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An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Many of the 2,322 students moved through four years of studying, working, volunteering and socializing without learning how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

college learning

Arum, whose book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) comes out this week, followed traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. And after four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher-order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than one fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent – or 85 hours per week – socializing or in extracurricular activities. And they slept an average of under six hours per night.

“These findings are extremely valuable for those of us deeply concerned about the state of undergraduate learning and student intellectual engagement,” said Brian Casey, president of DePauw University in Indiana and a former top academic official at Harvard and Brown Universities. “They will surely shape discussions about curriculum and campus life for years to come.”

The study marks one of the first times a cohort of undergraduates has been followed over four years to examine whether they’re learning specific skills, and provides a portrait of the complex set of factors – from the quality of secondary school preparation to the academic demands on campus – that determine learning. The study shines a spotlight on the quality of the college education they receive.

Some educators note that a weakened economy and a need to work while in school may be partly responsible for the reduced focus on academics, while others caution against using the study to blame students for not applying themselves.

Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education known for his theory of multiple intelligences, said the study underscores the need for higher education to push students harder. “No one concerned with education can be pleased with the findings of this study,” said Gardner. “I think that higher education in general is not demanding enough of students – academics are simply of less importance than they were a generation ago.”

college learning
Purdue University students line up to rush a sorority.

But the solution, in Gardner’s view, shouldn’t be to introduce high-stakes tests to measure learning in college because “the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.”

Arum concluded that while students at highly selective schools made more gains than those at less selective schools, there are even greater disparities within institutions.

“In all these 24 colleges and universities, you have pockets of kids that are working hard and learning at very high rates,” Arum said.  “There is this variation across colleges, but even greater variation within colleges in how much kids are applying themselves and learning.”

For that reason, Arum added, he hopes his data will encourage colleges and universities to look within for ways to improve teaching and learning.

Arum co-authored the book with Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. The study, conducted with Esther Cho, a researcher with the Social Science Research Council, found that students of whom more was asked did learn more.

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts – including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics – showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

That is welcome news to liberal arts advocates. “We do teach analytical reading and writing,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, who has also taught at Harvard and Wellesley.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal-arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages per week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

Students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who study in groups.

“I’m not surprised at the results,” said Stephen Emerson, president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “Our very best students don’t study in groups. They might work in groups in lab projects. But when they study, they study by themselves.”

college learning
Richard Arum

The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real-world problem-solving tasks, like determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.

The study’s authors also found that large numbers of students didn’t enroll in courses requiring substantial work. In a typical semester, one third of students took no courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half didn’t take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the semester.

The findings show that colleges need to be acutely aware of how instruction relates to the learning of critical-thinking and related skills, said Daniel Bradley, president of Indiana State University and one of 71 college presidents who recently signed a pledge to improve student learning.

“We haven’t spent enough time making sure we are indeed teaching – and students are learning – these skills,” Bradley said.

Christine Walker, a senior at DePauw who is also student body president, said the study does not reflect her own experience: she studies upwards of 30 hours a week and is confident she is learning plenty. The 22-year-old political science major said she and her classmates are juggling multiple non-academic demands, including jobs, to help pay for their education and that in today’s economy, top grades aren’t enough.

If you don’t have a good resume, Walker said, “the fact that you can say, ‘I wrote this really good paper that helped my critical thinking’ is going to be irrelevant.”

Susan Campbell, a psychology professor who is dean of planning and assessment at Middlebury College in Vermont, said the study highlights challenges for busy students, who must attempt to balance academics “with a full slate of co-curricular activities, jobs and other demands on their time.”

“Even when students are willing to work hard academically, as they are at Middlebury, they often complain about the stress of trying to manage these demands and maintain the good grades they expect,” Campbell said.

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Letters to the Editor

13 Letters

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  1. I’m sorry, but I can’t make heads or tails of that pie chart. My eyes can’t distinguish, and my mind can’t name, enough shades of medium blue to connect the percentages with the labels. Would you possibly consider updating the graphic to use more than one type of color?

  2. The study regrettably confirms what ACTA has been saying for some time.
    ACTA’s study of more than 700 top colleges and universities around the country shows that students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language or American history. Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?
    • Fewer than 5% require economics
    • Fewer than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature
    • Fewer than a third require U.S. government or history, or intermediate-level foreign language.
    All of this failure from a postsecondary system that costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations.
    The goal should be to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think critically.

