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'Academically Adrift'

January 18, 2011

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If the purpose of a college education is for students to learn, academe is failing, according to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book being released today by University of Chicago Press.

The book cites data from student surveys and transcript analysis to show that many college students have minimal classwork expectations -- and then it tracks the academic gains (or stagnation) of 2,300 students of traditional college age enrolled at a range of four-year colleges and universities. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other "higher level" skills taught at college) at various points before and during their college educations, and the results are not encouraging:

  • 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.

"How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much," write the authors, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. For many undergraduates, they write, "drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent."

The research findings at the core of the book are also being released today by their sponsor, the Social Science Research Council. (Esther Cho of the council is a co-author on that paper.)

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.

The research then goes on to find a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

In section after section of the book and the research report, the authors focus on pushing students to work harder and worrying less about students' non-academic experiences. "[E]ducational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not," the authors write.

In an interview, Arum said that the problems outlined in the book should be viewed as a moral challenge to higher education. Students who struggle to pay for college and emerge into a tough job market have a right to know that they have learned something, he said. "You can't have a democratic society when the elite -- the college-educated kids -- don't have these abilities to think critically," he said.

The book rejects the idea of federal mandates on testing or the curriculum, suggesting that such requirements rarely work. And the book acknowledges that many college educators and students don't yet see a crisis, given that students can enroll, earn good grades for four years, and graduate -- very much enjoying themselves in the process. But in an era when "the world has become unforgiving" to those who don't work hard or know how to think, Arum said that this may be a time to consider real change.

The culture of college needs to evolve, particularly with regard to "perverse institutional incentives" that reward colleges for enrolling and retaining students rather than for educating them. "It's a problem when higher education is driven by a student client model and institutions are chasing after bodies," he said.

The analysis in the book stresses that there is significant variation within institutions, not just among institutions, with students in some academic programs regularly outperforming others at the same campuses. Arum said this suggests that institutions can improve student learning by making sure that there is some consistency across disciplines in the rigor of requirements. "You need an internal culture that values learning," he said. "You have to have departments agree that they aren't handing out easy grades."

Further, he said that colleges need to shift attention away from measures of "social engagement" (everything that's not academic) and toward academic engagement, even if some of those measures of non-academic engagement help keep students engaged and enrolled. "It's a question of what outcome you want," he said. "If the outcome is student retention and student satisfaction, then engagement is a great strategy. If, however, you want to improve learning and enhance the academic substance of what you are up to, it is not necessarily a good strategy."

(If this sounds like a swipe at the National Survey of Student Engagement, Arum said it shouldn't be taken that way. He praises NSSE for asking questions that focus on the student experience, and says that many of NSSE's findings on the minimalist levels of academic work and studying are consistent with his own. Rather, he faults college administrators for paying little attention to those findings and more on NSSE measures of non-academic satisfaction.)

Arum acknowledged that the tough economy may be acting against reform, given that many professors report that increases in class size and course loads are leading them to cut down on the ambition of student assignments simply to keep up with grading. With fewer full-time positions, professors at many institutions "are overwhelmed," he said. But Arum challenged faculty members to be creative in finding ways to assign more writing and reading to students.

Distribution of the book is just starting, but there are signs it could generate buzz. The Social Science Research Council will host a panel this week in Washington featuring experts on assessment and higher education, with representatives from leading think tanks and foundations. The book will also be discussed at next week's meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs of AAC&U, said that she viewed the book as "devastating" in its critique of higher education. Faculty members and administrators (not to mention students and parents) should be alarmed by how little learning the authors found to be taking place, she said. Humphreys also said that the findings should give pause to those anxious to push students through and award more degrees -- without perhaps giving enough attention to what happens during a college education.

"In the race to completion, there is this assumption that a credit is a credit is a credit, and when you get to the magic number of credits, you will have learned what you need to learn," she said. What this book shows, Humphreys added, is that "you can accumulate an awful lot of credits and not learn anything."

AAC&U programs have in the past stressed the value of academic rigor and also of engagement of students outside the classroom. Humphreys said that she agreed with the book that some activities students enjoy may not add to their learning. But she said it was important not to view all engagement activities in the same way. It is important, she said, "not to lump together activities such as being in a fraternity or just hanging out with friends" with activities such as extracurricular activities that may in fact be quite educational and important, even if not linked to a specific course.

Students could benefit especially, she feels, from the point in the book about the variation among those at the same institution. "I don't think we are doing well enough at helping them understand that choices matter," she said. "Choices in the academic courses they take, how much they are working outside the classroom, how much they are studying, how much they are partying -- that balance is important."


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Comments on 'Academically Adrift'

  • so...learning does have value!!!
  • Posted by Karen Yaeger on January 18, 2011 at 7:00am EST
  • While learning does have value, we do live largely in a society that places value on superficial achievements, not on critical thinking. The only people who will appreciate this article are the social scientists, while it is educators, corporations, government, the individual...who should be paying attention to the loss of this value.
  • Academically Adrift
  • Posted by Mark Stern , University Professor/Professor of Political Science at Shepherd University on January 18, 2011 at 7:15am EST
  • The analysis and ctitique of higher education in "Academically Adrift" reflects the realities of contemporary higher education in the United states. The emphasis is on colleges and universities to be "client-centered" and NSSE results generally reflect that concern. NSSE is a measure of student self-evaluation of their satisfaction with the college or university enviornment and learning. NSSE does not actually asses what a sgtudent has learned. The Collegiate Learing Assessment Test, with its empahsis on "value-addeed' in critical areas of learning, should be a major key to assessing what an institution accomplishes in sgtudent academoic development. However, higher education, and its crticis, currently emphasize student enrollment and retention as the key to higher education success, without critically examining exactly what ever-expanding enrollment and graduation rates are accomplishing, aside from producing numbers that look good on the surface. Keeping enrollment and graduation numbers growing makes things look good for institutions. Perhaps this study can help turn-around the discussion of what higher education should accomplish and how what it accomplishes should be evaluated.
  • And in other news ...
  • Posted by Curmudgeon on January 18, 2011 at 7:45am EST
  • Research demonstrates ursine preference for sylvan defecation.

    Really, people, what did you expect after forty years of "retention and completion"?

    But how many of these underchallenged students have jobs now? How many are living with their parents?
  • No Pushy-pushy.
  • Posted by janjamm on January 18, 2011 at 7:45am EST
  • It is dismaying to see the lack of rigor EVERYWHERE, from film to literature (I have not been able to read a book lately that does not have spelling or grammatical errors) to art, to the trades, to construction and on-and-on. Americans now seem to feel that no one should suffer, no one should be uncomfortable and there must always, always be a happy ending.
  • Basically Wrong
  • Posted by Henry Vandenburgh , Associate Professor at Bridgewater State University on January 18, 2011 at 7:45am EST
  • No, it's because we're letting too many people into college. Many of these students can't (and never could) read more than 40 pages a week. We need a much larger (technician oriented) community college system, and laws that mandate the AA/AS level, rather than the BA/BS level for most jobs. Fifty years ago many of these college students would have gone into the factory. Our current system doesn't fit the reality of these students' skill sets.
  • I sure hope the study accounts for...
  • Posted by Seth , Associate Prof/English at West Chester U of PA on January 18, 2011 at 8:00am EST
  • ...the social class and financial needs of students in its analysis. I work at a university where the large majority of students work at least part time, many full time, and most are paying at least some of their own way if not all.

    In the article, it seems like the researchers are concerned about time spent in clubs and extracurriculars, at parties and playing sports, all of which I can certainly agree cuts into study time (although I'm not comfortable with the way they seem to binarize "learning" and "experience" as if they're mutually exclusive--but they probably nuance that some in the book). However, if their argument is that the optimal level of "rigor" exceeds the commitment that financially insecure students can make, does that mean financially insecure students simply shouldn't go to college?
  • Posted by fearful on January 18, 2011 at 8:00am EST
  • Another reason for lack of rigor is a school whose agenda is set by the state and not by educators. Recently, a wise legislature required a reduction in credit hours to graduate (BA, BAAS, BS) and the school will have some of the lowest graduation requirements in the nation. Also, the professor who makes a student uncomfortable by demanding too much, by moving them out of personal, not collective, comfort zones risks reprimand. This environment generates anonymous threats against faculty, denigrates the academic process, holds academic freedom hostage, and generates a sense that to invite rigor is to invite career disaster. The heads count, not the minds. A sad state of affairs.
  • That's why they need philosophy
  • Posted by H. E. Baber , Professor/Philosophy at University of San Diego on January 18, 2011 at 8:45am EST
  • Make those students take logic, the incarnation of rigor: you can't fake it. And philosophy, the royal road to intellectual power.

    I believe in what I do.
  • Need to Read the Details
  • Posted by MNGuy , Assessment officer on January 18, 2011 at 8:45am EST
  • I am looking forward to reading the book in order to understand how the data was gathered.

