April 11th, 2011

What Can Be Done to Boost Academic Rigor?


When it comes to college students and studying, the general rule most first-year students hear goes something like this. “For every one credit hour in which you enroll, you will spend approximately two to three hours outside of class studying and working on assignments for the course.” For a full-time student carrying 12 credits that equals at least 24 hours of studying per week.

Now, thinking about your students, how many hours do you think they spend studying each week?

According to the latest research, on average, today’s college students typically spend only between 12 and 14 hours per week studying.

The research comes from the Social Science Research Council’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) Longitudinal Project, which tracked 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years, starting in 2005. The project was directed by Richard Arum, PhD and Josipa Roksa PhD, and their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) is based on the first wave of the study.

Arum, professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University, and Roksa, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia, shared the findings of the study, as well as their recommendations for improving the academic rigor of undergraduate learning in a live online seminar titled Academically Adrift: Findings & Lessons for Improvement.

They explained how the study began with three overarching questions.

  1. Are students improving their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills during college?
  2. What specific experiences and college contexts are associated with student learning?
  3. How do disadvantaged groups of students fare in college with respect to learning?

Findings from the study
The CLA offers multiple measures of college experiences and includes questions around open-ended prompts that represent real-world scenarios or situations that students might face after they leave college. It also asks more straightforward questions regarding how they spend their time, and the amount of reading and writing that is required in their courses.

According to the findings, “large numbers of college students report that they experience only limited academic demands and invest only limited effort in their academic endeavors,” and “there are significant differences in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills across students from different family backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups.” In fact, the gap between African American students and white students actually increased during students’ enrollment in college, Roksa said.

In terms of reading and writing requirements across all study participants:

  • Fifty percent of sophomores reported that they had not taken a single course the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester;
  • One-third did not take a single course the prior semester that required, on average, more than 40 pages of reading per week.

“We find this as very strong evidence that students have found ways to navigate through college with little asked of them,” said Arum. “Today’s students are spending … half of what they did several decades ago (according to recent research by labor economists Phillip Babcock and Mindy Marks). Again though, if you look at their transcripts, they’re doing quite well. And they anticipate doing well.”

Recommendations for improving student learning
So what can be done to boost rigor and improve undergraduate learning?

Not surprisingly, the most important players are the administrative leadership, faculty, administrative support services and the students themselves, Roksa said. It’s also important to review faculty evaluation criteria, so that there are multiple indicators to assess teaching quality and it’s not simply about student satisfaction surveys.

“We think it’s imperative that for schools to change, administrative leadership has to emphasize promoting organizational cultures that promote student learning. And this has to be done both symbolically, in terms of rhetoric and communication, but also substantively,” said Arum.

This includes:

  • Evaluating internal incentive structures
  • Supporting ongoing assessment of program quality and student learning outcomes
  • Developing plans for improvement
  • Monitoring implementation of improvement plans
  • Aligning resource allocation decisions with academic goals

“Of course, administrative leadership cannot do this alone. They have to and should work collaboratively with faculty,” said Arum. “You will not be able to improve student learning outcomes without having faculty fully invested and taking ownership of this issue as well.”

This includes faculty taking individual and collective responsibility for ensuring academic rigor through:

  • course requirements (e.g., levels of reading and writing)
  • course expectations (i.e., study hours)
  • grading standards
  • core curriculum

The Social Science Research Council – http://highered.ssrc.org/

Babcock, P., Marks, M. (2010). Leisure College, USA. The Decline in Student Study Time. American Enterprise Institute. http://www.aei.org/outlook/100980

Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) – http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/

  • Patricia Bennett

    I couldn't agree more. I do not see any studying being done by students outside of class at all. I do, however, have to say that I teach remedial English and reading. So, what I teach them includes skills for learning, but their resistance to this extra outcome is almost unyielding. I may make more headway than I think, but the evidence in my assessments (visual and general grades) is not positive. We, as faculty, have got to take the silver spoon away from all the students. My failure rate seems slightly higher than many of colleagues, but I know they are not ready for curriculum classes yet. I do not know how to encourage them to try reading and studying more than they do, but I will keep trying. I recommend all textbooks and syllabi include some work to show the students how much time and effort the class requires and that the instructor expects no less.

  • Science Teacher

    I give my students the same preparation as I always have: sample exams, review sheets, and homework. Fifty percent actually do any of it. They are pushed through all of their other courses and expect the same from my class. Since I teach a core class for science, medicine and engineering, it seems unethical to advance those who do no work. Yet my administration is telling us that 70% of our classes have to achieve an A,B or C grade. Education is an industry in which our "customers" will gladly pay more for less. I can get them to understand a concept, work in class on it, then the idea lays fallow until the test. The motivated students still do well, but there is a clear gap. Currently, teachers are the ONLY ones held responsible for success. If college administrators would actually stick to their guns and do what is right (hold students to a college level standard), then professors could do their part to continue to craft challenging but fair materials.

  • Dissenting Wren

    Let's think about changing the incentive structure. Even if the administration doesn't punish those who refuse to dumb down their courses or who don't award high grades for mediocre work, the problem is likely to continue. Here's why. Most students at most colleges are credential-seekers. The way colleges market themselves reinforces this. It makes sense for such students to acquire their credentials at the lowest cost to themselves in labor. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to seek out those programs that demand the least of them. Since the programs with the most students garner the lion's share of funding, that means funding will go disproportionately to the least demanding programs. All of these processes will operate whether or not professors who refuse to go along with the program face individual retaliation. Correlatively, individual professors will not be able to change this process by tightening up the standards in their individual classes.

    In my experience, something can be done at the program level. It's possible to make a program much more difficult than other programs at the institution and draw large numbers of students. How? For an individual program, such a strategy can attract the tail of student outliers who value education for its own sake or who get self-respect from hard work. Can that be scaled up to the institutional level? Not readily – to expect ALL programs to follow this strategy successfully is to engage in the fallacy of composition. But that doesn't mean that nothing can be done.

    What would it take to change the incentives? At an institutional level, the administration would have to recognize that, over the long term, funding undemanding programs devalues its credential. If it becomes widely known that a degree from Jerkwater State University certifies practically nothing, then students from that university will gain less from that credential than they would from credentials from other institutions – and they will go to those institutions instead. As a strategic matter, an institution that funds more rigorous programs (driving students towards those programs simply because there isn't room for them in the less rigorous programs), may gain an advantage over its rivals in terms of the perceived value of its credential. As a result, it may also be able to recruit students more willing to put in the work that a degree such a college entails. In other words, such an institution adopts a strategy of cutting off the distributional tail of potential students, just as an individual program can cut off the distributional tail of students within the institution.

    If enough institutions adopt this strategy, a virtuous circle might replace the current vicious circle. There's no guarantee of success, but there's a chance. But the current reaction to Arum and Roksa – using their results to bash the people you already want to bash on other grounds – will do nothing to alter the perverse incentives currently at work.

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  • john

    It's truly pitiful. I see students each year coming into grad school and before at undergrad. Every year the quality of the students is a little worse. They can't write, do math, do science, and these are science majors. On top of it they are lazy. AND, they come in as Freshman as 4.0s. It's time to scrap the whole k-12 system. Turn it all over to private and homeschools and give ALL the tax payer money BACK.

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