Do students learn anything much at college?
One of the recurring claims now made of higher education across several countries is that students don’t seem to learn much, don’t seem to work hard, and don’t seem to graduate with the necessary skills. Most recently this has been the charge made by American professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Taking as their starting point the questions that have increasingly been asked of American universities by educators, businesses and parents, they take a closer look at ‘the state of undergraduate education’ and whether students ‘are actually developing the capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning at college’. In a word, their answer is ‘no’.
Their study involved a look at the performance of 2,300 undergraduate students during a period of more than three years, and over that time the authors found almost half of these students showed no significant improvement in key skills such as critical thinking. They put in the minimum of effort required and focus on getting the qualification without any real intention of engaging their minds. Furthermore, the institutions at which they do this let them get away with it by awarding them their qualifications with good grades.
On this side of the Atlantic there is no empirical evidence pointing to this kind of problem, though there are comments from industry leaders and politicians suggesting something similar for here. For those of us who doubt that this is so – and I would be one of these – it may be right to call for a similar study to establish whether we are right or wrong. But if there is any substance to the charge, it may be related to the increasing uncertainty as to what higher education is for, with students sometimes seeing it solely as the route to a formal qualification to establish their careers, industry as a way of providing specialist and sometimes quite narrow skills, and governments as a way of keeping people off the dole queues. The educational character of education is sometimes lost in all this and needs to be re-discovered.