Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are College Students Learning Too Little?

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” a book by two educators, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, has caused a stir in educational circles. The authors tracked several thousand students as they moved through and graduated from several American colleges and universities. Their chilling conclusion: students don’t learn nearly enough to thrive in a knowledge-based economy. As the authors write, “In a typical semester, 50% of students did not take a single course requiring more than 20 pages of writing, 32% did not have any classes that required reading more than 40 pages per week, and 36% reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week.” America’s educational institutions rarely challenge students intellectually who end up with degrees that have little value. Both the schools and the students are academically adrift in that both have lost the focus on education and on developing such skills as critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing.
What do college students themselves think? Are they just going through the motion in colleges and graduating due to lax standards, or are they, in fact, getting a rigorous education that will serve them well in their professional careers?

Mary feels that “Academically Adrift” may be the most important book on higher education to come out in her lifetime. She has been at a community college for six years now and found that schools have become more like businesses where not education but profit is paramount. She has been misled by counselors and taken courses that did nothing for her. “A generalized list of courses does not work for every student. Community colleges are more concerned with transfer rates and so take the focus off students and their educational needs.” She is not surprised that the authors found that 48% of graduating college students had not improved their critical thinking skills. Mary is rethinking her educational goals after reading the book.

Julio believes that the dismal record of college graduates reflect a sobering fact: colleges have become too boring academically. A large percentage of teachers compound the problem by being “pathetic” at teaching and so turn off students completely.

Joelle concurs. “Most classes have been very easy and do not require much studying to pass. I have even had classes that I barely went to, never had homework, and yet passed!  Teachers don’t know how to teach complex reasoning and rigorous thinking. Even if they do, they do a super job of hiding it from us! The schools are in the money-making business, not education.”

James feels that it’s the teachers who are mostly failing their students. In an English class, for instance, a teacher assigns an essay and grades it without going over any mistake or flaws in reasoning. “They just hand out grades, often inflated, so they can look good. There are exceptions, no doubt. Students have a right to demand exceptional teachers in all subjects.”
Yvonne disagrees with Arum and Roksa. It is true that some students graduate without learning much but the majority of students she knows work really hard because “we know our success in life depend on it.”

Ray agrees with the main points of the authors. Too many colleges are focused on nurturing their athletes at the expense of education. “Colleges will do anything for their star football players but hardly anything for their bright students other than maybe a pat on the back.”

Kevin also agrees with the authors that students are learning very little in colleges today. “I have taken a few classes at a community college and found them to be a complete waste of time. Some classes do not require attendance to pass. They chose the courses because they were transferable. Many of the topics covered are those that I covered during my teenage years. If students do not feel involved or cannot relate to the topics, then they do not bother listening. It is easy for me to use my laptop to browse the internet without having to pay attention during class if all the professor does is stand in front of the class and lectures.” Many of Kevin’s friends remain jobless after four years of college. Most have a huge debt that they are unable to pay off. “I just don’t want to be stuck with a big tuition debt in my ‘20s and having to work years just to pay it off. I am currently reconsidering my educational goals.”

Kimberley is not surprised by the conclusions of Arum and Roksa. During her years at a community college, she has come across more unmotivated students than determined ones. A lot of the conversations in class starts with “I barely did my homework before class” or “I partied with…” instead of “I spent the whole day reading and doing homework.” She knows dozens of students who put in very little effort into their assignments but still slide by with a C. “The results from not trying will bite the students later, which is why the two authors have written about how out of focus education has become.” Kimberley is hopeful that discussions centered on the book will bring about changes in the way colleges educate students.

Kendal is convinced that students are learning very little in college because the incentive to try is just not there. Teachers are passing students who do not deserve to pass and so they enter the workforce unprepared. But the problem does not lie only with instructors. It lies with students as well. Many students today have a sense of entitlement and think they are too good to take a bottom-rung position at a company. They want to be CEO’s and make $100,000 a year right out of college.  By allowing mediocre work and giving it an A, teachers reinforce the delusion that you do not have to put in the work to be successful.

Jennifer takes issue with the narrow and limited scope of the authors. They do not take into account, for instance, the teaching methods used by instructors and funding for colleges. The authors are guilty of generalization and in claiming that all colleges are affected by the various factors in the same way. Some colleges lack qualified staff while other colleges are filled with inspiring instructors and motivated students. How can you apply the same rules to both types?

