There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in academic circles this week over the release of a book claiming college students are “Academically Adrift” (see also the follow-up story here). The headline findings, as summarized by Inside Higher Ed are:

* 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.

* 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.

* Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

You can read a report on the study, which presents the same conclusions while also highlighting the authors’ appalling taste in graphic design (do you really want to make your report difficult to read by putting a huge background graphic on every page?). They also have a culprit in mind, of course, because it wouldn’t be a scary report on the parlous state of academia if they didn’t blame something for it. Again, quoting Inside Higher Ed:

The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.

We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that their standard is preposterously humanities-centric (the most intimidating physic course most Ph.D. students take is E&M out of Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics, and the longest chapter in my copy is about 70 pages, so it might pass their threshold for rigor if you did a chapter a week), and take this at face value: somewhere between a third and a half of college students are basically coasting, doing minimal work.

My reaction to this is, basically “Yes, and…?” I mean, really. This is shocking news?

I mean, sure, that sounds like a surprising figure when you first hear it– 36% of college students don’t learn much of anything. But on reflection, that seems about right. Their finding, basically, is that one in three college students are coasting, and that seems consistent with my experiences both as a student and as a faculty member.

My undergrad alma mater is about as good as it gets when it comes to small liberal arts colleges– they’re usually in one of the top three spots of the US News rankings, and even there, I knew plenty of people who were just dogging it. There were a lot of people who spent far more time drinking than studying (at different points in my college career I was among them), people who joked that they were “majoring in [notoriously easy professor's name],” because they arranged their major track to hit as many of his classes as they could. I don’t know that I’d put the fraction as high as 1/3rd– certainly not among my close friends– but a good number of people were constantly on the lookout for ways to avoid doing work.

The same is true at Union. Physics is a notoriously difficult subject, but even here, it’s not hard to think of students I’ve taught who did as little as they could possibly manage and still get a degree. And for the college as a whole, based on the occasional faculty gripe session, there’s no shortage of students who are coasting. And I would expect that as you move down to even less elite institutions, the fraction of students who are just marking time is constant, or even higher.

(It’s a little tough to say exactly what I would expect in this regard, actually– since we have a very well-off student population, there are probably quite a few students here who feel free to coast because they know they can fall back on family resources. On the other hand, though, there are probably many more students at large state schools who picked a college based on the sports teams, or that sort of thing. I wouldn’t expect the coasting fraction to be significantly smaller at Maryland (my graduate alma mater) than at Williams, but it’s conceivable that it might be larger.)

So, yeah, it’s not hard to believe that a third of college students don’t gain much in the cognitive skills department, often by dint of their own successful efforts to find the easiest possible path to a degree. But really, I don’t think that’s all that surprising. Think of any job you like, and probably close to a third of the people doing it are doing just enough to get by. People are lazy, and college students are just young people.

It’s also important to note that the fact that students didn’t gain significantly on this particular measure of cognitive skills doesn’t mean that the experience of college wasn’t valuable for them. On the faculty side, we like to think that the only important part of college is what goes on in our classes, but in reality, there are lots of different aspects to college that end up being valuable to students.

At the most basic and cynical level, students graduating from college have gotten a credential that makes it easier for them to get a job. But there are other academic and non-academic processes that can act to benefit them without necessarily making them better essay writers. They get some exposure to different fields and ideas, which leads many students to find a passion for and even a career in some field they didn’t know they cared about before getting to college. They meet people, and make friends and connections that can come in handy later on– this isn’t such a big deal in academia, but in the business world, that can be worth a lot. On a personal level, lots of people meet their spouses in college or because of something they did in college, which can be a huge impact on people’s lives. Those are all experiences that make college valuable that won’t necessarily be reflected in a test of cognitive skills.

So, for all the splashy headlines, I really don’t see a lot here to be distressed about. A third of our students are coasting, but a third of our students have always been coasting, and will always be coasting. And if you think about it, around a third of all the people we interact with are probably coasting. That’s the way the world works, and academia is not exempt.

