What did you learn at university? Not much, it seems, according to the data in a new book titled Academically Adrift. The book is reviewed in the latest issue if Inside Higher Ed [Academically Adrift].
The data aren't surprising. The authors of the book show that 36% of students failed to learn anything after four years of college. Of those who did learn something, the gains were very modest.
Why don't students learn?
The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.Who's to blame for this sorry state of affairs?
Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs of AAC&U, said that she viewed the book as "devastating" in its critique of higher education. Faculty members and administrators (not to mention students and parents) should be alarmed by how little learning the authors found to be taking place, she said. Humphreys also said that the findings should give pause to those anxious to push students through and award more degrees -- without perhaps giving enough attention to what happens during a college education.None of this is news my colleagues and me. Problem is, there's not much we can do about it. If we increase the rigor of our biochemistry courses and start demanding more of our students then the result won't be increased learning. It will simply mean that undergraduates will avoid biochemistry courses. In fact, that's already happening since the University of Toronto has developed dozens of new programs that will award degrees in the biological sciences without ever forcing students to take a rigorous course.
"In the race to completion, there is this assumption that a credit is a credit is a credit, and when you get to the magic number of credits, you will have learned what you need to learn," she said. What this book shows, Humphreys added, is that "you can accumulate an awful lot of credits and not learn anything."
This brings up a question that I often ask my students. If university is supposed to be difficult (rigorous) then it's likely that some students won't be capable of completing a degree. In an ideal setting with expertly taught, challenging, programs, what percentage of the incoming class of students should expect to complete a degree? Clearly the answer can't be 100% because that bar is way too low. Should it be 50% as it was in many universities in the past? Lower?
The graduation rate at the University of Toronto has been pretty constant over the past decade at 73-75%. I assume that many of the students who drop out do so for reasons other than the rigor of university courses (e.g., personal problems, financial problems, transfers, changing goals etc.). Let's assume that this accounts for 15% of the drop-outs.
[Hat Tip: Uncertain Principles]