Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How Colleges Are Failing Students

Because I am still in the process of paying college tuition, I was interested to read an article about the learning that goes on in college. The news isn't good. According to a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, written by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, 45 percent of 2,300 undergraduate students surveyed showed "no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years." This is probably not surprising, because "Not much is asked of students ... . Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week." No wonder they get to law school and are overwhelmed by the amount of reading assigned. I was at a new students' orientation event last week, and when I told the students that they should plan on reading each assigned case at least three--and probably more--times in order to understand and outline the issues it presented, they looked at me as if I were crazy! If Arum and Roksa's findings are accurate, students are simply not prepared for the close reading, intense analysis, and lengthy writing assignments that law school requires. Law-school orientation events should underscore the level of work required in order to master the material.

What else did the study show? "Students who study alone and have heavier reading and writing loads do well." In other words, taking courses perceived as easy or undemanding is counterproductive when it comes to learning, as is what the authors call "social engagement," such as fraternity or sorority membership. This seems intuitive to me. Students at "more selective schools" and majors in traditional academic disciplines such as arts and sciences tend to have "greater learning gains" than do students who major in business, education, or social work. "Working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning." It was disheartening to read that "Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites" while at the same time "students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college."

There is an excellent article about the study at Inside Higher Ed, which points out that what students learn at college comes down to what goes on in the classroom and the expectations that schools have of their students. The harder students work, the more they will learn.

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