Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

March 31, 2011

The role of academics is criticism. As teachers, their role is to instil the critical spirit in students. The role of administration in the academy is not to hinder the development of intellectual life based on criticism. Is this vision a reality?

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa describe the US higher education system as very successful for all concerned: for parents, who see their children growing up in a safe environment and gaining the right credentials; for students, who enjoy a good social and academic life while gaining high marks with minimum effort; for academics, who are free to concentrate on research; for administrators, happy meeting the financial bottom line; and for government, profiting from new scientific knowledge. It works because “increased privatization and market-based education reforms have produced a system that has expanded opportunity for all”. One study cited here claims that students “had little worry about their ability to find high-paying jobs after college to repay their student loans”.

Arum and Roksa ask a simple question about this academic Utopia: “But what if increased educational attainment is not equivalent to enhanced individual capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning?”

How did they find an answer? They created their own dataset, Determinants of College Learning, to aggregate longitudinal data from 2,322 students on a diverse range of campuses. At its core is the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a “state-of-the-art” standardised test given to students in their first semester and again at the end of their second year; from 2016, it will be adapted for international use by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Arum and Roksa also provide a 67-page methodological appendix; for a short book, it takes a major step towards evidence-based assessment of student learning.

The book’s headline finding is that “At least 45 per cent of the students surveyed did not demonstrate any significant statistical improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment performance during their first two years of college.” They graduate, but fail to develop the critical thinking and complex reasoning expected at university. No wonder that employers see “only 26 per cent of college graduates as being well prepared in writing and 22 per cent as being well prepared to think critically”. There is a hidden crisis in the academy. What has happened?

Simply put, students are doing less academic work. “The results … show that learning is related first and foremost to academic activities, and particularly to individual studying. Social activities, including studying with peers, have either no consequences or negative consequences for learning”. Undertaking “projects” and entertaining “active learning” techniques have no impact on learning. Undergraduates who do best are those tackling a demanding academic curriculum, which means they read more than 40 pages a week and write more than 20 pages a semester.

Satisfied parents, students, professors, administrators and government do not think of critical thinking and complex reasoning as the end of higher education, and one reason for this is the rhetorical promotion of the student as consumer. Student consumers are unlikely to put “academic learning at the core of their institutional demands”, say Arum and Roksa, who suggest that “there are many reasons instead to expect students as consumers to focus on receiving services that will allow them, as effortlessly and comfortably as possible, to obtain valuable educational credentials that can be exchanged for later labour market success”. Instead of pandering to this shopping-mall mentality, they argue, universities should regain their moral purpose and instil in young people a “lifelong love of learning, an ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and a willingness to embrace and assume adult responsibilities”.

So are Arum and Roksa right? All university managers might like to read 40 pages of this book a week for the next five weeks and produce a 20-page report on “Countering Academic Drift: Developing Critical Thinking in the University”.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
University of Chicago Press, 256pp, £45.00 and £16.00
ISBN 9780226028552 and 8569
Published 14 February 2011

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