college students learnWhen it comes to the big questions that students ask themselves before college, many are about practical concerns: "Which school is best? What should I major in? How do I get the most financial aid?"

One simple -- very fundamental -- question often gets pushed to the background: "How much am I going to learn in college?"

Two college professors recently asked it about university undergrads, and their new book gives an alarming answer: "Not much."Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum, authors of "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" and its accompanying academic study, followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at 29 anonymous universities. The schools were selected to represent "a wide range" of the nation's 2,000-plus four-year institutions.

The authors used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a writing-based standardized test, to track the progress of these students in terms of broad, analytic problem-solving and written communication skills. They came up with this troubling conclusion: When it comes to challenging undergraduate students, the nation's colleges and universities are coming up short.

"We have systematically investigated the state of undergraduate learning in contemporary colleges and universities," said the introduction to the study published last month by the Social Science Research Council (whose education-research program coordinator, Esther Cho, also authored the report). "Following several thousand traditional-age students as they enrolled in coursework from Fall 2005 to Spring 2009 ... we found a set of conditions suggesting that something indeed is seriously amiss in U.S. higher education."

Among the authors' findings: 32% of the students whom they followed in an average semester did not take any courses that assigned more than 40 pages of reading per week, and half did not take any courses in which more than 20 pages of writing were assigned throughout the entire term. Furthermore, 35% of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone. Typical students spent about 16% of their time on academic pursuits, and were "academically engaged," according to the authors, less than 30 hours a week.

All of this paints a picture of students coasting through college largely uninvolved and unchallenged academically, and the students' Collegiate Learning Assessment scores seem to bear that out. As measured by the CLA, 36% of students experienced no significant improvement in learning over four years of education. And the students who did show improvement only logged modest gains: about 0.47 statistical standard deviations over four years -- less than the study's margin of error.

One possible reason that the authors offer for such lack of rigor on college campuses: Contemporary universities may be placing too much emphasis on "social engagement" -- that is, campus life and other non-academic pursuits -- and not enough on core academics.

"Colleges and universities have been asked to focus on student retention," the study's Richard Arum told Money College. "Students are much more likely to drop out of school when they are not socially engaged, and colleges and universities increasingly view students as consumers and clients. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that all students want to be exposed to a rigorous academic program. Some students, for example, might be interested in obtaining a college credential they can exchange for labor market success with the least amount of work and effort involved."

Although the book's authors implore institutions to re-focus on challenging students intellectually, and worry less about their non-academic experiences, they also found that students' own educational choices and study habits played an important part in the gains that they made at college. For example, they noted that students in their sample group who studied by themselves for more hours each week made greater gains in learning, while those who studied in peer groups fared worse. Students who spent more time in fraternities or sororities also showed smaller gains than other students, and students who majored in traditional liberal arts fields like philosophy, history and English showed "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study."

Co-author Josipa Roksa told Money College that while schools might shoulder much of the blame for slackening the pace of learning in the interest of enhancing students' social lives, students also need to take responsibility for their education and help reverse the disturbing trend away from reading and writing in college coursework.

"Students and their parents can expect more from the institutions they attend," Roksa said. "They can inquire of institutional leadership and their overseeing boards what they are doing to assess and improve undergraduate learning. At the same time, student behaviors need to change. At many institutions, students pass around lists of 'easy A' courses; perhaps they need to start passing around lists of 'courses in which I learned the most.' "

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