Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Study Suggests U.S. Colleges Fail to Challenge Undergrads

From this week's issue of Education Week we read:

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, the author 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.