Monday, December 29, 2014

Academically Adrift

Going through an old copy of Thought & Action magazine today (Fall 2011), at the back I come across a review of the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The main thrust of the book seems to be use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a test of critical thinking, reading, and writing given at the end of the sophomore year to several thousand students at 24 different colleges. The upshot seems to be that in many cases, there is little difference in ability between when students first arrive on campus and two years afterward. I found the following paragraph of the review to be worth highlighting:
The ensuing chapters then detail the key findings related to changes in CLA scores, implicating students’ entering characteristics and campus experiences.  Students with stronger academic preparation and students who attended more selective institutions showed greater gains in critical thinking; initial disparities between white students and African American students were exacerbated.  Those who participated in fraternities and sororities showed fewer gains relative to their peers, as did those who were majoring in business, education, or social work.  Moreover, Arum and Roksa argue that understandings of student employment need to be nuanced, as working on-campus is beneficial only up to 10 hours per week.  They also question the trend toward collaborative learning, noting that more time studying alone is positively associated with gains in critical thinking, while time studying with peers is negatively associated with such gains.  Perhaps most strikingly, the authors concede that social integration might be related to retention but argue that its affects on learning are far less clear, and may be negative.

In calling out certain majors, I am reminded of the footnote in Burton R. Clark's famous paper "The 'Cooling-Out' Function in Higher Education" from 1960 (The American Journal of Sociology, May 1960, footnote 8): 
One study has noted that on many campuses the business school serves "as a dumping ground for students who cannot make the grade in engineering or some branch of the liberal arts," this being a consequence of lower promotion standards than are found in most other branches of the university (Frank C. Pierson, The Education of American Businessmen [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1959], p. 63). Pierson also summarizes data on intelligence of students by field of study which indicate that education, business, and social science rank near the bottom in quality of students (ibid., pp. 65-72).

Isn't it interesting that we've effectively handed over control of our culture, our most powerful institutions, and education of the young, to the least proficient among us? And that this seems to be a stable pattern for over a half-century?


  1. I'd like to see a breakdown of the education students by subject matter and level (that is, elementary/middle/high school). I would expect the prospect of teaching one's favorite subject at a high school level to attract its share of bright, capable students (if it weren't for the lack of pay).

    Also noteworthy, of course, is the skeptical finding on collaborative learning!

    1. That's possibly a good question. One of the main things I would lobby for these days is specialized math educators/departments at the elementary school level (as is done in the UK, Japan, I wish I knew what other countries).