    Typically CLA is gathered from incoming first year students and then from soon-to-graduate seniors. Some campuses have found that although first year students take the CLA exercise seriously, the seniors often do not make a comparable effort. The CLA _is_ a great vehicle for assessment but it does put more demand on students than simply filling in ovals. If there is nothing at stake, the temptation to make a minimal effort is a problem.

    Unfortunately, at a time when demands that we produce more and more performance data, we also find ourselves facing students who seem less and less willing to disclose much about themselves. Some of it is research subject fatigue, but there is also a simple disinclination to let us know what they are think and know.

  • Poorly prepared college students
  • Posted by Keith Wheelock , Professor at Raritan Valley Community College on January 18, 2011 at 9:00am EST
  • The reported lack of college student 'rigor' and poor study habits clearly reflects what many of them have experienced in high school.
    According to a June 2010 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education study, over 60% of high school graduates entering public higher education institutions were required to take remedial courses in English and/or math. In New Jersey, at Kean University, which includes New Jersey's largest teacher training college, in 2008 67.8% of first-time/full-time students were enrolled in remediation courses.

    The lack of rigor, parental permissiveness and pressure, 'teaching to the test,' and a 'to get along, go along attiude,' result in students rarely being flunked or held back.

    I've been an adjunct community college history professor since 1992, after successful diplomatic and business careers. I have witnessed, over the past decade, a significant decline, among a majority of my students, in their sustained effort, their personal sense of responsibility, and their capacity to read and comprehend at the college level. This is reflected in the drop in the GPA of my classes from "B" to "C" over the past decade.

    What I find puzzling is that my end-of-semester anonymous student course critiques from my "C" courses are consisderably more positive than from my earlier "B" courses.

    I shall still continue to impose rigor, require sustained effort, and relish those students who demonstrate that they are, indeed, college-capable students.
  • What about Teacher Evaluation tied to retention and salary?
  • Posted by LM on January 18, 2011 at 9:00am EST
  • Well, if teacher evaluations are what teacher salary and teacher retention are based on, of course the classes can't be rigorous, because then the students diss the professors. Duh. We all want to keep our jobs too.
    --from a 15-page-writing-per-course place where students complain that they've never written more than 5 pages at once
  • Billion Dollar Sand Castles
  • Posted by Looking For Value on January 18, 2011 at 9:15am EST
  • Given the comments, the results of this study don't come as a surprise to most people. I hope the "buzz" created isn't limited to academe because academe has strong disincentives to do anything to change this. Making college more rigorous would require developing actual standards, lowering completion rates, creating a regulatory structure that ties student funding to outcomes (not the same as degree completion), and, probably, spending more on instruction. None of that is likely to happen in an environment where colleges are aggressively enrolling students, "degree completion" is the accountability metric of choice, and there is no relationship between the regulatory structure (accreditation) and performance. It takes a lot of honesty on behalf of those both giving and receiving student financing to admit that higher education's regulatory and financing edifice is built upon false assumptions of value.

    The only way that something will change is if external pressures are brought to bear on higher education. These external pressures are the federal government, state government, employers and competition from the unaccredited sector (not the same as the for-profit sector).
  • Defining and assessing learning
  • Posted by Linda Adler-Kassner , Professor/Director of the Writing Program at University of California, Santa Barbara on January 18, 2011 at 9:15am EST
  • This book might well raise important questions about students' experiences in college, and I also will look forward to seeing how the data were collected. However, as MNGuy points out, the CLA doesn't necessarily reflect what students learn. Real assessment takes place within the context of student learning -- in classes, on genuine projects. The CLA is a standardized test (albeit one that does include some writing) that purports to engage students in "real" activities, but the quotes there are intentional... the prompts are not real or authentic because they aren't situated in actual course learning. Students might not take the CLA seriously because it isn't related to their actual performance (only their institution's) ... which actually seems like a fairly calculated choice.

    Any discussion of "what students learn in college" must also take into consideration what students experience before college. The generation of students in college now are the first to have gone through all of K-12 schooling under the mantle of NCLB policies, with all of the implications for testing (and test preparation) that this implies. To learn about what students really know and how college course add (or don't add) to that, we educators need to take assessment seriously and make sure that it reflects the research-based methods and values of our own disciplines and institutions.
  • Read the bloody book
  • Posted by Michael McIntyre , Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program at DePaul University on January 18, 2011 at 9:30am EST
  • Several of the comments above are written by people who have not read the book (I have), but who nonetheless are willing to introduce red herrings into the conversation.

    In my experience, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the lack of academic rigor can be remedied. I noticed the lack of time-on-task over a decade ago, and our program took action. The faculty committed to academic rigor, and we began to collect data on student time-on-task. Over 60% of the students in our program meet the Carnegie norm of two hours per work out of class for every hour in class. (This in an institution where the average student spends less than an hour on study for every hour in class). Both faculty and students take pride in the program's academic rigor. And the program is growing - we have twice as many undergraduate majors as we had a decade ago. Nor do professors get killed on student evaluations. So I can tell you from experience that this is a problem that can be fixed.

    What's the bad news? The bad news is that the institution doesn't particularly want to hear about this success. The reasons aren't hard to figure out. Acknowledging this success would require, at the same time, acknowledging broad institutional failure. And that, I fear, will be the real reason that Arum and Roska's study will fall on deaf ears.
  • Lack of Rigor and Grade Inflation
  • Posted by Jim on January 18, 2011 at 9:30am EST
  • That college has become easier is no surprise to senior faculty members who have watched the course expectations in their own disciplines decline for decades. Watered down textbooks (filled with pretty pictures and snazzy graphics), short reading assignments, and an emphasis on team learning and problem solving have left many if not most college graduates woefully unprepared for their future careers.

    Interestingly, the decline in rigor has gone hand in hand with the inflated college and high school grades that reward modest effort and mediocre achievement. To me, grade inflation is not so much a symptom of a lack of rigor as it is a driver. Students will rise to the level of expectations set for them, and easy grades tell them unequivocally that the bar is low. That there is national concern over the quality of teacher training, for example, is hardly surprising given that the majority of graduates of education colleges have A averages.

    One way to reverse this dismal trend is to reintroduce grading on the curve, as was common before the 1960s. If mediocre work merited a "C" grade, and flunking was the consequence of skipping classes or slipshod performance, there is no doubt in my mind that students would study more and learn more. Of course, professors who enforced this grading standard would have to have the support of department chairs and deans, who would undoubtedly face an onslaught of complaints from parents and aggrieved students.

  • The Degree Qualificatiions Profile should change all this
  • Posted by Cliff Adelman , Senior Associate at Intitute for Higher Education Policy on January 18, 2011 at 9:30am EST
  • . . .provided U.S. higher ed takes its challenge seriously after its release on Jan. 25. A competency based transformational statement that invites additions and emendations over the next 2-3 years, it basically says that students who do not demonstrate X or Q of P shouldn't receive a degree (associate's, bachelor's, or master's) no matter how many credits they earn and no matter how high their GPA. No that (and not some phony half-test like the CLA, where administrators brag that their effect size is bigger than your effect size) should hit where this critique focuses. Stay tuned!
  • Learning is domain specific
  • Posted by Jim on January 18, 2011 at 9:30am EST
  • "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" . . . Learning what? The CLA does not measure any domain-specific content. Do people seriously think that a freshman engineering student does not learn anything regarding engineering by the time they graduate? At best, the CLA measures general, problem solving heuristics. Primary message is, don't put too much stock in CLA.
  • And we are surprised by this?
  • Posted by V E McLure , Professor/English on January 18, 2011 at 9:45am EST
  • Let's see, high school teachers are told that if students fail it is their fault, so in order to keep their jobs, they have to pass students who should fail. (I have that first hand from high school teachers in more than one district.)

    Parents of high school students want them in 57 activities, so they don't have time for homework.

    Dual credit? Don't get me started.

    By the time we get them, many students have never studied more than 3 hours a week, never written more than a paragraph, never really read anything, and on and on and on. We are starting at below 0.

    Then we are faced with administrators and coordinating boards who pressure us to pass/retain students who should not be retained because they either cannot or will not do the work required of them. We end up cratering because students have learned that if they complain, administrators (and sometimes professors) will give in just to get rid of them, their parents, and sometimes their lawyers.

    For too many years we have ridden on our reputation as the greatest nation in the world in all things. Well, that isn't the case any longer. Other countries have caught up to us, and in some cases surpassed us, in other areas. We have gotten lazy and complacent. Until we decide, as a nation, that this is not an acceptable attitude, nothing will change.
  • physical sciences?
  • Posted by Ryan S on January 18, 2011 at 10:00am EST
  • I would be interested to know what the authors thought about students in the physical sciences. Are they implying that chemistry majors only learn critical thinking and analytical reasoning in their gen ed courses? Or should they be assigned 20-page papers on organic synthesis?
  • Methodology questions
  • Posted by Peter Dorman , Faculty at Evergreen State College on January 18, 2011 at 10:15am EST
  • These questions are probably answered in the book, but they are worth raising here, since the article didn't mention them.

