Learn ’em Good. (Arum and Roska)

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Arum and Roska, without dipping to far into educational crisis discourse (they avoid “golden age” romantic views of the institution, and refrain from making students unfortunate but unwilling scapegoats), show how undergraduate education in the United States is only showing limited results. Students are too distracted by work and socializing to do the work required of them to learn, and universities (faculty) don’t seem to be requiring students to do an amount of work that promotes learning. (oft-cited numbers are that students rarely take classes where they have to do over 20 pages of writing in a term or read at least 20 pages each week.) Undergraduate institutions and the faculty that populate them have deprioritized learning, the authors claim, and students are quite happy to let them. Drawing on survey and CLA data, Arum and Roksa find that students aren’t improving in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing as a result of their studies. Some of the particular problems they highlight:
  • Students have long “embraced a collegiate culture that had little to do with academic learning” (3), indeed from the very beginning of US higher education. Undergraduates have historically been interested in fraternities and social activities more than demanding academic work. Arun and Roska do, however, cite recent social and economic evidence that “college students’ academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades” (3). (according to one survey, from 40 hours per week of academic activity in the 60s to 27 hours today–”less time than a typical high school student spends at school” (3).)
  • However, this increasing lack of focus hasn’t shown up in decreased academic performance; Arun and Roska attribute this to students’ development of “the art of college management” (choosing courses, professors, and workloads very carefully so as to minimize effort and time spent on work) (4).
  • This isn’t to vilify students–faculty culture has changed as well; the authors cite higher education researcher Goerge Kuh, who writes about  tacit “disengagement compacts” on campuses: I won’t make you work too hard, so I don’t have to explain why you’re not doing well. Faculty, they argue, bear some responsibility for college students ability to “receive high marks and make steady progress towards their college degrees with such limited academic effort” (5).
  • Changing faculty work expectations (output creep (10), emphasis on research over teaching, full and part-time faculty issues, issues related to the tenure system, growing institutional demands on faculty, and perhaps most importantly, the de-prioritized place of teaching effectiveness in tenure and promotion decisions) have affected institutions’ and faculty’s ability to support undergraduates.
  • Arum and Roska also argue that the identity of the university as an academic and moral institution has changed a great deal since the 1800s. After WWII, as the numbers of students on campuses increased, and as colleges “embraced more narrowly defined technocratic ends, such as the generation of scientific knowledge and the production of graduates to fill professional and managerial positions” (13), universities tended to turn away from moral functions beyond a vague interest in tolerance and diversity. This has only been exacerbated with the larger cultural shift toward thinking of students as ‘consumers’ and ‘clients’ (15).
  • Economics play a role as well. Education is expensive, and “personal financial investment in higher education has significantly grown with increases in the cost of higher education and an expanded reliance on private credit-based financing” (15).  Some students are distracted by the need to have paid employment during college, while others feel as if student loans afford them the opportunity to “experience fully a collegiate life”–which Arum and Roksa find has mostly to do with socializing, travel, and entertainment (16). This is not helped by popular Animal House and Van Wilder stereotypes of campus life.
  • Finally, there has been until recently an overall failure in institutions of higher education to measure and demonstrate–on the short term or longitunidally–student learning (18).

Four “important lessons” (the core findings) of the study, which I’ll leave generalized here so you’ll have SOME reason to read the book:

  • “First, in terms of undergraduate learning, four-year colleges and universities and students attending them are too often ‘academically adrift’” (30).
  • “Second, gains in student performance are disturbingly low” (30).
  • “Third, individual learning in higher education is characterized by persistent and/or growing inequality” (30).
  • “Fourth, while the overall level of learning is low, there is notable variation both within and across institutions that is associated with measurable differences in students’ educational experiences” (30).
I remember listening to all the hubbub on Twitter, Inside Higher Ed, and the few academic blogs that I can manage to keep up with when this book came out; I’ve got to say that their findings–though absolutely and devastatingly serious–aren’t nearly as dire or questionable as I had originally thought. Yes, the CLA has some problems. Yes, it looks only at freshmen and sophomores, and only in some limited ways. But the findings do hold up–and quite fairly–to my own and others’ experiences in undergraduate teaching. It’s harder and harder to be a demanding teacher in the undergraduate (non)academic culture the authors describe in this text. But only by embracing difficulty–which includes the difficult tasks of self-analysis and institutional assessment, not to mention challenging students and refusing to let them slide through.

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