Adam also disagrees with Arum and Roksa. Times have changed. Students these days must absorb and work with more difficult concepts and subjects than students in the past. With so many more students attending colleges, the battle for jobs has also gotten fiercer. Besides, “who cares if students don’t take a class requiring more than 20 pages of writing? If it doesn’t support your major, why do it? As an Art Major, I may not have the best grammar, or the highest level of vocabulary, but if it doesn’t apply to my field of interest, then I really don’t want to become an expert in writing. Sure, general education is important but an entire population should not have to excel in categories such as writing, unless they want to become professional writers. In time, we all lose information and knowledge we don’t use in everyday life. If a student fails at writing, he shouldn’t be a writer!”

Kim also takes issue with the authors. The criterion for learning “a lot” or a “little” is subjective. Students have different goals and should not be measured by the same general standard. But Kim also agrees with the authors in that there are many students who make entertainment their primary goal in college and so end up learning very little. She has seen a quarter of her classmates dropping out when the subject became challenging. For Kim, a lot of it comes down to how motivated students are. If they are, they will succeed. If not, no matter what other factors may work in their favor, they will fail.

For Lauren too, it comes down to the students themselves. “A good student will take a lot from college and a bad student will find a way through it without learning much. There are a million and half ways to pass your classes without doing much of anything, but if students are in college because they really want to be there, then they will want to read their books, do their homework, and show up for classes. The sad part is that because students find an overwhelming number of ways to skate through college, the students who are actually motivated and doing their homework are getting the same grades as the other students. Students cheat in more ways than just copying a friend’s’ paper. It really comes down to a simple fact: College is what you make of it.”

David agrees with the authors. Students may be learning the mechanics and formulas behind things but they don't get enough hands-on experience or understand why they learn the things they do and how these apply to real life. “To me, that is real knowledge, not just going through the motions but actually understanding why a formula is the way it is and how it can be applied to real life applications. A student can be a straight A student and know by memorization everything that has to do with their major. But that doesn't necessarily mean that students will succeed at the job of their choice. Learning about something in a textbook is vastly different from actually experiencing it in real life. I think schools should lessen the tedious busy work and try to engage students. Have them see what it is like to work in the major that they are in or make sure they understand how the information they learn in class applies to the real world.”

Smith disagrees with the authors. He has learned a lot in colleges by avoiding busywork and focusing on what is truly important. The authors talk about writing and rigorous thinking but in reality these activities are nothing more than busy work, just going through the motions. Smith favors quality over quantity. A student may write 20 pages of solid, relevant and well thought-out passages, or 100 pages of drivel. Surely the latter is bad but sometimes that’s what’s lauded. Smith, however, thinks that increasing the cost of education will keep many students out of colleges and that will badly hurt the economy.

As Katia sees it, most students take particular classes to fulfill some sort of graduation requirement. “This is sad because the idea of college is that you take classes that interest you and that stimulate your desire to learn. Most teachers are reacting to this and it is evident in the way they teach. Many teachers teach classes without passion and then hand out the test. Most tests only require students to memorize to pass.  This is not how college courses should be. Students are failing and not doing well because they are not interested in the material.  The burden is on the college to create curriculum that students find relevant and interesting.”

Jessica disagrees with the authors. “Most of the courses I have taken have absolutely no need to require over 20 pages of writing. She also feels that a country’s financial system plays a huge role in the quality of education provided to students these days, something the authors did not take into consideration. “Being a part of the student government, I have witnessed first-hand the effects of budget cuts and decreased state funding for education. With colleges being forced to cut faculty, decreasing the number of classes while increasing class sizes, quality education becomes almost impossible quality education.”

Tomas agrees partially with authors. There is an overall decline in learning in colleges. Students are not motivated and seem distracted by outside influences. The use of technology allows students to gain a quick fix and distracts them critical thinking skills. “The stats show that there is a declining four-year college attendance, due to higher expenses and lower academic requirements. From my experience of attending a community college, I have noticed that when the semester starts, the classes are full, with no room to spare.  By the end of the semester, about half the class has dropped out. This is not due to the professors but to students’ laziness and lack of motivation to stick it out and do the material. Students are being challenged but they flee from the challenges. What students don’t realize is that the future is going to only get tougher in competing for jobs, which will go to the ones who have persisted and did the necessary work to succeed.”


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