    1. What validation record does the CLA have? Does it correspond better to some parallel indicators of learning than others? In other words, not only, how good is it? but, is it biased?

    2. How have the researchers dealt with the endogeneity problem? Students who are more inclined to push themselves to learn will take more rigorous classes. How convincing are the statistical control methods used in the study?
  • re: I didn't know that! Tell me more!
  • Posted by Peter C. Herman , Professor, Department of English at SDSU on January 18, 2011 at 10:45am EST
  • Like many who have already commented, my first reaction was, "No sh**, Sherlock!" But I take the point of the person who demanded that we read the book first before reacting. I have not read the book, and so if I misunderstand, I apologize in advance.

    That being said, of course there is no rigor in college courses. First, students will punish professors who assign a lot of work, and until the malign influence of course evaluations on tenure and promotion stops, you are going to have junior and mid-level adjusting course demands so as to maintain high scores and positive comments. Nobody sane is going to martyr themselves on the altar of academic integrity. Second, in my experience, class sizes have ballooned beyond all reason. This past semester, I had 170 students in my Introduction to Literature class, and two graders. It is simply not possible to ask these kids to write a 10-15 page paper and grade it within a reasonable amount of time. Third, forgive the generalization, but in my experience, students either cannot or will not do the reading. For many reasons, they have lost the ability to sit down and read a book from start to finish, and any attempt at asking them to read multiple books over the course of a semester has been (again, in my experience) doomed to failure.

    I look forward to reading this study, and I hope that it takes rising class sizes, student evaluations, and the decline of reading into account. If not, then it seems to me that the authors have missed the three elephants in the room.
  • Physical sciences
  • Posted by John Farley , Professor of Physics at Univ of Nevada, Las Vegas on January 18, 2011 at 10:45am EST
  • I just finished teaching an introductory physics class (calculus-based mechanics), and my students were assigned to read 441 pages in the textbook in 14 weeks. Since this is only 31.5 pages/week, which is less than 40 pages/week, the authors of the study (Arum and Roksa) would claim that the course lacks "academic rigor". However, on my campus and others, physics has a reputation for being a difficult subject.

    So much for the inputs. What about the outputs?
    Are my students "academically adrift"? Arum and Roksa would measure that by giving the students a test of critical thinking, and seeing if their critical thinking score went up. It's more appropriate to see if my students' understanding of physics improved. My course is a physics class, not a critical thinking class. (Critical thinking is a wonderful thing, but it's an incidental part of the course syllabus.)

    Arum and Roksa also claim that a course that doesn't require much writing of essays "lacks academic rigor". In the natural sciences, courses typically require solving problem sets, not writing essays.

    Measuring the required reading in pages/week may be an appropriate yardstick to compare one literature class with another literature class. (Or maybe not. How many words per page? That depends on the font size and page size!) But it is not appropriate for comparing a literature course with a course in the natural sciences and engineering.

  • Students' reasons for attending college
  • Posted by Gary on January 18, 2011 at 10:45am EST
  • Some years ago, I tracked 19 undergraduates, giving them the National Teachers' Exam (long replaced by Praxis) annually. Their scores on the general knowledge test did not change significantly over the four years. However, their scores on the education portion did change, leading to the conclusion that students go to college to be something but it is not necessarily "broadly educated." In this case, they were aspiring teachers, but I suspect the findings would not be much different for many other professions.
  • We have meet the enemy and we are it
  • Posted by Robert Martin , Emeritus Professor on January 18, 2011 at 11:30am EST
  • Some of the responses here are disappointing.

    As faculty, we jealously guard our exclusive curriculum control and are the obvious guardians of academic standards; if not faculty, who should be responsible for academic standards? No matter what the pressure from students or administrators, we are responsible for rigor in the classroom and we are responsible for maintaining professional standards among our colleagues.

    Over the past three decades, teaching loads, class sizes, and semester lengths have continuously declined. Furthermore, we stood by and watched grade inflation undermine standards. This book should be a wake-up call for all of us. Yet, we seem to persist in not taking responsibility.
  • What academic Rigor
  • Posted by College Professor , Easy A at Hamburger U on January 18, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • As a college professor I am judged by student evaluations. Although our Dept. "looks at" other aspects of teaching, there is a cut off point for student evaluations for which nothing else matters. If the overwhelming majority of students do not give me A or B ratings on feel good kinds of questions, I am judged to be ineffective. When I have held them accountability for the grunt work required to develop solid critical thinking skills, I was called in by my Dean and told I was essentially an ineffective educator. Even though more students than not rate me favorably (e.g., 67%) what matters is some arbitrary number (e.g., 75%). Therefore I have watered down my curriculum to feed them academic candy. Then my ratings were great and students even commented on how much they learned.
  • thoughts.. who is responsible? not me!!
  • Posted by jvincentnix , Organizational and Personal Development Professional at N/A on January 18, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • @Henry Vandenburgh c'mon, that's a cop-out. Look at all these for-profit "technical" schools, they are absorbing most of the students that as you say, "shouldn't be in school." Also, it is imperative that we get more numbers to replace dwindling budget-cuts. Whether they should be or should not be in school is a moot point; they ARE in school. Are you suggesting that we only allow students in that are already nearer the desired "cookie-cutter" outcomes? Maybe you aren't, but it sure was perceived that way on my part.

    I get really frustrated at that type of attitude. If we, as INDIVIDUAL educators, are intentional, and spend the time to do what we should be in the "edumacatin' field" to do anyway, we can systematically and systemically address this problem.

    What it boils down to, is really simple. Not many individuals want to accept responsibility for intentional student development. I have 13 years of administrative HE data-gathering and over five years of faculty data-gathering that show me, as a professional and academic, that our U.S. highered system, on the whole, simply has not taken responsibility for development and is not held accountable, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.

    Until we systemically address responsibility and accountability, practically--not only theoretically, in the curriculum and extra-curriculum activities, data will yield similar results.

  • mutually exclusive?!
  • Posted , Organizational and Personal Development professional at N/A on January 18, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • @JohnFarley
    Think about what you wrote... physics doesn't require critical thinking? Your hang-up on semantics illustrates the avoidance of responsibility. I'd love to see one of your lesson plans... or not.
  • Rigor and training only the elite
  • Posted by Jeffrey Klausman , English at Whatcom Community College on January 18, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • Remember the old David Lodge novel, "Trading Places"? The English prof transported to Berkeley notes the lack of rigor at the undergraduate level in US college compared with British colleges. But that lack of rigor is made up for by "a brutal sequence of graduate courses" later on. The novel was released in 1975. Maybe the lack of rigor is by design.
  • Lack of preparation and college planning
  • Posted by Susie Watts , Educational Consultant and College Planner at College Direction on January 18, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • As a college consultant, I would like to think that students gain more from a college education than it appears they do. I often tell students that it is not just the academic experience, but what you do during those four years that makes a difference. While students may not show gains on a test from extracurricular activities, they can gain leadership skills that may be very valuable when they apply for jobs. I do believe that too many high school students today are not prepared for rigor of any kind. That is where the college planning comes in. We should not ask, "Where do you want to go to college," but instead ask,"Why do you want to go to college?" I have always been an advocate of the liberal arts and it is nice to see that students in this area have actually come out on top.
  • Scary statement
  • Posted by Max Jerrell , emeritus on January 18, 2011 at 12:45pm EST
  • Let me paraphrase a scary statement I read the other day. "The problem with education in the U.S. is that we don't value learning."

    We do value certification. But if one values certification and not learning, it makes sense to get the certification with minimal cost (the effort of learning). This would imply that there is little an institution can really do to improve learning.

