Some thoughts on Academically Adrift

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.


  1. Richard Rothaus February 8, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    I’ve been following the discussion about this book with a bit of interest. I think Bill’s phrase “hearteningly simple” sums it up well, as the solutions are straightforward and common knowledge. The not-so-simple problem, in my mind, is getting the colleges and universities to apply the rigorous standards. Colleges are what high schools were. On the one hand, who cares? On the other hand (unless we posit the human genome is rending to stupid), somewhere the system is wasting a phenomenal amount of time and money. But as Bill explains, no one professor can fight against that tide. Institution-level curricular revitalization is needed, and college and universities do that very, very poorly. I don’t have the references at hand, but I have seen a few analysis pointing out that people with mediocre college degrees don’t earn anymore than those who only have high school diplomas. So as an ex-administrator I would say: “Hey admin, step-up, bite-the-bullet, and earn those 6-figure salaries.” They won’t, but eventually a global market will recalibrate the system.

    I do think the research vs. teaching is a red herring. My years in a research office taught me something. The profs who had the most research success (funding, peer-reviewed publications, high-profile projects) are also the profs who are the best teachers (high enrollments, extensive out-of-class activities, advising). The research vs. teaching meme feeds egos and justifies poor teaching, but in reality it applies to a handful of institutions in the world, and we aren’t talking about those places. +2 for using “meme”.


  2. Bill,

    Coming from the private liberal arts college background like you, I feel that more emphasis should be placed on the community college and technical schools in America for getting the skills to do most jobs. Universities and colleges focusing on liberal arts should be the places where we field our champions, those who seek education for its intrinsic value, not for merely gaining job skills. The comment from Richard noting that colleges are what high schools were is telling. I feel some days that we are merely an extension of high school, which is only exacerbated by the K-16 mentality I have seen expressed in some articles recently. Instructors want to treat their students like adults, yet how many times do they act like children still. Interesting post, though.



  3. The problem isn’t academia’s “culture” but a vicious circle of institutional incentives that follow on two common features of academic life outside of elite institutions:
    (1) Students want to obtain credentials at the lowest cost, including the lowest cost in academic labor.
    (2) Administrators want to make money for the institution.

    What happens if your institution is driven by these features? Students will flock to majors where the least is demanded of them. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Communication Department). Administrators will direct resources to the areas where there is greatest student demand. The result will be a race to the bottom.

    Is there a way out of this vicious circle? Perhaps, although it requires a long-term view. Over time, employers will notice that the credential of this institution does not certify any particular skills. Employers will therefore hire from institutions whose students learn more. The credential becomes devalued on the market, and prospective students will go elsewhere. In the long run, then, administrators also have an interest in guardian the market value of the credentials they issue, and therefore have an interest in maintaining at least some level of academic rigor.

    Now this is a very tenuous route out. It depends on several shaky assumptions: that employers notice which institutions produce better employees, that there are enough institutions not caught up in this cycle to produce better employees, that employer knowledge trickles down to prospective students (whose main source of information is university PR), and that university administrators are sufficiently far-sighted to act on this knowledge. Not likely.

    I would suggest that the only way to get some traction is for faculty members to hold students’ feet to the fire. That means being far more combative and far less polite than we have been up until now. Get in their faces. Storm budget meetings. Air the institution’s dirty laundry in public. Identify the worst miscreants and get them fired. Turn your quad into Tahrir square. Because it’s not going to happen any other way.


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