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Lack of Rigor in College Often Means Trouble Later for Students, Say Authors

You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? Don't have an account? Sign in via your Institution Sign in. Purchase Subscription prices and ordering Short-term Access To purchase short term access, please sign in to your Oxford Academic account above. This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. Colleges and universities often promote the value of participation in extracurricular activities. Did you find those have a relationship to student learning? Roksa: Higher education has focused on the social integration aspect of education as a mechanism for keeping students enrolled.

Having students socially integrate and having them persist are important goals. But we found that the social activities have either no benefit for learning, or actually have a negative relationship to learning.

We find that the more time students spend in fraternities and sororities, the less they learn. And the more time they spend studying with peers, the lower their learning. So those two factors—involvement in fraternities and sororities and studying with peers—actually have a negative relationship to learning. And then a number of other activities have no effect. We looked at volunteering, we looked at participation in other clubs and organizations, we looked at employment on and off campus, and none of those have a relationship to learning once we control for individual differences.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

There are differences initially, because students who engage in those activities are different to begin with. But once we adjust for that, those activities have no relationship to learning. That the degrees should actually be meaningful and represent a certain set of skills and knowledge? That would also be true about the group work. Some groups could be effective, some not effective. The same thing is true about the majors. So again, these things are suggestive, but the observations are not fine-grained enough that you would want to jump to specific policies about broad programs based on them.

That would be a misuse and a misinterpretation of the average tendencies we identify in the book. We measured them in our work as taking at least a course where they wrote more than 20 pages over the course of the semester, and taking at least a course where they are reading more than 40 pages per week on average. So reading and writing requirements of coursework is one [variable], and hours devoted to studying alone is another. And high faculty expectations is a third variable.

Students are responsive to learning more in settings where they report that faculty have high expectations of their academic performance. These are the factors that clearly track with improved performance on this CLA measure.

Roksa: And a number of our findings regarding academic rigor and engagement are replicated in the National Survey of Student Engagement [NSSE], which makes us feel more confident in the representativeness of our sample. Similarly, NSSE asks students a question about writing page papers, and about academic rigor and other aspects of their coursework. These are not the same questions we ask, but if you look at the distributions, I think you would come away with similar conclusions that we have in terms of an average lack of student focus on academic rigor, particularly when it comes to higher-order skills.

Is there anything in your findings that you feel is not receiving enough attention? In every institution we looked at, there are students who are seeking out and taking rigorous coursework, applying themselves to their studies, and showing impressive gains in learning as measured by the CLA. What are your recommendations for motivating the students who are not making learning gains? Arum: Increasing reading requirements and writing requirements in coursework, reviewing program quality to make sure that it requires academic rigor, reviewing grading standards so that it encourages students to apply themselves to their studies, urging faculty to have high expectations—these are things that do not require huge resource outlays.

Many of these things can be done if administrators and faculty want them to be done. Roksa: The conversation should be about 21st century skills and the extent to which we are competing in an increasingly globalized marketplace, and the extent to which students will be changing jobs frequently.

The Review of Higher Education

So they are going to enter a very different labor market than what was happening 15 or 20 years ago—a labor market that is more competitive and more dependent on the general skills of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. And so if we are graduating large portions of students without developing these fundamental general skills—the skills that provide a foundation for lifelong learning, for application to new jobs and new contexts—we think it is going to harm them individually and us as a nation in the long run.

It seems the federal policy agenda regarding higher education has moved from providing access to facilitating completion. Do you think the next focus will be learning outcomes? Not just graduating, but graduating with knowledge? Arum: If you look at the political winds in Washington, there are some indicators that the administrators and policy makers have a growing concern with the issue of student learning and the extent to which future college graduates will manifest a set of competencies across a broad set of learning domains.

Roksa: When people see these results, one inclination well-intended is to think about developing a federal accountability system like we have in K But we think that would be very counter-productive at this time and would likely lead to a number of negative unintended consequences. As an aside, we do believe the federal government should collect data for research purposes, so researchers can learn about what factors predict learning and how much of it is occurring and where.

How Did Students Become Academically Adrift?

Sometimes people have the idea that you either have federal accountability or you have nothing. So the boards of institutions, we argue, have a responsibility to ask their presidents what they are doing to measure learning, to identify weaknesses, and to develop programs and plans to improve learning on their campuses. If we are really going to reform higher education in the way in which we propose, and refocus its mission on undergraduate education, then the leadership of higher education has to play a crucial role. The presidents, provosts, and deans need to commit to developing and promoting organizational cultures that are going to emphasize academic rigor and undergraduate learning.

And they need to communicate that symbolically, as well as when making funding, promotions and tenure, and other institutional decisions. We also think faculty have a role to play in taking responsibility and committing to the path of academic rigor and undergraduate learning, in the sense that they need to collectively develop systems and review protocols to ensure academic rigor in their courses and programs.


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They need to develop consensus about what academic rigor is, what is expected, and what we should make sure our graduates are learning in our courses and our programs and in our institutions at large. Our book is a complex portrait of the patterns we see in terms of academic experiences and student learning outcomes, coupled with a sense that change to address these problems is possible, but in no way inevitable.

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