    An anecdote: A colleague assigned three books to be read for her class. One of her students told her that he was a graduating senior, that he had not read a book in college, and that he did not intend to start now.
  • Group work
  • Posted by George Purcell on January 18, 2011 at 1:30pm EST
  • Hopefully this is the first nail in the coffin for the fetishization of group work in higher education.
  • Other reasons
  • Posted by Hannah , Ex-Adjunked on January 18, 2011 at 2:00pm EST
  • Besides the insightful reasons for lack of academic rigor from other posters, there is a cultural one: students are told they need to have a college degree to get a job--not even a good one, just a job. Until the 1070's, high school graduates could get jobs in come kind of manufacturing or apprentice trade, even in agriculture. Now that most manufacturing has been outsourced, all that is left are "service" fields, which have a finite saturation point. The result is students who are not meant to attend college clamoring to do so because they need that degree to get "a degree" so they can get "a decent job." I've read that in several ivy league univeristy towns, you need a Ph.D. just to clerk in a local bookstore. Students without any inclination to work to learn will take advantage of the "customer oriented" higher ed ethos, largely mandated by absurd state enrollment funding formulas, and use theirs and their parental leverage to put every pressure on professors not to make them work too hard.
    Higher ed's dependendence on contingent facutly to educate the majority of students pretty much dooms unifying academic rigor; many ad-cons will have students do all sorts of fun, pleasurable things to keep enrollment from plunging to the point of class closure and to ensure students will enroll in their classes in future semesters.
    As a culture, we need to make it clear we WANT rigor in academica. In the late 60's I had a full scholarship to a private high school. Over the summer of our junior year we had to write a 50-page research paper and turn it in the first day of our senior year. This, in addition to reading some 20 full-lengh books each semester. None of us were necessarily "smarter" than students of today. It was just that we thought all high school students had to do this; rigorousness in all subjects was so assumed that there was no room for pondering how much work we had to do.
    Academic rigor, then, will never happen unless parents and students decide they truly want it.
  • Posted by Perry on January 18, 2011 at 2:00pm EST
  • What does the length of a paper have to do with the quality of the writing? It takes more skill to write concisely.
  • What's the value of a college education?
  • Posted by Sandy Thatcher on January 18, 2011 at 2:00pm EST
  • If this study is correct, then the results of another study suggests that the main reason to go to college is to get the imprimatur you need to qualify for a job interview: But that excludes most of the 3,000 colleges in the U.S. Still, sociologist Mark Granovetter taught us long ago that networking was the way to get good jobs, and the higher the status of a university, the more likely its alumni network will work in your favor. So, going to college may be worth the expense, if it gets you in line for the best jobs upon graduation, but this seems to have little to do with the actual learning you obtain while there. --- Sandy Thatcher
  • If I use Courier, Will I Be Smarter?
  • Posted by Times New Roman on January 18, 2011 at 2:15pm EST
  • I'm writing syllabi now, and reflecting on the fact that my writing requirement is in words, not pages. I have a larger point here, but first I want to note that 20 pages (where did that cut off in the article come from, anyway?) is longer than it used to be, when we wrote with typewriters, rather than proportional fonts (17% longer viz. 250 vs. 300 words per page).

    My larger point is this: I do not doubt that there are dysfunctions in the current system, including an over-reliance on student satisfaction and on graduation rates. I also do not doubt, however, that there measuring student achievement is very complex, and that people's memories of the good old days are rose-colored. To take one example: the older readers of Inside Higher Ed. were probably all good students (how many unmotivated college students turn around and read about ... college?). They remember how they behaved in college, not the whole class.

    Increasing rigor is a good thing--I'm all for it. But I fear we will go about it in the wrong way and look for the wrong answers if we are moved by this sort of study. Let's just increase rigor because it's a good thing to do.

    Did I write enough words yet?
  • Stronger Standards - Failure
  • Posted by Sue on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • We created a sytstem where we cannot fail students because it hurts their self-esteem and the failure rate is published. Teachers are being blamed for the educational mess. Here is what is needed. Set standards high. Let students who don't meet the standard fail. That is right - fail. They will learn to do the necessary work, manage their time, and develop a work ethic that will carry them into the work force. If they had to work for their grades, they would then say they learned in college.
  • Cherchez les bucks
  • Posted by Querty on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • What's rational at the individual level doesn't necessarily scale up to what's rational for society as a whole.

    At the individual school and college level the institution is rewarded according to graduation rates. I've been at a meeting where the Chancellor scolded us because we failed too many students - excuse me - "your graduation rates are too low". The legislature wasn't happy and state funds were at risk. With limited resources it wasn't possible to do extensive remedial work and individually coach students up to a high standard. QED.

  • Media
  • Posted by Penelope , English Department at Idaho State University on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • Nobody seems to want to confront some of the issues I've observed over the past few years among my students: Ipods in all the ears even when doing homework or supposedly reading. Texting under desks during class. Practically zero knowledge of current events because today's diverse media makes it possible to never access a news program or newspaper. It's a rare student who actually reads books. I've heard young people brag about making it through college without ever having read one. AND students have told me they are no longer learning to handwrite in cursive, and consequently can't read it either. Contemplative time with papers and pens is all but lost; word processing is another animal entirely.
  • What is "Learning?"
  • Posted by Laurence Jarvik , Adjunct on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • I honestly don't understand what the authors of the study mean. I don't know that anyone majors in learning, or teaches learning, so why are they using it as a criterion for analysis? Where's the "critical thinking?"

  • Study Groups in STEM?
  • Posted by A Science Professor on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • I'm quite confused by what the CLA claims to measure. The article says the authors have evidence that "[s]tudents who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains."

    This result contradicts decades (literally!) of research unequivocally showing the exact opposite--at least for science and math classes. Students struggling in STEM classes absolutely should be studying in groups.

    So what is this "knowledge" the CLA is measuring?
  • Academic Rigor
  • Posted by College Professor on January 18, 2011 at 5:15pm EST
  • I totally agree with some of the comments above that universities these days are too preoccupied by so-called "customer satisfaction". The administrators tend to beat up on professors if their student evaluations are below some moving average. Students these days do not want to come to class to be "educated". They want to be "entertained". So we educators have to learn to be a good "edutainer" to keep the customers happy.
  • This is worthy of a study?
  • Posted by Chris , former Math adjunct at many and varied schools on January 18, 2011 at 5:30pm EST
  • Anyone who has ever set foot in a college classroom for more than a few days could tell you this.

    Setting arbitrary limits on pages read or written doesn't address the issue, although when you consider that it says "not a single course" in four years with more than that number is somewhat telling. However, most of the commenters have at least some of the causes down. It is probably a combination of all of them - admitting students who don't belong in college; passing them and watering down content to avoid getting bad reviews; treating students as clients or customers that need to be "kept happy" (I had a dean say that to me once. I was fired after one semester for requiring rigor.); the stigma of not having a college degree in today's job market - and many more.

    I just taught two math courses last semester at a nearby University. One was a Gen. Ed. "terminal" course for non-science majors, and one was pre-calculus for students majoring in science and engineering. The Gen Ed students loved me, and the pre-calc students hated me. This fact was reflected on my evaluations. Some of the negative comments from the pre-calc students reflected a belief that they didn't need to open their books to learn. They expected me to spoon-feed it to them.

    I have taught at a number of different institutions, going back almost 30 years, in between jobs that actually paid a living wage. Most administrations are not going to make the changes needed to fix this. It starts with the taxpayers. They need to assign the same value to education that we do do, and be willing to open their pocketbooks to fund it. I don't see that happening any time soon. the more likely outcome is that institutions of higher learning, as we know them today, will cease to exist, except for a very small number of elite and/or specialized schools.
  • Education vs. Entertainment
  • Posted by ANOTHER College Professor , Lecturer/IDS at SDSU on January 18, 2011 at 7:30pm EST
  • To "College Professor" -- for a human being with normal curiosity and intelligence, there's probably nothing more entertaining than learning something new, i.e. being educated. My students complain constantly that the classes they take are boring. They seek out professors who give easy (meaning little work involved) "A's" such as one who gives extra credit for attending class.

    Much is said about the number of part-time instructors causing a decline in the standards of a university, but part-time professors are evaluated yearly at my university and tenured professors as they choose. The assumption is that if the part-time professor were any good, he/she would have a full time job. I'll leave it up to you to identify the numerous logical fallacies in that assumption. In reality, many part-time instructors stay in teaching for the love of teaching, that being probably the number-one "perq." How many tenured faculty are teaching for that reason after 20 or 30 years?'s a complex problem and I believe it is the result of someone somewhere (I have plenty of fingers to point here and there) taking the joy of learning away from students early in their school careers.
  • Standard should not be a dirty word
  • Posted by Victoria , English Prof at Canadian College on January 18, 2011 at 8:45pm EST
  • Dear Student,
    No, you cannot rewrite the assignment because you don’t like your grade.
    No, I cannot reschedule the final exam just for you.
    No, I do not carry around a stapler.
    No, I did not answer your e-mail. You sent it Sunday at midnight. I was asleep.
    No, your paper is not marked yet. I have 60 of them. It’s only been 1 day.
    No, you are not my client. And if you pay my salary, I'd like a raise.
    Yes, you do have to read the book. It’s a literature class.
    Yes, you have to write the essays. It’s a composition class.
    Yes, spelling counts. Yes, I heard you say spelling is boring. Too bad.
    Yes, you failed. You didn’t attend class, you didn’t hand in assignments, and you didn’t participate in class discussions. Really, you failed. You will not be scarred for life.

    Dear Government,
    Education is not a product. Students are not clients. We do not have stakeholders. We have a community. We are trying to teach people how to think and become active, engaged members of society. Why do we have to keep justifying this? Please send money.

