‘Academically adrift’? Authors question learning standards in US academy

What do undergraduates learn in four years’ study at American universities? In an alarming number of cases, absolutely nothing, according to a still-unreleased book that is causing a firestorm in the US.

January 20, 2011

The book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), states that 45 per cent of 2,322 undergraduates tested made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during their first two years at university.

Thirty-six per cent showed no significant gains after four years.

“Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent,” write the authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia respectively.

More than a third of the students, who attended 24 different universities among a range of types, graduated without knowing how to tell the difference between fact and opinion or make a clear written argument, the authors claim.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning, and those in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics the most.

The survey also found that students spend less than a fifth of their time on academic work and more than half socialising or engaged in extracurricular activities.

American universities have strenuously resisted exit testing to measure educational outcomes, which was proposed by a national commission on higher education during the George W. Bush administration. Thanks to the book, the measure is gaining fresh support among advocacy groups.

The Council for Aid to Education, which presses for improved quality at universities, called the authors’ findings “deeply disturbing” and said it would now offer the results of its Comprehensive Learning Assessment test to other scholars. The test has previously been used within universities and university departments considering changes to their programmes and teaching approaches.

Universities responded that the students whose test results provided the foundation for the book probably weren’t particularly motivated to do well, since they had no stake in the outcome. They added that the test didn’t measure knowledge of particular subject matters on which students may have focused their academic careers.

But while students may have subject-specific skills, “in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of US college students can be accurately described as academically adrift”, the authors write. “They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master.”

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