So, Students Don't Learn -- Now What?

January 19, 2011

WASHINGTON -- In the company of higher education experts and policymakers, the authors of a damning new book about higher education asserting that many college students graduate without actually learning anything acknowledged Tuesday that the tool used to reach that conclusion isn't perfect. But they all agreed that it doesn't make the findings any less "sobering."

Panelists from higher education think tanks gathered here to call attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the findings of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which was released Tuesday by the University of Chicago Press and is already generating considerable buzz. Many cast the book as a milestone in higher education that will have significant and far-reaching effects, despite some flaws. But they also grappled with how the federal government, institutions, faculty members and students will respond.

The book and its corresponding report document the findings of research that followed 2,300 undergraduates through four years of college, at 24 unidentified but academically representative institutions, to measure progress in their critical thinking and analytic reasoning skills. The measurement tool was the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which the students took during their freshman, sophomore and senior years. The book's authors, Richard Arum, a professor of education and sociology at New York University and director of education research at the Social Science Research Council, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, drew many conclusions from their research, perhaps the most shocking of which is that 36 percent of students demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication over four years of college. After only two years of college, that percentage -- 45 -- is even higher.

At a time when more completion and degree attainment is the primary goal for even the federal government, it's particularly unsettling to discuss these findings, panelists said -- and many in academe probably don't want to hear them. "[The public] all assume that if you go to college, you kind of learn something," said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. This report shows that the assumption that completion equals success is "invalid."

Yet while lauding the report (written by the two book authors and SSRC program coordinator Esther Cho), panelists also noted the limitations of the Collegiate Learning Assessment. For instance, students who are about to graduate may not feel particularly motivated to do well on their final exam, thereby deflating scores and suggesting a greater problem. The test also does not address subject-matter knowledge, which students almost certainly gain to some degree in their respective programs.

Other causal findings that were subject to interpretation troubled the panel, as well. The book asserts that students who study in groups instead of alone learn less in college, but those students were not asked what those sessions entailed; while some students might define studying as sitting around a television with textbooks somewhere in the vicinity, others probably don't. Alexander McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, worried that saying group studying negatively affects learning outcome "could sort of tar the whole movement toward collaborative learning," which other research has deemed beneficial. "We need to help students learn to learn ... and become more effective learners," he said.

Overall, though, the panelists and others in the room agreed that this research is invaluable and will inspire positive action -- though perhaps not by Thursday, which is the deadline jokingly given to the U.S. Education Department by panel moderator Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, a group dedicated to improving student achievement.

So now, Coleman asked, what next? In general, students aren't studying enough; faculty members aren't demanding enough of students; administrators aren't paying attention to student learning outcomes; and the federal government isn't awarding grant money to figure out why students aren't learning, even as it calls for more completion. "That we had to do this on our own," with the help of various foundations but without any from the government, Arum said, "is shameful and disgraceful." But students, teachers and administrators have their parts to play, as well. And while there was some concern as to whether faculty members and colleges would get behind demands for more academic rigor when there's no incentive, the panelists said that point can't be dwelt upon.

"The higher education community has and is addressing these issues," said David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability. "Various efforts need to be somehow pulled together and then stepped up…. There needs to be some kind of unum coming out of this pluribus with regard to learning."

And these efforts need to be transparent and accountable. "College is not Vegas," Cooper said. "What happens in college can't just stay in college."

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