  • Be a plumber!
  • Posted by Chris , BMF at HKU on January 19, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • I think everyone should have a shot at college, but many people just cannot or will not do the hard work required to get a good college education. I just paid 500 bucks for a plumber yesterday for 3.5 hours of work and it took 2 days to get one. Why are we even trying to get some of these people through college? Well, we know the answer, money money money....
  • The bottom line......?
  • Posted by Jim on January 19, 2011 at 5:15am EST
  • This has been a fascinating discussion, clearly motivated by a decline in college rigor that concerns many of us. My thanks to all the commenters to Scott's story.

    If there is a bottom line here it is that (a) many of us are very frustrated by too many students who seem uninterested in learning, have an unrealistic sense of entitlement, have little mental self-discipline, lack intellectual curiosity, have poor study habits, and harbor the unrealistic fantasy that hard work should always be fun; and (b) a "system" that discourages and penalizes individual faculty members from imposing rigor in their own courses, especially if maintaining high standards means holding students strictly accountable for their own ineptness.

    So we have a bad situation that is potentially disastrous in a world that is rapidly turning out citizens who are smarter, better educated, and willing to work harder than our own. Unfortunately, as with all proposals to "fix" big social problems - health care, homelessness, inner city dysfunction, etc., - it is all to easy to pick apart specific suggestions, dwelling on their presumed downsides, watering down actions, and emasculating bold initiatives.

    In this case, however, I believe faculty members have the opportunity actually to remedy the problem,if they collectively make redressing it a high priority. Here are a few suggestions that come quickly to mind.

    (1) Unionized faculty should negotiate with their administrations for a strict "hands off" clause in contracts that prohibits interference with faculty grade practices. Allegations of faculty abuse of this freedom (e.g., by students or parents)should be investigated by faculty-only committees.

    (2)Faculty senates should approve a institution-wide "no favorites" policy for student grades, no matter whether the student is a star quarterback, the daughter of a rich donor, or a struggling inner city minority student. The same academic standards should apply to all students in a class, and violations should be a form of faculty misconduct.

    (3) Faculty search committees for administrators should press candidates about their attitudes and ideas about maintaining academic standards. "How would you react, Ms. Aspiring President, if the governor called and complained that our school's graduation rate was too low?"

    (4)National faculty associations, the AAUP for one, should take up this issue and make recommendations that would insulate faculty from political or financial pressures to unreasonably lower standards.

    (5)Faculty members must make their grades accurately reflect accomplishments. As I noted in an earlier comment, I favor returning to the "curve" system, where the lowest achievers should flunk and only the top achievers should receive As. Our job should be to train our students' minds and give them accurate, useful assessments of how they measure up. Let their parents and friends and therapists deal with their self-esteem problems.

    (6)Student evaluations of professors should pertain only to factual matters: whether a teacher showed up to class on time, handed out a syllabus, held regular office hours, etc. Qualitative questions, such as the difficulty or "fairness" of exams, whether complex material was well explained, whether the teacher likes students, are prone to abuse by disaffected students. These kinds of evaluations are best made by one's faculty colleagues.

    (7)Maintaining high academic standards in a course should be rewarded and not penalized by departmental review committees. Evidence of rigorous classroom instruction should be formally assessed in promotion and tenure dossiers.
  • You get what you pay for
  • Posted by (former) adjunct professor on January 19, 2011 at 5:15am EST
  • I'll repeat what I said in an earlier post: if our administrators want to do college on the cheap by staffing their classrooms with adcons, no one should be surprised that there is no rigor. The adcons I knew at the school where I used to teach were balancing two and three jobs in addition to their part-time teaching. None of them assigned anything more than multiple choice exams that they could grade as quickly as possible. Administrators get what they pay for. Sadly, students parents' who pay the tuition for what they assumed was a college education do not.
  • Much Ado about Not Very Much
  • Posted by John Webster , English Prof at U of Washington on January 19, 2011 at 5:15am EST
  • The most interesting part of this article may be the outpouring of anger and scorn it has provoked from its ostensibly critically sophisticated readers.

    The second most interesting thing about this article is how little most comments attend to whether this "study" tells them anything interesting or even vaguely true. They already know what they think, and the very short book report here seems useful in giving cover for complaining about how terrible things have now become.

    As the comment about the normal engineering major suggests, the CLA does not measure "what students learn in college" (nor, or course, does it actually claim to). Nor does the 40 page reading rule or the 20 page paper rule make sense. Back in the good old days I was a chem major for two years and NEVER was assigned anything like 40 pages a week of reading--whether in Chem, in Math, or in Physics. And at UCLA in the 60's I wrote one paper of twenty pages, and I did so as a senior English major.

    But really, in the abstract like this, why would one think that either of these criteria is an adequate measure of "learning" in the first place?

  • half a standard deviation
  • Posted by Statguy on January 19, 2011 at 11:00am EST
  • Has anyone else been alarmed at the doomsayer speak?

    "Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years."

    Half of a standard deviation in 4 years is nothing to sneeze at. It may be lower than some may like, but, to me, that shows substantial gains. These are non-domain specific tests of very ambiguous 'critical thinking' measures, and I would expect 4 years of post-secondary education to make someone a better critical thinker, but it seems unreasonable to expect it to turn students into geniuses.

    Also, several learning studies have suggested that the more you learn, the easier it is for you to learn future material. Might the benefit of higher education not be realized until much later in life? (i.e. a snowball-type effect).

    Did the study control for maturation effects?
  • Not a Cop-Out
  • Posted by Henry Vandenburgh on January 19, 2011 at 10:30am EST
  • JS, Most of time, people who chant "rigor" are mindlessly chest beating. When the students of today don't do well in their "rigorous" classes, they'll think of another excuse. I am extremely experienced at edumacating these students. The regional state college ones. I think my students would do well comparatively on core outcomes for my classes (not in comparison to students of 1950, but compared to other contemporary students.) I use an approach that tries to promote enthusiasm (with a fair amount of writing.) The stick approach doesn't work very well with students, if that's what's meant by the largely hollow term rigor. Your ideas about the ITT tech type places' role in today's scene are probably still wrong, although they may be becoming truer by the minute.
  • College Mean
  • Posted by Exit , EvalSlave at BestCollegeToWorkAt on January 19, 2011 at 11:15am EST
  • Our college is highly ranked on the list of best 'best small liberal arts colleges' (and somehow also 'best colleges to work at'.)

    The tenure track faculty here are now told student evaluation numbers *must* be above the mean of the whole college or tenure won't happen. I've seen tenure track faculty put on a terminal contract at 3rd year review due to student evaluations.

    The lesson - actual student learning doesn't matter if you are starting out and want to have a job. What matters is keeping the college highly ranked.
  • Read the report, not the press release
  • Posted by Edward Lowe , Director, Social and Behavioral Sciences at Soka University of America on January 19, 2011 at 12:00pm EST
  • As I read the comments, I was reminded of how the contemporary practice of offering opinion without taking the time to really investigate about what the social science research does and does not really tell us can really elide critical discussion. Readers who do not want to fork out the cash for the whole book can find the policy brief as a pdf here ( I highly recommend it.

    If you look at the brief, you will see that, in spite of the sensational claims made in this press release, on average, students do show growth in critical thinking and the other measures of concern, over the four years of college. Moreover, students at the more selective campuses and at the less selective campuses both show growth comparable levels of growth. Obsessing over the fact that some students show less growth and some more growth is like obsessing over the fact the some individuals end up richer over time while some poorer -- variability in populations is normal, by definition! (I am tempted to report something like, "Duh!" -- but that would be unseemly).

    The hyperbole in the press junket is aimed at the complaint that students don't show *enough* growth, defined as only about 50% of a standard deviation from the freshman levels by the senior year. The authors suggest that estimates from the 1980s report a full standard deviation of growth in similar measures of critical thinking and related skills over four years. But, this is more than problematic since the 1980s figure is an "estimate" based on studies at that time that included measurements and samples quite different from the measures and sample used in this study. A second problem is that we don't know how much growth we *should* expect from 4-year institutions, on average. Indeed, this seems to me to be a silly question, since the answer is going to be arbitrarily chosen in almost every instance.

    Incidentally, for the scientists above that are worried that this test would measure learning by science students, in fact science majors & social science/humanities majors (these last two were lumped together!) showed the highest and similar levels of critical thinking and associated types of skills by their senior year!

    Lesson in all of this: ignore the press releases, critically read the damn research reports! (and demand better *rigor* from your journalists!)
  • "Academically Adrift"
  • Posted by Cary Fraser , African and African American Studies/History at Penn State University on January 19, 2011 at 12:00pm EST
  • Jacques Barzun in The House of Intellect (1959):
    "It is an unchallenged commonplace that what you learn in college does not matter. What does matter is not agreed upon: some say 'contacts'; others 'atmosphere.' College is 'broadening,'liberating,' 'stimulating." How?"

