Thursday, February 03, 2011

Thoughts on "Academically Adrift"

Still marooned by snow -- seriously, guys, the bloom is off the rose -- I had the chance to devour Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. It’s a study of student performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam, focusing particularly on demonstrated critical thinking skills. It’s the book that made headlines with its claim that most students don’t learn anything during their first two years of college. As someone who works at a two-year college, I considered the gauntlet thrown.

My first observation, which was largely ignored in the initial wave of reports, is that the sample they used only included four-year colleges. Community colleges were not included in the sample. Based on the rest of the findings, I doubt that we’ve cracked the secret code, but it’s certainly a glaring oversight for a study of the first two years of college.

That said, I’m pretty conflicted in my responses overall. It’s an impressive piece of analysis, certainly. The data work took some doing, and the prose is evenhanded and relatively clear by social science standards. (Social scientists aren’t known for our limpid prose, as a breed.) I’m just not sure how useful it is.

My takeaways:

- I wasn’t shocked to see that math, science, humanities, and social science majors tend to show the greatest gains in critical thinking, as compared to students in business, health, computer science, or communications. The authors were gracious enough not to go into too much detail there, and it would be politically unwise for me not to heed their example, but it was hard not to notice.

- Also not shocking: students who are assigned more reading and writing get better at reading and writing. In a related story, bears tend to crap in the woods.

- Group study was no more conducive to improved critical thinking skills than socializing. Individual study correlated strongly to improved skills; group study did not. This certainly fits my own personal preference and intuition, but it’s nice to see empirical confirmation.

- “Student engagement,” as measured by NSSE (and presumably CCSSE), correlates to retention, but not to increased learning. Fraternities and sororities lead to higher student satisfaction, but lower learning. Again, not shocking, but nice to see confirmed.

- Instructor expectations matter. Students who have more professors with high expectations learn more than students who don’t. Given that students will often go out of their way to seek out ‘easy’ professors and avoid ‘hard’ ones, this suggests a dilemma.

- Federal research funding dwarfs federal funding for improving instruction -- say, FIPSE -- by several orders of magnitude. Incentives matter.

- What’s good for retention may or may not be good for learning. Students can stick around for years without learning much, depending on what they’re doing. Arum and Roksa note that learning communities are positively correlated with retention in the national literature, for example, but there is no evidence one way or the other of their effects on learning.

- Reflecting on my time at Snooty Liberal Arts College, I could see why its students would do markedly well on tests of critical thinking. It had no ‘business’ or ‘communications’ majors; it had very selective admissions and therefore a strong ‘peer culture,’ and it lacked frats. My cc also lacks frats, but the other components don’t really carry over.

- ‘Peer culture’ is huge. If you run with a crowd of high achievers, you will adapt to it; if you run with a crowd of hard partiers, you will adapt to that. In an open-admissions institution, this presents a substantial challenge. (Some peer cultures are trickier than others. Coming from a public high school in a middle-class suburb, it took me a semester to raise my game when I got to SLAC. I didn’t know that the prep school kids affect insouciance in public while studying like crazy behind closed doors.)

- On-campus employment helps, if it’s up to ten hours a week. Off-campus employment hurts. Interestingly, grants help but loans hurt.

- Many students see college (and here the fact that it’s a sample of four-year colleges may matter) as primarily a social experience. It’s a chance to get away from Mom and Dad, to make new friends, to explore lifestyle options, and to get a credential. If that’s your orientation, then ‘learning’ is fine, as long as it doesn’t require time and effort. In that climate, lone instructors who raise academic expectations may pay a price in student anger.

At my cc and at most that I’ve seen, dorms don’t exist, and the whole “college experience” is pretty attenuated. (We don’t have climbing walls, a football team, fraternities, or even a quad.) If football Saturdays are your idea of college, you don’t come here. That said, though, it’s still very much the case that academics are often only one priority among many in students’ lives. As our student body gets progressively younger and more ‘traditional,’ some of the quirks of 18 year olds will probably become more relevant here.

- To their credit, Arum and Roksa note that making sustained and significant progress on student critical thinking skills would require fundamental realignments of incentives across the entire structure of higher ed. They seem a little too quick, in my estimation, to assume that “employers” want critical thinking skills -- at the entry level, in my observation, they’re much more focused on enthusiasm than on analytical prowess -- but that just makes matters worse.

And the incentives point is what’s ultimately so frustrating about the book. Yes, it would be lovely if students naturally clustered into the liberal arts, where virtuous and civic-minded professors larded their plates with ample helpings of robust reading and writing assignments. In the settings where that actually happens, measured learning outcomes are strong. But when you have open-door admissions and low per-student funding, getting there from here would require changes of staggering magnitude. Funding mechanisms would have to change; national markets would have to change; collective bargaining agreements would have to change; longtime readers can guess the rest...

Still, it’s a reminder of some of the right questions, and it sheds useful light in some corners. Maybe expanding the “individual quiet study” area in the library should take precedence over the “group study” section; I can do that. Maybe a little more skepticism towards “student support” offices, as against direct instruction, is in order; that may work.

Now if I could just get the voters to do something about that funding...