Beyond the headline results, there’s a lot of stuff in the report that verges on interesting– the highest gains are apparently realized by students majoring in science and math, followed closely by traditional liberal arts disciplines, while the lowest spots are occupied by business, education/social work, communications, and, weirdly, “health” (which I really hope doesn’t mean “pre-med”). It’s hard to get anything all that meaningful out of the report, though, because all the data are presented really oddly– the spiffy bar graphs are actually predictions based on a multiple-regression fit to their data set, as opposed to, you know, actual data– and I’m dubious enough about the way they’re presenting things that I wouldn’t want to use this document to make any more detailed argument. Some actual quantitative information is presumably provided in the book they’re flogging, but I’m not interested enough in this argument to invest that much of my limited free time in reading it.

Comments

  1. #1 andre3
    January 21, 2011

    Accurate headline: “Authors forgot what college was like.”

    I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to anyone in academia. I know about 10% of graduate students in chemistry along with me were coasting. A good portion may have never learned a single new thing. We called them Masters chemists.

    Also, you’re much too modest. If I were you I’d have said I attended “THE 2011 Top Ranked Liberal Arts College”. I get to say “a top 50 liberal arts college… this year.”

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    January 21, 2011

    My reaction to this is, basically “Yes, and…?” I mean, really. This is shocking news?

    The “Gentleman’s C” (probably upgraded to B- if not B due to grade inflation) is a well-known phenomenon. And it’s not as though our culture doesn’t celebrate these slackers: Animal House, anyone? (The book and movie are based on the Dartmouth fraternity to which the author belonged.)

    the lowest spots are occupied by business, education/social work, communications, and, weirdly, “health” (which I really hope doesn’t mean “pre-med”)

    My current institution has a major called kinesiology, which is a fancy term for “how to become a Phys. Ed. teacher”. I could see that program dragging the average down. I also heard at one institution where I was on a short list that pre-pharm majors are even more dreaded there than pre-meds: the same reputation for grade grubbing without the brains. Unfortunately, “health” might also cover nursing. While nursing might not require the intellectual prowess of a Ph.D., I would prefer that nurses at least be sharp observers.

  3. #3 Dan
    January 21, 2011

    Its unfortunate that you are critical of a study simply because the conclusion agrees with your folksy wisdom. This is the same mistake people make dismissing evidence collected in a medical study because they “already knew” the drug worked. Therefore, collecting evidence was stupid.

    We love it when the medical community actually attempts to measure how successful their expensive interventions are. We should be equally thrilled when the education community measures if their interventions are succeeding, regardless of what the results are.

    The truth is that collecting and making sense of thoughtfully analyzed data is actually important for making progress in a science. According to these results, education is a science that desperately needs some progress guided by academic rigor and skepticism.

  4. #4 andre3
    January 21, 2011

    Dan @ #3-

    The “study” is just the results of a survey which doesn’t really determine anything. So x percent of students don’t learn. So what? Has this gotten worse recently? Is overall productivity slipping? What about intellectual output (patents, scientific/academic writings)? How does this compare to other countries?

    Why does this survey require that education needs progress?

    What Chad is saying is that, yes, this isn’t surprising to anyone in academics. It’s been this way for some time, maybe even forever (who would know?).

  5. #5 Sven DiMilo
    January 21, 2011

    I think there very definitely are differences among colleges, though there are slackers everywhere. I’ve taught at 5 different institutions, and I’d subjectively rank them in terms of percent of coasting students (high to low) like this:

    2nd-tier private U > giant prairie-state land-grant U > top-ten West Coast public U > elite-ish “public ivy” SLAC > urban community college.

  6. #6 Perry
    January 21, 2011

    College is for us what high school was for our grandparents.

