Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Academically Adrift

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 2011. $25.

Are you better off than you were four years ago? If that famous question from the 1980 presidential campaign were put to college seniors, the answer, for too many, would seem to be “Not really.” Tracking the academic progress of 2,322 students at twenty-four four-year institutions, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that for a great many students, college makes no change in their ability to think, reason, and write. The numbers are bleak: after two years of college, forty-five percent of the students surveyed showed no significant change in performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized (and challenging) test of critical thinking, problem solving, and writing. After four years of college, thirty-six percent showed no significant change. Is our children learning? Not always.¹

The strength of Arum and Roksa’s work is its methodical presentation of data to confirm what many observers of education might know only as anecdote and hearsay. Are professors asking much of their students? Arum and Roksa find that they aren’t. What Arum and Roksa see in higher education is, as they dryly put it, a “student culture focused on social life and strategic management of work requirements.” The average student, they find, spends twelve hours a week studying. Thirty-seven percent of students spend less than five hours a week studying. The work of many courses requires little reading (not even forty pages a week) and less writing (not even twenty pages per semester). Here, as elsewhere, Academically Adrift suggests that college tends to perpetuate social inequality: the less selective the college, the less likely it is that students are doing much reading and writing. As Arum and Roksa see it, administrators and faculty have a “moral imperative” to change the shape of undergraduate education, by asking more of and giving more to students.

Of course some students don’t expect a return on their college investment in the form of learning. Their aim is to acquire a credential. When I talk about these matters with my students, I make an analogy to shopping at the supermarket. If the point is merely to get a receipt and get out, it makes perfect sense to grab something, anything, and head to the shortest line. No waiting on Register Four! But having something to show for your effort is another matter. And if everyone has a receipt, it’s what’s in your cart — or what you take away from your education — that counts.²

One unexpected benefit of this book: one can draw from Arum and Roksa’s work a handy guide to genuine learning in college. Three things to do if you want to learn: Take courses with professors who have high expectations and require significant amounts of both reading and writing. Talk to professors about the work of the class in office hours. And study alone. Despite a current emphasis on collaborative learning and group work, Arum and Roksa find, it’s students who spend more time studying alone who learn more.

¹ Ronald Reagan asked the question that begins this paragraph. George W. Bush asked the question that ends it.

² The moral: Feed Your Head.

Another Academically Adrift post
Time-management in college

A supplement to Academically Adrift
Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Projects (Social Science Research Council)

comments: 4

Anne said...

I love the supermarket analogy. Thanks. Will probably be using it SOON!

Elaine Fine said...

It's important to remember that in many supermarkets the "house brand" is identical to the "brand name." And it's usually cheaper. Careful shopping for substance over flash can also get you a nice balanced shopping cart.

You can come out with just as good an education if you pick your classes carefully (and put in the work they require) at a less prodigious (read "State") school than if you go to a more prodigious (read "Private") school just to show your (hefty) receipt.

Daughter Number Three said...

I heard Richard Arum on a Minnesota Public Radio discussion show a few weeks ago (along with Mark Taylor of Columbia, who seems to think tenure is part of the problem). Been meeting to write about it, but it hasn't happened yet.

Thanks for the review of Arum's book. Depressing, and entirely different than my own college experience, even though I was doing a lot of things besides studying much of the time. I wonder what my daughter's experience will be like when it starts in a little over a year.

Here's the link to the MPR show: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/radio/programs/midmorning/index.php?date=01-24-2011

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I think that the supermarket analogy can be extended in various ways. A friend wonders about “convenience store.”

Daughter Number Three, thanks for the link. I wish I had an hour to listen right now, but I need to wait ’til tomorrow.