Are We Actually Learning?

According to recent research, attending an elite college may not be as helpful as it once was. The study was released by the Social Science Research Council and conducted by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, professors at New York University and University of Virginia respectively.

They found that college students tend to not actually develop “general analytical competencies” or “higher-order cognitive skills” over the course of a four-year education.

Arum and Roksa’s based their findings on analysis of test data from 2,000 students from over 24 different institutions, and each student took the standardized Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).

The CLA was used to track the progress of students in critical thinking and writing skills in their first, second and fourth year of college. It did not address subject-specific skills.

In their recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Arum and Roksa chronicled the first two years of the study.

Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of Education and Sociology, is a colleague of Arum’s and Roksa’s, and he has been studying elite colleges and universities for ten years.  He is well acquainted with Arum and Roksa’s work and their new book.

“It’s about the extent to which young people are learning and being expected to demonstrate learning while they’re in college,” said Stevens about Arum and Roksa’s recent study.

According to Stevens, Academically Adrift addresses and documents a “fairly chronic phenomenon” of mutually lowered expectations for each other by students and teachers alike.

“Very often, both instructors and students would prefer to be elsewhere than meeting each other in the undergraduate classroom,” he said.

Instructors lower expectations because they want to keep students happy and to prevent students from asking for too much time or effort. Students in turn contribute less to the class and ask for less from their teachers.

Stevens offered that “the patterns that [Arum and Roksa] show—we would expect [them] to be in play to some degree everywhere.” Maybe that is even true at Stanford.

However, Arum and Roksa found that students at elite or rigorous academic institutions showed “significantly higher gains” in critical reasoning and writing proficiency than students at other institutions.

Sidhtara Tep ‘11, a Human Biology major, was surprised by the results of Arum and Roksa’s study. She expected that low expectations by students and teachers might be present at high schools or community colleges, but not at universities.

At Stanford, she has found that student and teacher expectations are both high. As a student, she said that she finds herself challenged in the classroom and wants her instructors to keep pushing her academically.

“I certainly don’t lower my expectations for teachers,” said Tep. “I trust the teachers to teach me all that I need to know.”

Freshman Council President Dan Ashton ’14 was less surprised by the results discussed in Academically Adrift. He felt that Stanford allows students with higher expectations for themselves and teachers alike to have their expectations met.

“There are so many opportunities to go above and beyond if you want to improve any facet of your intellectual body of knowledge,” he said.

Students taking advantage of these opportunities at Stanford is not the necessarily the norm. Ashton said that he has seen his share of students doing the minimum work necessary.

“[Students] put on programs every week that gets attendance in the single digits which is just ridiculous,” Ashton cited as an example.

Stevens is careful to point out that these new studies do not mean that a college education is less valuable.

“The social science record is pretty clear that the completion of a four year college degree is a watershed event in the life course in the United States,” said Stevens, “It significantly improves occupational opportunities and earnings over the life course, and political liberalism.”

In his mind, Arum and Roska are simply trying to answer the question: Are students learning in college?

“I think the book is controversial in exactly the right way. It should be making quite a few parents, faculty members and academic administrators uncomfortable.”

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