  7. #7 JMG
    January 21, 2011

    It’s also not really surprising when you think of the self-selection that happens in college/university. Smart, capable students go to prestigious schools and mediocre students go to mediocre schools. Most students choose majors that they’re at least interested in and shown some competence in which is based on hard fact (high school grades). If a program is too difficult, students switch schools or programs. It’s not exactly hard to see that this means that students, at least some of time, aren’t working too hard in their studies. T

    If a bright A+ student with excellent extracurricular experience goes to Harvard and meets people she will do amazing things with in the future but slacks off during her classes while there, what’s the problem? If an average student goes to an average school and gets a better job than he would’ve with just a high school diploma, meeting friends and having great life experiences along the way, what’s so bad about that? Should he have taken his Greek Civilizations course more seriously? My answer is that it’s irrelevant. Employers don’t care, he may not care, his friends may not care, and perhaps the (adjunct?) prof didn’t care much either.

  8. #8 becca
    January 21, 2011

    Wrong criticism.
    I went to the actual “Architecture of the CLA Tasks” document and it’s awful.

    For example, they provide an extended ‘crime reduction’ task, including the responses they are looking for. In short, you are provided with many documents and a position by someone: “hiring more police is a poor use of public funds because more police leads to more crimes”; included in the supplementary documents are figures showing that counties with more police have more crime. The argument they want, of course, is that you disagree because correlation != causation. Yet, there IS causation likely here, it’s just in the opposite direction. If they want the argument correlation != causation, they should go with pirates and global warming or something, not a case where causation is being interpreted backasswards.

    Moreover, if you kept all the socio-demographic factors constant, I’d bet you good money that you’d still see communities with more police having more crime. Why? Because you aren’t analyzing crime. You are analyzing REPORTED crime. More cops = more criminals caught. Duh, that’s the point of cops, one would hope. It’s entirely possible that causation works in the direction suggested, for the data involved.

    If students are not performing ‘better’ on this test, I think we can conclude… students are not performing better on this test. Not that they are not enhancing their critical thinking skills. Because anyone with finely honed critical thinking skills will find this test, and way in which they are evaluating the responses they get, to be bunk.

  9. #9 quasihumanist
    January 21, 2011

    I think we need to remember that a student going to college is not purely a private transaction between the parents, the student, and the college.

    The state gives money to public colleges and universities, and private donors give money to private colleges and universities, because they believe that education has effects that benefits not just the student but also everyone else in society.

    When many students are coasting through college, we wonder (as taxpayers and donors) whether the funds would be better spent elsewhere.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    January 21, 2011

    College is about gaining certification for employment. The diploma is the commodity paid for. Academic rigor only stands in the way of acquisition of that commodity. The student may as well just borrow the money to pay for the diploma, go straight into the line of work that requires the diploma without ever attending classes, so as to begin paying interest that much sooner to the lender. This would simplify and streamline the process without any deleterious consequences, since students aren’t learning anything in college anyway. Faculty could be dispensed with and colleges could focus on their real functions: selling diplomas and providing intercollegiate sports entertainment.

  11. #11 Rob Knop
    January 21, 2011

    students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.

    I wonder what’s so bad about studying in groups? I actively encourage my students to study in groups.

    Lots of people in the real world do work in groups. Scientists generally work in groups. Not 100% of the time, but we rarely do everything all by ourselves without bouncing ideas off of each other and talk about it.

    Of course, just because you’re studying in a group it doesn’t mean that you’re studying effectively… but, neither does studying alone mean that you’re studying effectively. The inverse (or converse or whatever the hell the right term is) of both of those statements is true as well.

    And, yeah, the humanities-centric metric (pages read, pages written) does make me cringe a bit.

  12. #12 Simple Country Physicist
    January 22, 2011

    What was intimidating was having John David Jackson as instructor/lecturer in advanced mechanics (post Goldstein level). After that his text on E&M was a warm puppy, especially after finding out the problems were worked by grad students and hence answers highly suspect.

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    January 23, 2011

    Rather than repeat my initial comments (which had already been posted twice and mirror some of your more-detailed observations), I finally put them in my blog. My early point was that they have no data to support the End of Civilization is Near commentaries because they only have one fuzzy data point for one group of students who started school in 2005.

    There is evidence that Becca is right, and that even the authors know that the CLA is not a valid assessment of anything. (Link to the blog of the person who knows this first-hand is in my blog article.)

