaching (as you note above). A world in which employers are more interested in your critical thinking and problem solving as opposed to who provided your credentials would lead to very different choices. These might include forgoing college all together, but at least would lead to more students seeking out better education.

  5. I basically disagree that most students will seek out a rigorous liberal education on their own. The reason we have “learned professors” to teach them is because those “learned professors” presumably have the knowledge and experience to determine what a rigorous and broad liberal education is.

    A student coming out of high school does NOT have this knowledge or experience and when left on their own, clearly don’t choose standard disciplines nor look for hard work. Not to belabor this, but at W&M there was a “fine arts” “core” requirement. There were many choices to fulfill it. My daughter chose a semester on Isadora Duncan’s work. Not to belittle it by any means, it would be hard to understand her work without understanding first what it is she was reacting to. So an isolated course like that doesn’t teach much.

    I believe students should have choices but first they should do two years of basic courses that provide the fundamentals. I went to a much lesser college in the 60s and that’s how it worked. I was required to take English composition and a basic lit course, two years of history, two of science, 1 of math, art, music – and these were all mapped out until you got to your junior year. I truly benefitted from this and I feel sorry that my children were not guided in this fashion. I got to take some far out 20th century stuff, but not until I understood why such experimentation was being done. I probably would have chosen a more practical major if I had not been exposed to serious material early on in a disciplined and demanding fashion.

    I agree with the one writer too who said that we should not be guided by demands from the business community unless they are for better writers, readers, thinkers, etc.

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