Over the past week or so, I’ve read over R. Arum an J. Roska’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago 2011). The book and accompanying report, generated some buzz a few weeks ago with the claim that based on their study 45% of college sophomores showed no improvement in critical thinking skill from the start of their freshman year. They backed up this claim with a study based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test administered to over 2,362 college students at 24 schools.
They take significant efforts to control for variables ranging from race to levels of preparation and to the level of school. Despite the complexity of their analysis and the myriad variables that influence the learning process, the authors were able to conclude that the academic rigor of the college experience was the single most significant variable in the whether a student will develop critical thinking skills. In fact, the authors suggested that 40 pages of reading a week and a 20 page paper mark a level of rigor sufficient to promote critical thinking skills. They also observe that the humanities and social sciences are one of the best areas in the university to have classes with these kinds of requirements. In fact, social sciences and humanities courses ranked second only to science and math for predicting the best CLA scores and, by extension for this book, the best critical thinking outcomes. Business, education and social work, health, communications, and even computer science and engineering fall short. While this is an interesting ranking, it is a bit difficult to understand how many students would be engaged in major level coursework in their freshman and sophomore years. In fact, I might suggest that courses in the humanities tend to have fewer prerequisites (and require less remediation) than upper level courses in other disciplines meaning that freshmen and sophomores could more easily enroll in upper level classes. The same might hold for math and science courses where students can become engaged in their major at an earlier point in their careers. Business schools and specialized programs in education, health sciences, social work, and even engineering often require substantial amounts of introductory level coursework before one can be admitted to a program. These courses, by dint of being “required”, tend to be held in a certain amount of contempt and could well breed a particular kind of social pressure as most of the students in these classes are at the same academic rank. In contrast, upper level courses in the major (particularly in the humanities) tend to attract students from the full range of ranks exposing underclassmen to the more developed approaches to learning (on can hope) among more advanced students.
Despite the relatively small sample of colleges, there was little attention to the actual curriculum that students pursued. Instead, the authors focused many of their most poignant observations on the culture of university life and student and faculty expectations. While the authors were careful not to make causal connection between the specific facets of university life and student learning outcomes, they point to scholarship that shows a pattern of changing academic values both among students and among faculty members. Students have progressively spent less and less time studying, and, at the same time, many universities have incentivized activities other than teaching among faculty. They tied these trends together suggesting that students come to college with the expectation that social activities would provide as much of their education as actual course work, and university faculty are loath to challenge this percept out of concern for student backlash and poor performance reviews on standardized teaching evaluations. The lack of formal education training among faculty, a tendency to evaluate performance using standardized assessment tools, and a general disengagement from the teaching and learning process has eroded the will to push back against student expectations. The authors show how a willingness to meet with students outside of class, a rigorous curriculum, and well-conceived student exercises can improve student performance on critical thinking exercises. For students, they showed that studying more hours actually does improve performance. In particular, they suggest that students who study more alone tend to do better than students who study in groups.
The idea that more work produces better results is hearteningly simple. (And more or less consistent with arguments based on cognitive psychology and summarized in D. Willingham’s recent Why Don’t Students Like School (Jossey-Bass 2009) that I commented on here). At the same time, deeply-rooted student resistance to learning (and an inability or even reluctance among faculty to break through this resistance) does produce demonstrable, quantifiable, effects on students’ abilities to think critically. While our students here at UND are generally speaking pleasant, there is a palpable barrier between faculty expectations and student expectation. My courses are regularly criticized as being “too much work” for their academic level, and, as a result, I struggle with the need to balance course expectations, workload, and student tolerance for work loads (for some comments along these lines here). This is particularly the case in online courses where the only contact between faculty and students come in the form of written work (responses to discussion prompts, papers, essays on exams) and where expectations and work load levels vary widely. The most striking thing, of course, is that while the cost of higher education continues to rise, the willingness for students to get more for their money seems to decrease. Students want to work less despite having to pay more.
Arum and Roska conclude with a proscriptive chapter that calls for university administration, faculty, and even the government to take a more active role in monitoring critical thinking outcomes among students. If the US is going to continue to tout its system of higher education as focused on critical thinking skills “for the changing world” then we must do more to demonstrate whether students actually achieve these goals. Institutional transparency, more robust assessment practices, more rigorous coursework, and changing student expectations must occur if the US system of higher education should continue to be a world leader.