    Another point I make is an allusion to the fact that students who grew up in the High-Stakes-Test-of-the-Day era of assessment are likely to blow off anything that doesn’t have a clear reward (like a grade or a HS diploma) associated with it. (I’ve had that problem when using the Force Concept Inventory.) That makes their conclusions from that assessment instrument even more suspect.

    Regarding studying, my observation is that some students mistake copying for studying. There are effective and ineffective group study methods, and about 1/3 of students seek the least effective version. Many of these fail physics if they don’t catch on that THEY need to be able to do the work, not just their study partners.

  14. #14 Kuas
    January 24, 2011

    I took the Jackson graduate E&M course when I was an undergrad at Caltech. The prof told us they had gone to Jackson because students complained the old standard, Smythe, was too hard.

    Even at Caltech there were plenty of slackers. They figured that since they had been admitted to Caltech, they had carte blanche to spend all their time complaining about how hard everything was and how overworked they were, and they knew that even if they graduated with a C average, most people in the outside world would think they were a genius just because they went to Caltech.

  15. #15 Kapitano
    January 25, 2011

    I’m from a humanities background, and my response is: Only a third? That means two thirds of science students are actually doing the work, and compared to my art history classes, that’s an astonishingly high figure.

    Easily half of the humanities intake are just there to keep up the class sizes. I don’t know how that compares with science courses.

  16. #16 Drivebyposter
    January 27, 2011

    Hello, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Mr. Oneinthree.
    I go to a small liberal arts college in Maryland and I don’t really try in school. I think the problem is I feel like most of the classes are bullshit and subsequently don’t care about what happens in them.

    I don’t feel like there is much education being done in college. No valuable, useful, or interesting information is being passed on. Just memorize this. Know what this author thought about this philosophy. These things are often forgotten since the only reason we needed to memorize them was for the test.

    College is a means to an end for me (and I’m not particularly thrilled with the end even…) and it gets treated as such. Most of my learning is done on my free time. I think Twain said he never let school get in the way of his education. I wish I could pull it off, but so much time and money is wasted in college that it is holding me back. That’s the way I see it at least.

    students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying

    I spend more time a day applying chapstick than I do studying, generally. My GPA hasn’t dropped below a 3.2 ever.

    I guess I’d try harder if classes were interesting, engaging, (I do have one professor that is really enjoyable and can teach, the rest pretty much talk at us) and they even mattered in the first place. Most of the classes I have to take are just to get the minimum number of credits I need to get my degree/are requirements for no reason other than to force me to get a more “rounded” education.

    If I did actually have to try in these classes I would probably just drop out. I feel the value of what is being taught in most of my courses is already worth significantly less than the effort I put into them.

    I think a lot of the problem comes down simply to not having a satisfying answer for “Why am I here in this class.”

    I don’t think people like me necessarily make up the majority of the vast amount of people coasting, but are adding to this symptom of our education system.

  17. #17 schmidt
    January 28, 2011

    oneinthree
    Yes, you have no interests, you are soooo worldly that nothing can engage you, you know it all. And, you are the student that your faculty care nothing about. Undoubtedly, though, if you ever get less than a B+, it won’t be your fault; it will be because the instructor did not do the right song and dance, did not provide the right encouragement to interest you in the material. Go start your job flipping burgers now.

  18. #18 Drivebyposter
    January 30, 2011

    Wow, way to be an asshole to me. I didn’t act like I was better than the professors or too smart to be there. There’s just not much to really care about. Go fuck yourself you self-righteous prick.

    I have interests, but almost none of them coincide with what I’m being told to be interested in by professors and the education system in general. I’m essentially getting myself into debt to pay someone to tell me to be interested in by boring and irrelevant crap. Maybe YOU should go flip burgers since you couldn’t understand what I was plainly stating.
    I.E. I’m coasting through because I don’t care about college itself. It’s a frustratingly wasteful obstacle much of the time. Only 2/9 of the courses I took this year or am currently enrolled in have something to do with my major but all are requirements. Having non-engaging professors in classes I don’t want pisses you off?

    Fuck yourself.

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