January 18, 2011

Colleges Not Making Academics A Priority

A new book reveals that about half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges do not make academics a priority.

According to the book, instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives.

Findings are based on transcripts and surveys over 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is a standardized test that gauges students' critical thinking, analytics reasoning and writing skills.

Fourty-five percent of students showed now significant gains in learning after two years in college.  After four years, 36 percent showed little change.

The books states that students also spent 50 percent less time studying compared with students a few decades ago.

"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book.

He said that the students in the study earned a 3.2 grade-point average on average. 

"Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.

The Department of Education and Congress in recent years have looked for ways to hold colleges and universities accountable for student learning.  However, researchers say that the federal intervention would be counterproductive.

"We can hope that the (new research) encourages rather than discourages college faculty to learn more about what works in terms of fostering higher levels of student learning," George Kuh, of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, told USA Today.

Charles Blaich, director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, told USA Today that he believes colleges are aware of the shortcomings but are trying to improve.

"I wouldn't want to create the impression that schools are blind to this," he said.

According to the study, 35 percent of students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone.  However, despite an "every-growing emphasis" on study groups, students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.

The study also found that 50 percent of students said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote over 20 pages.

Thirty-two percent said they never took a course in a typical semester where they read over 40 pages each week.

Daniel J. Bradley, president of Indiana State University, said that the findings show that colleges need to be aware of how instruction relates to the learning of critical-thinking skills. 

"We haven't spent enough time making sure we are indeed teaching - and students are learning - these skills," Bradley told the Charlotte Observer.

Arum's book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" comes out this month.