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?

Rethinking how to study

The New York Times highlights recent research that suggests older methods or habits for studying may not be worthwhile. Instead, there are new suggestions for studying that haven’t yet caught on:

[P]sychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite…

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills…

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

These would be worthwhile for any type or stage of learning. While it may be initially difficult to change ingrained habits, switching to new study methods would pay off in the end with improved abilities to retain and utilize knowledge.

Reading about this could lead to some interesting questions regarding how people and students learn or acquire their study habits. Is it an intuitive process that each person needs to figure out for themselves? Do most people simply do what others have told them to do? How often do we assess our own studying/learning habits to determine their effectiveness?

College students and studying

Boston.com reports on a study by two professors that found college students study less today: 14 hours a week on average today compared to 24 hours a week on average in 1961. Why this is happening is less clear:

But when it comes to “why,” the answers are less clear. The easy culprits — the allure of the Internet (Facebook!), the advent of new technologies (dude, what’s a card catalog?), and the changing demographics of college campuses — don’t appear to be driving the change, Babcock and Marks found. What might be causing it, they suggest, is the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: The central bargain of a college education — that students have fairly light classloads because they’re independent enough to be learning outside the classroom — can no longer be taken for granted. And some institutions of higher learning have yet to grapple with, or even accept, the possibility that something dramatic has happened.

Very interesting findings and something that colleges and universities will have to adjust to.

The Atlantic chimes in with 8 reasons that may explain why studying is down.

h/t Arts & Letters Daily