    Forty two years later, we are regaled by the president of the United States, George W. Bush, with these comments while he delivers the Commencement address at Yale on May 21, 2001:
    "Most important, congratulations to the class of 2001. To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States. [Laughter] A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney—[laughter]—who studied here but left a little early. So now we know: If you graduate from Yale, you become President; if you drop out, you get to be Vice President. [Laughter]"

    Has anything changed?
  • Seriously?
  • Posted by Jennifer , Adjunct Faculty, Dept. of Biology at College of Lake County on January 19, 2011 at 2:15pm EST
  • janjamm posted: It is dismaying to see the lack of rigor EVERYWHERE.

    Indeed. Nowhere is the lack of rigor more evident than in the book excerpts. They authors purport to have studied 2300 students at 24 colleges. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that were more than 18,000,000 students in colleges somewhere in the United States in 2007. So these two "researchers" sampled 2300. Do you all realize that this is roughly 0.012% of all college/university students? I would be interested in reading the book and finding out how/why the authors think they can extrapolate such a minute amount of data to such a radically diverse population group.

    Perhaps in the book the authors divulge the schools these mediocre students attended. Maybe the authors looked at high school class rank and GPA; types of classes taken in high school and then college (are they similar in rigor or lack thereof?); college in which they enrolled (not all colleges are created equally nor have the same goals); types of courses taken at these colleges/universities. These are just a few things that cross my mind when reading.

    Personally, from these excerpts, I don't find their "research" to be all that credible.
  • New report, old news
  • Posted by Michael Pomeranz , Senior Researcher at American Council of Trustees and Alumni on January 19, 2011 at 4:00pm EST
  • The study regrettably confirms what ACTA has been saying for some time.

    ACTA’s study of more than 700 top colleges and universities around the country shows that students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language or American history. Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

    • Fewer than 5% require economics
    • Fewer than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature
    • Fewer than a third require U.S. government or history, or intermediate-level foreign language.

    All of this failure from a postsecondary system that costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations.

    New report, old newsThe goal should be to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think critically.

  • Revamp of system
  • Posted by CK , Professor at Higher Ed on January 19, 2011 at 6:00pm EST
  • I agree with the comment of "new report, old news." Colleges and universities have blew it. They have too much power and authority. They develop and implement the curriculum, evaluate their curriculum (partly through grades and faculty evaluation) and confer degrees. The latter two functions should be eliminated and revised respectively. Based on their compilation of courses and major, students should be assessed by outside parties. Assessments (each semester) should be based on academic content at a level commensurate to course levels. Standardized and systematic testing using multi-methods would be better than the current state of affairs. Grades and graduation would be contingent upon student performance. Universities do NOT use commonsense or even scientific methods of assessment and evaluation. Public universities at least shouldn't be allowed to waste taxpayer dollars, especially in today's economy. Also, higher education institutions have confused the goal of degree granting with educating. If anyone is concerned about costs, semesters could be shortened with outside assessments, and remedial and much of student services could be eliminated. Higher education is a privilege not a right!
  • Posted by Lala on January 19, 2011 at 6:45pm EST
  • While I appreciate the conversation this has sparked and agree with many points brought forth, I'm thoroughly amused that so many who have commented here on the state of higher education and learning apparently don't grasp spell check, and fail to proof read their own writing. Yes indeed, our education system is in a sad state. Practice what you preach, Profs!
  • changing expectations of college
  • Posted by J Ehrhardt , Assoc Professor, Honors at U of OK on January 19, 2011 at 8:30pm EST
  • I am eager to read this book, but sadly, I don't think I will be surprised by the findings. In my upper-level classes, I assign about 150 pages a week in reading and require a research paper at the end of the semester, and each year (I have been in the profession for twelve years), more and more students drop my class because it is "too hard" and requires "too much work." The students who do remain in the class appreciate the challenges, but there are fewer and fewer of them...

    I believe what has happened is that college, rather than being viewed as an experience with education, classes, and studying as "the point," is now considered simply a life experience, in which the socializing, the partying, the football games, the extracurriculars are "the point," and classes and studying are afterthoughts (especially if a student needs to work to pay for his/her education) that are pursued if one does not have anything better to do. Alas, I also work at a school where the tuition is a real bargain. Part of the reason that my peers in college and I took the experience so seriously was that my parents (and theirs) kept reminding me what a sacrifice they were making to keep me in school, and that I needed to study, take challenging classes, and graduate on time because they could not afford for me not to. Unfortunately, I think that this incentive is lost on many middle-class students who see a car, memberships in Greek organizations, and happy hour as worthy of their money, rather than books and fees.
  • Is it really this bad?
  • Posted by Just starting out , Instructor looking for TT at Top 100 National U on January 19, 2011 at 9:45pm EST
  • I hear this rhetoric about a lack of rigor, and I hear the explanations it engenders -- particularly those of you who report intense pressure from administrators and students to inflate grades. My question, then, is whether it's really that bad? I've taught for eight years at the undergrad level while completing my Ph.D. I teach both writing and literature, with students ranging from remedial freshmen to seniors in the Honors College. At all levels, my courses require more than 20 pages of writing. All have an attendance policy that will lead to failure if a student misses more than 5 classes. I give frequent pop reading quizzes that account for 10 percent of the grade. In addition, my average grade is a high C or low B. And my evals are great; my students come along for the ride, with their critical-thinking and writing skills improving dramatically. Sure, I get my share of whiners and grade-mongerers . . . and I ignore them. Never has some administrator suggested I "ease up." Have I backed my way into some utopia, one I'm sure to be leaving should I actually find that TT job over which I'm drooling? Who are these students you're teaching?
  • May this report, and the thinking it stimulates, generate change
  • Posted by BEB , Associate Professor at Midwest university on January 20, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • Not everyone should go to college - there, I said it. And not everyone should attend right after high school. College should not be considered a ticket to a job. Not elegantly stated, but basic and, i believe, true.

    Another basic truth - We should not judge teaching solely by student evaluations, as is the practice in my unit. I included some student comments in my report once ( several students said it was the hardest course they took at the university) - but overall, the students evaluated me in the threes on a five-point scale. This is our only method to evaluate teaching and decide on raises. I was roundly criticized for including student comments (against our "rule". ). And my 3.5 earned me a "needs improvement.". There is something deeply wrong in many of our universities- we treat students as a market, we want them to choose us, to like us..... At any cost. Unfortunately the cost seems to be the US's falling behind in brain power. How very sad! And dangerous for our futures.
  • Posted by dissentingwren on January 20, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • In yesterday's Washington Post, Anne Neal tried to peddle the same malarkey that Michael Pomeranz is trying to peddle here. The Arum and Roksa study has nothing to do with the ACTA's agenda. ACTA gives college grades based on whether or not they require students to take specific courses. But the Arum and Roksa study gives no support at all to the notion that a specific set of required courses fosters student learning. The important criteria are time spent studying alone, reading requirements, and writing requirements. Students who spend substantial amounts of time studying by themselves, and who take courses that require both more than forty pages per week of reading and at least twenty pages of writing per semester learn.

    By ACTA's ratings,, East Tennessee State University gets an A, the University of Chicago gets a B, Stanford and Princeton get C's, Harvard gets a D, and Yale gets an F. Do you think that Michael Pomeranz would send his kid to East Tennessee State in preference to any of those schools? We don't have to speculate about where Anne Neal, the president of ACTA, sent her daughter to school. Her darling daughter, Alexandra, went to Harvard, the school ACTA gives a D. When push comes to shove, these folks don't even believe their own ratings.

    But that's not surprising, because ACTA has always been an organization with a political agenda masquerading as an educational agenda. The organization, after all, was founded by Lynne Cheney. Anne Neal, better known on the Washington circuit as Dede Petri, is married to a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, worked for Lynne Cheney, and once upon a time showed her commitment to high academic standards by working for the Discovery Institute (that's right, the "intelligent design" folks).

    Arum and Roksa's study is valuable, and points to key problems in college and university education. It would be a shame to let propagandists like Neal and Pomeranz use it for their own propagandistic ends.
  • study optimization: groups vs lone vs JIT
  • Posted by outcast , Dept of Outliers at Institution: not yet... on January 20, 2011 at 9:00pm EST
  • "<em>This result contradicts decades (literally!) of research unequivocally showing the exact opposite--at least for science and math classes. Students struggling in STEM classes absolutely should be studying in groups.</em>"

    Imo, after bashing one's brain against a problem, outside help becomes valuable. However, either *only* lone study, or *only* group study do not provide this 'JIT' flexibility.
    Perhaps viable would be: lone study, with assn followups in the TA study group session after assn due date? But as a reasonably diligent student, i recall feeling the desperate priority of the newest assn crushed motivation to review the 'answers' posted for earlier assn.
  • 'Academically Adrift'
  • Posted by Timothy Leeny , Student at Dixie State college of Utah on January 21, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • I am a returning adult student, and I feel that you are correct in your feelings that our institutions need to give us more reading and writing assignments. I see now that the Professors at Dixie State College of Utah are really giving us these assignments (heavy in writing and reading projects) for our benefit. I am sure glad I picked DSC here in Saint George, UT for my continuation to attain a Bachelors degree. Not only does it cost far less per semester then most Universities, it has Professors that care about their students futures. I will forever have the red sand of Dixie in my shoes!
  • Need to assess more
  • Posted by Hugh Miller III , Biology at ETSU on January 21, 2011 at 8:15am EST
  • I have two issues with this study. The first is the underlying premise, that a standardized exam can tell you how much someone has learned? I think we in academia spend too much effort and money on standardized exams. We really need to be surveying graduates to see whether what they learned has really impacted their career and their life.
    Most studies about learning point to a basic issue that one really does not know if they actually understand something until they have to use that information!

