Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Reviewed by Eric Wendt

By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
259 pages | University of Chicago Press, 2011 | $65

Social scientists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa pose a deceptively simple question in their meticulously researched book: How much are most college students learning?

The answer they articulate for students at many schools is a disheartening “Not much.”

They used the Council for Aid of Education’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure gains in the skills most undergraduate colleges claim to prioritize: critical thinking, analytical reasoning and effective writing. They examined 2,322 students from 24 schools who took the CLA as incoming freshmen in 2005 and again as sophomores in 2007.

The gains that students at these schools made in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and writing after four semesters were minimal—just 7 percentile points on average. That means the student who scored in the 50th percentile of incoming freshmen in 2005 scored two years later on average in the 57th percentile—not of her own sophomore class, but of 2007’s incoming freshmen.

There is plenty of blame to share, say the authors, for the meager learning outcomes at these schools. They track a decline in time that students spend studying nationally from 25 hours per week in 1961 to 12 hours per week today. “Students often embraced a ‘credentialist-collegiate orientation’ that focused on earning a degree with as little effort as possible,” they wrote.

Teaching and learning are a relationship. Not merely an outcome.

Professors are often complicit in this lowering of effort. Arum and Roksa quote education researcher George Kuh: “There seems to be a breakdown of shared responsibility for learning—on the part of faculty members who allow students to get by with far less than maximum effort, and on the part of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions provide.”

Administrators play a role, too, according to the authors, through hiring decisions that have increased the proportion of part-time and adjunct faculty; tenure policies that prioritize research and publications over teaching undergraduates; and investments in student services that may improve student retention without advancing student learning.

The question for the Nebraska Wesleyan community quickly becomes: Where does NWU fit in this rather dim picture of higher education?

Not surprisingly, a number of factors distinguish Nebraska Wesleyan from the broader problems Arum and Roksa describe. For instance, faculty hiring and tenure decisions at NWU are driven by teaching performance—not research performance or publications.

There is also Nebraska Wesleyan students’ performance on the same CLA test. NWU is in the final year of a three-year study through the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) using the CLA to examine first year students and seniors. While it’s difficult to draw direct comparisons with results from Arum and Roksa’s separate study, so far, the results paint a considerably brighter picture of learning at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Data from year one show NWU seniors making significant gains. NWU scores at or above the expected level in each of the study’s five performance areas.

Still, it’s worth asking: Could NWU students benefit from the increased emphasis on academic rigor that Arum and Roksa advocate? NWU professors could increase reading and writing requirements tomorrow. They could push students harder in an effort to produce higher outcomes. But it’s far from clear that such a change would be in the best interest of student learning at Nebraska Wesleyan.

“It’s kind of an old saw that we need to get tougher,” said NWU Associate Professor of Psychology Jerry Bockoven. But he doesn’t see a coasting student body at NWU. “I see students taking 17 credits and working two jobs. Many are sleep deprived and stressed,” he said. “It’s not just about rigor. You just don’t reflect deeply when you’re that stressed. Learning takes place with room.”

As a scientist, Bockoven is stringent about data and measurements and outcomes. As a teacher of undergraduates, he takes a slightly different view. “Education is not the same as ‘How many widgets did you make today?’” he said. “Teaching and learning are a relationship. Not merely an outcome.”