New study claims college students are learning less


A new book reports students enrolled in college may not be learning as much as higher education advocates would have intended.

New York University sociology professor Richard Arum and University of Virginia assistant sociology professor Josipa Roksa are the authors of the critically acclaimed book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” It presents a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years.

The study used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning. It measured both the amount students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills and how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.

In students’ first two years of college, the authors found at least 45 percent made no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. By the time students graduated, more than a third showed no improvement in critical thinking skills whatsoever.

According to the book, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor is incentives, which consequentially make course evaluations higher.

Universities do carry the burden of having to please various constituents, said UNF Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Faculty Enhancement Dr. Dan Richard, who maintains the inception of learning is more complex than what can be determined by one single test.

“‘Academically Adrift’ is an over-generalization,” Richard said. “What I hear from faculty is that students are coming in unprepared, in part from our egalitarian approach to education.”

Students need more support and should devote more time to solitary studying, Richard said. They should be connected with practitioners, like members of UNF’s Academic Center for Excellence who can help them succeed.

“It’s about helping students learn how to learn,” he said.

UNF, he said, has already taken creative steps to improve its approach to student learning, like the National Survey of Student Engagement, the ETS test and Venture Studies.

Michael Poliakoff, policy director of the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is glad the book is receiving recognition.

“It’s a tragedy and an outrage when we consider the amount of money that students, their families and taxpayers put into higher education,” Poliakoff said.

The study, Poliakoff said, points out what many observers have understood for years. He said his point of view is not to condone “business as usual.”

The council advocates that universities should stick to a conventional core curriculum during students’ undergraduate years, and it grades institutions that do as such: According to the councils affiliated website, Harvard received a D grade based on their core curriculum, whereas UNF received a B.

Those students who have gone through a rigorous core curriculum are less likely to have deficiencies in their ability to handle numbers, to understand scientific reasoning or to write well, Poliakoff said.

Regarding academic rigor, the study found there has been a 50 percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying and preparing for classes from several decades ago.

UNF Provost Mark Workman, who has not yet read the book, said he doesn’t ignore or discredit its findings, however, there is a tendency to romanticize the past.

“If it is the case that placing much greater emphasis on collaborative student work and extracurricular learning outside the classroom might be producing less gains in terms of knowledge,” he said, “perhaps students are gaining something else that is equally valuable.”

Joshua Fredrickson, a UNF alumnus, said although he spent a number of hours studying for his courses, he could see where others were susceptible to slip by while doing the bare minimum.

“I don’t know if it’s so much the institutions that are failing the students or that the students are failing the institutions,” he said.

For instance, websites like indicate students tend to look for “the easy way out,” he said.

Fredrickson said the underlying solution is hard to know for sure, as it appears to him each part of the equation plays a significant role in the declining standards universities continue to see.

Poliakoff said even though the news is bitter, society should welcome this messenger and its data should guide them.

Although these findings are valuable, the researchers said in a statement they need to be investigated further and plan to publish another book with those findings in the near future.