    My second issue is this rationale that reading a certain number of pages and writing a certain number of pages somehow reflects rigor. Reading is important but that reading needs to be part of the process. And using arbitrary page numbers does not make any sense. I would rather see students have to read a chapter (regardless of number of pages) and apply what they read then assessment on the number of pages! And in terms of writing, why do educators feel the need to put page limitations. Some students write succinctly, others do not. I would argue its the content of the writing NOT the amount of writing that is important! I require students in a lab class to write a manuscript after they run a series of experiments. I always get this question, how long should the manuscript be? My consistent response, as long as it takes to be complete and cover all the required components!
  • The real culprit, failure of the American Education System.
  • Posted by Dr. Lanny Gabbert , Science Teacher at Williston High School on January 21, 2011 at 4:30pm EST
  • Yeah, finally a look at education that shows that we have finally reached a tipping point that will hopefully force our educational leaders to take notice. This problem has been in the making for fifty years or more as we have lowered the standards of education to satisfy the parents and give them the false impression that their students are smarter than they really are. No longer can we allow students to advance in grade without being capable of doing the required work, YES that means failing students at the Elementary level and retaining them until the necessary skills are learned. I struggle on a daily basis to hold students accountable for a higher standard of learning, but constantly get harassed by parents for being to tough, because their son or daughter was an "A" student before they had me as a teacher. We in education must take back ownership of this problem and not let parents tell us how to do our job.
  • Academically Adrift
  • Posted by John Sherriff , Writer at on January 24, 2011 at 10:30am EST
  • Since about half of incoming college freshmen have not graduated six years later, there is a certain “natural selection” in comparing incoming and outgoing test scores. My assumption is that the SAT scores (as incoming freshmen) for those that graduate is higher than those that graduate.

    So if you took an average of 100 randomly chosen incoming freshmen SAT scores and then four years later, you took the SAT scores (as incoming freshmen) of 100 randomly chosen outgoing seniors that you would have a dramatic increase in the average high school SAT scores. It would not be appropriate to attribute this gain in average test scores to their college education but entirely to the fact that the better test takers had a better chance of surviving college.

    How much of the difference in the CLA test scores between freshmen and seniors is the result of natural selection and how much is the result of the learning achieved at college?
  • A new approach to rigor
  • Posted by Jordan Shaw at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on January 26, 2011 at 12:30pm EST
  • I absolutely agree that the fundamental missing element in undergraduate coursework is rigor, but I disagree that rigor should be defined as time spent reading or doing difficult assignments. The definition needs to center on what causes success, not what is seemingly correlated with it.

    I'm graduating with three undergraduate degrees in May. In my experience, the courses that required more reading and analysis were also the courses that had higher student-professor interaction, increased creative freedom for students, student-driven projects and presentations, and interesting subject matter. Without those elements, even I probably would have simply skimmed most of the readings and waded my way through the classes with a B [and I have a 3.93 GPA].

    We can't simply forget about motivation when trying to increase learning. I had two classes in which professors piled on student presentation work for sophomore-level classes, expecting the creative activity to increase grades, learning, and participation. The problem was that they didn't reduce the normal course requirements. Students spent up to 20 hours per week just managing minor project details in order to complete assignments - learning nothing in the process. We didn't have the -time- to focus on honing our skills, nor guidance from the professor that would facilitate increased understanding of the concepts we were focusing on.

    As a final note, I completely agree with the analysis of group work as a waste of time. As a student of organizational psychology, I understand the importance of quality teamwork. Undergraduate courses as they are now don't provide the opportunity to develop quality teams. Instead, students get stuck together without a fundamental understanding of how to succeed as a team, and (often) not enough time outside of class to build cohesion. The result is increased project difficulty as a result of interpersonal differences, and a lack of learning due to dividing work.
  • What are we to do?
  • Posted by Herbelin , Ex-faculty/Chemistry at A 4-year Undergraduate Institution on January 27, 2011 at 9:15am EST
  • What are we to do? What a dreadful frame of mind for those who take on the mantle of professor. Do so many of you really throw your hands up in the air and blame society, high school, State legislatures and the signs of the Zodiac for the woes besetting Higher Education?

    What is the end goal of what you profess? With any luck, you are attempting to impart "the habits of the mind" of your academic field to your students. What are the constraints that hinder you from doing this? End of course student evaluations? Then you need to ensure you have "rigor" for your students and "student satisfaction" for your department.

    The most amusing solution to this problem I saw was as a graduate student in Quantum Chemistry. The professor believed the course was too large, and the very first day walked in without preamble, introduction or greeting, and immediately launched into a lecture on Lagrangians and least work, and assigned a homework problem to solve a spring pendulum (a hopeless task for everyone save the physics/chemistry dual major graduate). After a couple of such lectures he stopped, looked around, and said, "You're still here? Good, let's get started." and proceeded to explain why he had been discussing Lagrangians, their relationship to Hamiltonians and hence, the rest of the course. In so doing, he convinced the unwilling to drop (in graduate school mind you!--but they did not take the end of course survey), and the rest of us to discover Goldstein.

    Could such a tactic work for you? I doubt you would use the same subject matter for your classes, but I also lived through a similar experience in French (the "no English allowed" approach--I promptly decided a third language and physical chemistry in the same semester may prove more than I was willing to learn) also weeded out those unwilling to endure "rigor" in an introductory class and consequently diluted the potential population of negative course reviews while increasing the population density of those willing to work hard at learning.

    Best of luck. The future of the nation is in your hands.

    P.S. No, I did not read the book, just your comments about the book you didn't read either. Cheers!
  • Systemic results
  • Posted by kris kuhn , Adjunct Professor Writing/Speech at Concordia University on January 28, 2011 at 1:45pm EST
  • The study's findings are not surprising to those who attempt to create rigor in college classes. The complaining and negative student evaluations one will recieve are enough to daunt those pushing students to think and to produce. This past semester I asked the 40 students in Writing 121 how many had written multiple 5-7 page papers in their last 2 years of highschool (most students listed AP English on their information sheets). 7 had written 3, 3 had written 2. The majority had written one and 15 had never written a paper of that length and were terrified at the assignment I had given. "We watched movies and wrote about what we thought." "we didn't have to use database research" "I took Sports English". "I know how to write a 5 paragraph persuasive essay". While no child has been left behind, where have they all been taken? Systemic change is needed. College can and should try to hold students accountable, but it could be that the first 2 years in college are attempting to create students ready to be in college.
  • Critical Thinking vs. Jumping Through Hoops
  • Posted by Chris D at New York University on January 29, 2011 at 9:30pm EST
  • 1) As some people have already pointed out, there are probably too many people in college right now.

    2) Is anyone really surprised? We've turned college admissions into a giant game of jumping through hoops.

    To get accepted into "prestigious schools", students must have:

    -A high GPA (with the proper number of AP courses). This of course assumes that all courses and high schools are somewhat equal (they're not).

    -A high SAT score. I'm still not sure what this is supposed to tell us.

    -Extracurriculars. Varsity sports, student government, volunteer work, expertise in the oboe...I could go on and on about this insanity.

    If we don't value critical thinking in order to get into the university, then why should we assume that students will value critical thinking once they're in the university?
  • Adrift forgot the first part
  • Posted by Chris Jones on February 2, 2011 at 2:30pm EST
  • Is there a CliffsNotes version of this text?
  • Adrift? It's awash!
  • Posted by Ahito46 on February 3, 2011 at 5:45pm EST
  • We are drowning in hubris.
    We need to re-think the entire system of education. What is its proper role in 21st Century for this society? In this time? Why is it structured for the 18th Century? Why is financed like the 17th Century? Why is administered like the 16th Century?

    The very act of "learning" has been re-engineered before our eyes, and education sits around deconstructing it into a medieval ritual, complete with pomp, circumstance, and an anointed elite. Wake up! We can't afford it in its current form.

