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.

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11 Comments on “Do students learn anything much at college?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Instinct is informing me that this is a ploy. Or at the very best a kite sent up to see who will validate it by shooting at it.
    I am not such a fool that I think there are no idiotic/venal institutions of education where the students are nothing more that sheep to be fleeced. Or institutions where Johaan and twelve of his mates decide to get a license on religious grounds and set printing presses going. The vast majority are not like that.
    If I may point out something. Should the majority of Institutions ostracise and make plain just how useless an education is from such places. There is nothing more certain than a well camouflaged squad would arise with a heap of objections from grounds of which competition, religion and exclusivity, either pro or otherwise steamed from the top.
    It might be worth remembering that in the UK the NUI was viewed in just such a nasty way. And to the point where in one of the ‘Doctors on Call’ films had one of the characters come to Ireland for his degree.


    • I don’t think the authors of this study were even contemplating for-profit institutions or the like, their comments were about mainstream universities.

      Whether similar conditions apply in Ireland is, though, another matter – or maybe not? But I do agree that the traditional universities can have their reputations affected by fly-by-night operators, and unfortunately we’ve had some of those…

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    The problems identified in Academically Adrift are definitely problems in Ireland as well.

    Here’s a one-question survey to be asked of students that will reveal both that there is a problem very like the one identified in Academically Adrift and give some indications as to where the problem lies:

    “If you could be assured of getting an A in all your classes on condition that you not attend any of them and that you therefore learn nothing, would you take the deal?”

    I’ve asked this question of students in my classes and somewhere upwards of 50% would take the deal. University is, for a great many students, a place in which to get credentials at the lowest “cost” (in terms of effort) possible. And the authors of Academically Adrift identify a major cause of this: the increasing tendency to treat the student as the “consumer” of a “product” (and, one might add, the concomitant tendency to feel that universities should be run like any other “service industry”). I quote:

    There are many reasons . . . to expect students as consumers to focus on receiving services that wil allow them, as effortlessly and comfortably as possible, to attain valuable educational credentials that can be exchanged for later labor market success.Academically Adrift, Kindle edition, location 440-448

    They then go on to cite a sociologist named David Labaree:

    The payoff for a particular credential is the same no matter how it was acquired, so it is rational [in a particularly impoverished version of economic instrumental reason–EB] behavior to try to strike a good bargain, to work at getting a diploma, like a car, at a substantial discount. The effect on education is to emphasize form over content–to promote an educational system that is willing to reward students for formal compliance with modest performance requirements rather than for demonstrating operational mastery of skills deemed politically and socially useful.

    Part of the problem, alas, is the insistence that higher education has to be for everyone. A good measure of those who have no business being involved in it is those who respond “yes” to my one-question survey. The needs of these students (to get a credential that they can trade in for a job) could, in most cases, be much more easily met by institutions other than universities and at much lower expense. As George Leef points out, “large numbers of young people who have college degrees wind up doing jobs that high school students could easily learn and because we have such a glut of graduates in the labor force, many employers now demand that applicants have degrees even for mundane jobs.”

    In other words, if vocational training is what you want, you don’t need universities to do it. Now, of course, society will be poorer in other ways perhaps if we go down that route. But the main source of the “academic drift” here is quite clearly the very widespread consumerist attitudes and reductive economic thinking that students, like their parents and like the society as a whole, think exhausts all human ways of thinking and the willingness of the universities (run by people who, by and large, share that economic ideology) to accommodate them. One of the things a real university should be involved in is acquainting these students with the vast array of ideological alternatives to homo œconomicus. Sadly, that seems less and less possible than it once was.

    • Al Says:

      I suppose that when, thinking about GW Bush and his ivy league Mba…. education may have been used as an exclusion tool by the ruling classes.
      In our modern non exclusionary times this becomes a problem?

  3. Steve Daley Says:

    @FvP concludes ” 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.”

    I think this misses the point. The instrumental rationales for higher education may appear as external pressures on the academy, but IMHO this cloaks the internal crisis within academia. Over the last couple of decades HEd has witnessed an internal struggle to elevate good teaching and dismiss scholarship and research as elitist expectations. The result is we now discover that after 3/4 years of ‘reading’ a subject, most (not all) students graduate with a ‘Generation game’ ability to recall key learning outcomes from their conveyor belt undergraduate course and an inflated sense of erudition.

  4. Al Says:

    Bob Herbert had an opinion piece in the NYTimes yesterday on the book.
    I wonder if it can ‘apply’ to Ireland, what % of Americans go on to third level in comparison to Ireland?

  5. jfryar Says:

    I have to say I’m always sceptical of this kind of research and the conclusions people reach. Sure, 2300 students sounds a lot but it represents far less than 1% of the total student population in the US. If we could believe such statistics then pre-election polling would seldom get the results wrong …

    I’m not sure it’s even possible to take a random student, subject them to some form of pedagogy, and magically increase their capacity for ‘critical thinking and complex reasoning’. You might as well suggest that you can take a tone-deaf person and turn them into a concert pianist – wishful thinking in our age of inclusiveness where we overlook the fact that not all people are equally capable.

    The fact is, from my perspective in science, that our universities still produce PhD students. These researchers have in many cases, designed, built and maintained their own lab equipment, found ways of doing the experiments they want within limited budgets, and demonstrate critical thinking and creativity every day they spend in the lab. Is that because of something they learnt or something they were born with? And if it depends on the individual then do those skills dilute as student populations rise?


  6. I know every discipline sees the world through its own lenses, but the economic literature on ‘signalling’ might explain a fair amount of the behaviour Ernie is describing. Here is a good link, with comments and queries about the theory itself: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2005/03/signaling_in_ed.html

    Is the modern university a low information environment relative to the rest of the world students inhabit?

    I return at times to this paper, which would dilute the signalling effects almost instantly: http://www.hasmendi.net/makale/Vela_Anarchy.pdf


  7. Actually, one more interesting read is Neil Postman’s The End of Education, as well as his Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    Are students substantially different when they graduate than they were when they came in 3 or 4 years earlier? – undeniably yes (mostly).

    How much of this is a consequence of a maturing or opening up process that would occur over 3-4 years in any case? Who knows?

    To what extent do students change as a proportion of how much we think they should have changed as a result of our actions? Depends on how ambitious/self-important we think we are.

    Can we predict, control or even measure all the things one might learn at college? Of course not.

    Could the money spent on 3rd level education be better spent on something else, like weapons systems, metro north, eradicating disease? A judgement call.

    Will people respond positively to a hypothetical scenario that offers them something valuable for nothing? You betcha!


  9. […] However, in such uncertain times, focus can get lost amongst the contradiction. Ferdinand von Prondzynski says: […]


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