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How Much—or Little—Do College Students Learn?

New book uses data to argue that many students learn little due to lack of rigor

In President Obama’s first speech to Congress, he said, “By 2020, American will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” In the past decade, the number of college students has risen steadily and higher education has become a political priority. Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at UVA, explains why this might be. “In an increasingly globalized economic system, individual economic success and our nation’s ability to compete on the global stage depend upon our commitment to educate future generations,” Roksa says.

However, Roksa’s research reveals that while access to education might be increasing, American college students may not be learning much.

UVA sociology professor Josipa Roksa

With New York University professor Richard Arum, Roksa recently published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a study that concludes that during their education many college students do not measurably improve in at least three important areas: complex reasoning, critical thinking and written communication. These are the areas that presumably would propel graduates into successful careers in the globalized economy. They are also the areas that most colleges claim to emphasize. Yet students seem to be falling short.

Following a few thousand students through four years of college and using a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, Arum and Roksa’s study finds that not only are students coming to college unprepared to work hard, but they also choose courses with the lowest amount of required reading and writing. While college instructors generally recommend 25 hours, on average students spend only 12 to 14 hours per week studying.

But the problem isn’t just with students. The study concludes that many professors, too, come into class with low expectations and require little work of their students. This may be caused in part by university administrations rewarding publishing over teaching.

Citing other studies, Curry School of Education professor Margaret Miller says, “All arrows are pointing in the same direction. Employers have been telling us for decades that they are disappointed in [higher education’s] results. And things are getting worse.”

Miller claims financial strain on students is a large factor for under-performance.Academic performance suffers when students work too many hours in outside jobs.

The book proposes several solutions for both universities and government, but Roksa says parents can help, too. “They can ask crucial questions about how much their children are studying and learning, and they can ask those questions of both their children and the institutions,” Roksa says. It is incumbent upon parents, faculty and administrators, Roksa says, not to cede academic rigor in the face of parties, leisure time pursuits and other college activities that can throw a student’s study time out of whack.

But how does UVA fit into Academically Adrift’s alarming claims? UVA was not one of the institutions included in Arum and Roksa’s study, according to Lois Myers, associate director of UVA’s Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies. But it’s included in other surveys of student engagement and performance.

The University’s Institutional Assessment & Studies office provides data from 2008 that shows that UVA students are indeed performing at the higher end. On the National Survey of Student Engagement, UVA students scored higher than the national average in the area of “academic challenge,” which includes time spent studying, complex reasoning skills and rigor of written course work.

Miller contends that students at the University are somewhat wealthier than average and have been selected for, among other things, academic excellence. So they are under less financial strain and are better prepared to do the kind of work that leads to learning than other college students.

Though UVA students score slightly higher than average, this does not mean that the University can be complacent.

“While there is variation in academic rigor across institutions in our study, all schools—regardless of stature—have the opportunity and obligation to improve,” says Roksa. “UVA’s mission to ‘offer instruction of the highest quality to undergraduates from all walks of life’ can inspire us to serve as a role model of self-reflection, innovation and continuous improvement.”