  • And in other news, the Sun rises in the East...
  • Posted by Former Professor on February 4, 2011 at 12:45pm EST
  • Having had the misfortune of working at a "university" where administrators--and most faculty--cared more about keeping butts in the seats than anything resembling academic rigor, the findings of this book don't surprise me in the least.

    I'm glad that I have a real career now, and that I no longer have a dog in this fight.
  • Remedy
  • Posted by Adelarge , Academically Adrift at Accreditation Process Creates Problems on February 6, 2011 at 8:15am EST
  • Yeah, well, I wanted a whole lot more from a college than a great time, and I found it at Linda Christas.

    The problem with most colleges is that they are accredited in a way that virtually guarantees a lack of scholarship in every venue except sports.

    On the sports field, exactly the attitude that would produce a scholar in every other area is used, that is, excellence is the ONLY thing rewarded.

    People are benched, cut, penalized heavily for wayward behavior, and our society blesses the schools when big red or big purple or big green wins a championship.

    But, in the class, exactly the opposite takes place as the article so rightly posits.

    The result of four years at a typical institution is not maturity, or a passage to adulthood. It is problems with alcohol and drugs, debt and unemployment.

    But, the universities themselves at a tremendous cost to American society are doing well, thank you.

    Oh, and about the science output. All that takes place on the graduate level. You could shut down every college in the US, and not miss a beat relative to science output.

    60% of all graduate positions in the sciences are taken by foreign nationals anyway. Not enough Americans who know anything to do the job. Then they go back to their homeland and Microsoft is forced to open two of three R&D Departments overseas.


    It all starts with the DOE Accreditation process, and then social engineering. Combined they reflect the worst high school and college system below the graduate level in the developed world.

    However, I am wondering if Florida or Auburn or Oregon will be in the top five this year.
  • Agreement in benefits of self driven studies
  • Posted by GDawson on February 6, 2011 at 1:15pm EST
  • I agree that students who study alone retain more information then those who participate in group study, in group study more students are apt to just listen and not participate while others group study. Alone you must be self motivating and think to answer any question you might have. As for all study and no social interaction in college that would be a bad idea students need some distraction some of the time or you will reach a plateau in how well you will learn, but colleges should not concentrate on retention through extracurricular activities the emphasis should be on the education provided.
  • Where do I begin.
  • Posted by Blase D , Student at UCLA on February 8, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • Although I agree with the overall findings the evidence to support them lacks relevance. It is not so much a objective article/book review as an orchestrated PR campaign to support the book's release. It does not take a college graduate to realize the if the person who wrote the research paper (Ester Cho) also sits on the board that reviews the paper (the SSRC) it poses a conflict of interest and completely lacks credibility. However, I would expect nothing less from the social sciences. Perhaps instead of focusing on increasing the rigor across the board Arum and Roksa should focus on increasing the rigor within the field of social science. As a suggestion they have to go no further than throwing their book, based on a biased research paper, in the garbage and focusing on an unbiased, objective line of research supported by relevant facts and expert opinion. Really, how difficult could it be to accurately prove that if you work harder you will be smarter. The final third of the article is the opinion of a public affairs or public relations employee, not an educator, of one of the hosting institutions of the book review tour. How can one rationally critique such ridiculousness. This article and I would imagine the research paper and book are sadly the result of the research therin, a complete lack of rigorous education.
  • Adrift, etc.
  • Posted by David , Professor at UniversityOfSomewhereOrOther on February 9, 2011 at 7:00pm EST
  • It's all so simple. We evaluate (assign grades to) students, who in turn evaluate our teaching. Conflict of interest, ipso facto. In other words, we are two populations who have every incentive to inflate each others assessments. What could be more obvious? Combine this with the fact that committees evaulating professors for tenure and raises are carefully selected from the ranks of those who benefit from and adhere to this petty corruption, and you have the status quo. A popular current myth is that many professors who score highly on evaulations also give low grades. What these success stories will tell you in private, but of course deny publicly, is that their recipe is utterly simple: give easy work during the term and then, after the student evaulations come in, slam the little buggars with a killer final. That way you get to engineer the desired statistic. Such people, the modern architects of our decline, usually end up well rewarded for thei mischief and egregious lack of character. Anser: Get rid of admin. Admin. is the real enemy.
  • Section EZA
  • Posted by Abdul , Professor/Dept. of Salt Mining at AppearancesRUs U. on February 9, 2011 at 8:00pm EST
  • Profs. Arum and Roska got it right, and more power to them.

    The dumbing-down of American Higher Education can be blamed in large part on the out-of-control misuse of so-called education research, and now we are told what has been pretty obvious: much of this research is plain nonsense. "Teaching Evaluation" is a cynical popularity contest.

    The National Science Foundation's Education and Human Resources Division is a welfare trough for underachievers, devising ever more convoluted procedures to ensure that no whiff of rigor is ever allowed to penetrate NSF-funded projects. Their Panels are at best, semi-literate.

    The only hope on the horizon is that other nations are also imitating American Higher Education and dumbing down their curricula.
  • College is the Booby Prize?
  • Posted by Mr. Griffin , Asst. Dir. Quality Improvement at Large Social Service Agency on February 10, 2011 at 12:16pm EST
  • While I currently work in lower education in Quality Improvement (resume includes Harvard and NYU grunt work), this report is a challenge to those teachers in the 12 year system. So much of the focus of lower education is the idea that all children must attend college – a goal that has never been met in the thousand or so year history of the university system. We are looking to meet this goal by measuring students on standardized tests that continue to be less rigorous as teachers are being graded by standards that ask of them to be everything to everyone and funds for this reduces every year. All these public dollars (private debt) are spent to prepare kids to attend college (private profits – endowments, high administrator salaries, and private banks giving student loans.) and the colleges appear to not be meeting their mandates. This is not to say lower education does not pass on a shoddy product…. However, we need to get them into college, so they can get their student loans and keep Citibank in business. We lower educators don’t get fired, or mobbed by angry parents, or sued…and students get the Booby Prize degree.
  • Cut to the Chase
  • Posted by Leah , College Student at Red Deer College on February 11, 2011 at 4:30am EST
  • As an older college student, I agree with the statistics regarding the amount of informaion learned or retained as well as the hourly amount of time dedicated to studying. I am not out partying or studying in social groups. I attend school and hurry home to my 3 children that I raise on my own. I try hard and take school seriously. It is not realistic for me to spend hours and hours on my studies as I have priorities to answer to before I can sit and dive into my work! What makes no sense to me is why a BA takes 4 years! It could be condensed considerably! I do believe in a well rounded ecucation, but where is the relevance in my needing option credits? Film, Drama, or 16th century Poetry? Seems like a waste of valuable time and limited $$$. It would make sense to mainstream us into our respective fields of study.(as in Sweeden) Start obtaining hands on experience, get out of the class room and absorb actual real life knowledge. Try and apply what we are learning! I feel like it all has to do with $$$. keep us in school, keep us forking over $ for years, when we could get in, get knowledge/hands on experience, and get out into the world!
  • Pay for and not get!
  • Posted by Robert Leopard , Biology Instructor at Monroe Community College on February 11, 2011 at 6:00pm EST
  • Education is the only thing people are willing to pay for and not get! -John Held.

    We tell students that they need a degree. As long as what they need is a "degree" the work to obtain it has no value to the student, like "Cut to the chase" above.

    I tell my students that no one on the planet will hire a degree. As a former employer I can tell you that no employer wants a degree. An employer want a PERSON who knows things that they would not have known, and can do things that they couldn't have done, had they not earned the degree.

    It truly is the journy, not the destination, that counts. I earned an MBA while working full time with two children at home and a house to maintain. I knew at the end that I had knowledge and skills I would not otherwise have obtained.

    We call them two-year degrees and four-year degrees because they should take that long with 40-50 hours of work per week. The typical person who obtains (I won't say earned) a degree with less effort paid for an education that they didn't obtain.

    Robert Leopard
  • Engagement and grade inflation
  • Posted by Neil , Associate Professor at Juniata College on February 15, 2011 at 4:00am EST
  • We do not have grade inflation, but rather grade compression. A C is not average, but the lowest acceptable grade. Two semesters with a C- average = expelled, not below average. So on both moral and financial grounds, there true grading scale is C- to A. If we kicked out D- students, you would immediately see the grade distribution head back toward a C/C+ average.

    Academia in the second and third tier also are highly dependent on poor academically performing students so we are shifting to engagement metrics like the NSSE (for my opinion see

    So if you show up for your group, play nice in the sand box, dress pretty for public presentations, and work on being a better "world citizen" we are most happy to hand out a C+'s even if no discipline specific knowledge has been passed on. We are neither adrift nor failing, but we are not providing academic excellence as the only item on the menu. Well-being and "doing stuff" are very important economic (to the college not the student) components.

    The "A" students are just as solid and amazing as ever. Adrift has pointed this out nicely. The average student is still pretty average, and always will be. It is academic arrogance to assume otherwise.