  3. Same frustration on the color chart. Eliminate the ‘sleep’ category so we can see what is being done during the wake hours.

    I love this quote [If you don’t have a good resume, Walker said, “the fact that you can say, ‘I wrote this really good paper that helped my critical thinking’ is going to be irrelevant.”]

  4. This article was published on the Huffington Post and many of the comments there are very good, especially the ones that suggest that reading 40 pages a week and writing 20 pages a semester hardly count as indicative of hitting the books. It was hopeful to see that liberal arts courses do in fact, translate into skills necessary for modern living.

    And the fact that business, and by inference, finance students show no development of higher critical learning skills may be related to the fact that the business community took down our economy a couple years ago even though numerous people educated in the liberal arts told them repeatedly what was going to happen.

  5. Demanding less in elementary school, then in secondary school, results in huge readiness gap in college students. Combine that with catering to the perceived need to entertain rather than teach, popularize rather than demand rigor, and the results are not surprising. Change expectations and teach what they need to know. (Ben- the chart is simple: start with darkest color near top and go clock-wise around it. The info isn’t randomly listed but in order.)

  6. The SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Study, “Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations” brings home the point that we as educators must do far more to ensure that our college graduates have the necessary fluency in critical thinking, reasoning, and writing. That so many were found by the study to have barely improved over the course of their degree program is startling and saddening.

    At Kaplan University, we have long been committed to ensuring our students gain competency in these crucial learning outcomes. We do so by embedding general education outcomes in all of our undergraduate courses. Specifically, writing is assessed using a universal writing rubric and outcome in every course. Critical thinking is an outcome in a third of all required courses, as are ethics and research. Art and humanities, math, science, and social science appear in a quarter each (respectively) of all elective courses. Students are assessed on their ability in these outcomes so that we can provide outreach where students are struggling, and we can truly establish that they are learning.

    For example, we followed a cohort of students over the course of three terms, tracking their competency in writing and communication. The percent of students falling into the practiced range—signifying that their accumulation of relevant facts and skills were essentially completed; that they possessed flexibility in deploying these across situations on a fairly reliable basis; and that their access to such knowledge and skills had become somewhat automatic—increased from 76% to 85%, documenting steady improvement of core academic skills of students as they progressed through courses. A second study, results of which will be presented at the 2011 AAC&U General Education Conference, looked at student achievement in communication and ethics. The assessment scores of 2,581 students from the BS in Psychology program were analyzed in 100, 200, and 400-level courses. Analyses showed a significant increase in the average score on an ethics outcome across course level. A similar trend was found for the communication outcome.

    Ultimately, subject-matter expertise in one’s field is clearly important—and we apply the same rigorous process of assessment to discipline-specific outcomes; however, no amount of subject-matter expertise will save a graduate from the crippling effects of an inability to communicate his or her message to an audience, problem-solve, think critically, value others, and make ethical decisions. Our program ensures that in addition to our core general education course requirements, students are practicing and applying these vital skills throughout their degree program, reinforcing the connections to their chosen majors, their future careers, and their personal success.

    I am proud to work at an institution that is so committed to ensuring students get all the skills they need for lifelong success.

    Kara VanDam, PhD
    Dean, School of General Education
    Kaplan University

  7. Guilty! a long time ago in a world far away, I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism [we call it mass communication today]. When I finished, I fell into a nest of Yale graduates and could not believe how much more they had learned in the same four years of their lives. My ‘professional’ degree prepared me for a lifetime of writing and teaching experiences but, as I found out later in graduate school [anthropology], there is no substitute for critical thinking. Literature? What’s that?

  8. I have many issues with this article and study. I have learned from other sources that do support some of the statements made in this article. My main issues come in the form of bias and what apiers like self fulfilling prophecy. this study needs to be opened to more schools, colleges, students, and take into consideration that many areas of study require critical thinking skills. However, I do understand that the definition of “Critical Thinking” would affect the study.

  9. There must be a Murphy’s Law regarding how long it takes before a commenter goes political, so here goes. This helps explain where the Tea Baggers are coming from – they must all have very poor educations, regardless of whether or not any obtained a degree.

    It is far easier to be a birther, denier, or anti-intellectual when one knows nearly nothing. Growing up, I used to think a person had to be exceptional to run for Congress. After only minutes of listening to any Tea Bagger that notion goes quick, none of them are qualified to hold any office.

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