April 11th, 2011

What Can Be Done to Boost Academic Rigor?

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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

Resources:
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/