Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, _Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses_

MY FACULTY COLLEAGUES and I are being encouraged to read this, and being the co-operative faculty member I (sometimes -- nay, often) am, I read it. Unwelcome news.

Arum and Roksa conducted an extensive study (almost 2400 students on 24 different campuses) and found that most undergraduates are not making much headway in mastering "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills" during their first two years of college.

Why not? Well, they're spending a lot less time studying than they used to, with more time than formerly devoted to part-time jobs, volunteering, clubs and activities, and general hanging out. It also turns out that they can get away with studying less because their instructors are assigning less work (specifically, reading and writing) than they once did. It's a sweet deal all around; the faculty can spend more time on their research, the path to bigger rewards and more prestige, and the students can spend more time hanging out.

Specifically, courses in explicitly pre-professional majors -- business, education, communication, computer science, social work -- seem to require less in the way of reading and writing, with concomitant slowed acquisition of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Not exactly a surprise.

More surprisingly, "active learning," "collaborative learning," and greater involvement in student life activities, which have been energetically advanced in recent years as means to increase student engagement in learning, turn out not to be helpful in developing critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. So, what is helpful? More reading, more writing, studying alone. Which doesn't sound fun.

The takeaway seems obvious to me: those faculty in business, education, communication, computer science, and social work better get cracking and build a little rigor (rig-gah as Teddy Roosevelt would say) into their curricula toot sweet.

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