Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

A new book (Academically Adrift) written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska suggests that many college students don’t graduate with certain skills that colleges claim to be teaching. Here is a brief summary of the findings:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

I wonder how colleges would respond to these findings. Within a 4 year institution (and across the spectrum of 4 year institutions), there are bound to be some students who do well and others who have more struggles. I wonder how much is in this data about the individual level characteristics of students and whether the authors suggest that spending more time doing school work would make a difference. Is it the college students who need to do more work, is it the professors who should be assigning more or asking for more, is it a campus culture that privileges other things over academic work (like extracurricular activities), or some combination of these three?

This suggests schools need to spend more time and effort on these particular skills and need to find ways to assess these (and the students’ progress or need for improvement) within their time at a 4 year institution.

The sociologists suggest there are some differences between disciplines:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

So actually doing more reading and writing makes a difference, no matter what the discipline. What does this mean for liberal arts colleges – is it really the place where students develop these particular skills?

0 thoughts on “Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

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