College freshman more confident than ever about their abilities compared to their peers

Data from the American Freshman Survey suggests new college freshman are more confident about their abilities than before:

Pyschologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues compiled the data and found that over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.

But in appraising the traits that are considered less individualistic – co-operativeness, understanding others, and spirituality – the numbers either stayed at slightly decreased over the same period.

Researchers also found a disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.

While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.

Also on the decline is the amount of time spent studying, with little more than a third of students saying they study for six or more hours a week compared to almost half of all students claiming the same in the late 1980s.

It is also interesting to look at these individual questions over time:

A few thoughts about this chart and the findings:

1. The drive to achieve has always been high in this survey compared to peers but social self-confidence and writing ability look to be around 50% today, which would reflect accurate comparisons to the average (or the median: half above, half below).

2. Across these five categories, it looks like there is a consistent uptick of about 15-20%. It is not as if all students are more confident but this is a sizable group of roughly 1 in 6 or 1 in 5.

3. Twenge suggests there is not the same uptick in confidence in less individualistic traits.  While this might be due to lesser emphasis on social traits, might it also suggest college freshmen think less highly of or trust their peers less over time?

4. It is less clear from these articles about how colleges should respond to this, particularly in an era where big money is spent on college degrees. Are results better by the time students graduate and beyond? Do colleges encourage students to think less individualistically?

Knowing about college freshmen

Before the start of each college school year, Beloit College publishes the Mindset List. This list is intended to provide an overview of how incoming college freshman understand the world. While the list certainly serves to get Beloit College on media outlets throughout the country, the list has some value. According to the creators, it is meant to help professors in the classroom:

Being aware of the generation gap helps professors craft lesson plans that are more meaningful, said Ron Nief, a former public affairs director at Beloit College and one of the list’s creators.

Developing lessons that students can relate to can be a challenge, particularly if technological and cultural changes accumulate as a professor ages.

The list is also a good reminder of generational differences. While students and faculty may inhabit the same academic classrooms, their experiences and perspective of the world can differ greatly.