Academic Drift 2

In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa prove — not contend — that students are not learning what they should, professors are not doing all they could, administrators are not focused on education enough and, as if that weren’t a glassful, society is and will continue to suffer is something isn’t done about it.

They draw four major conclusions that are worthy of discussion, and I would also like to draw upon the post just below this one: on Ray Stedman, Body Life, and on how education also could focus on outcomes more — to the advantage of all of us.

If you could do one thing for colleges and universities, what would it be?

First, Arum and Roksa contend that colleges and universities are academically adrift. By this they mean there is too much going on, not enough focus on student education, and a need to tighten up the belt in the direction of outcome-shaped education. (They don’t use that expression, but they are concerned ultimately with intellectual rigor and teaching students to think critically, reason deeply and communicate more effectively.)

Second, their research reveals that gains by students in these areas are disturbingly low. By “gains” they mean measurable change as a result of a college/university education. They find a pattern of limited learning.

Third, individual learning is persistently unequal. That is, students from various backgrounds are making progress in critical thinking, deeper reasoning and effective communication with too much variety. Inequalities are enhanced and entrenched.

Fourth, learning outcomes vary within a school and across the nation. Exceptional students can be found at all schools, but they found exceptional schools showed more positive learning outcomes.

From WaPo’s excellent article: eight proposals.

1. Measure student learning

| 2. End merit aid

| 3. Three-year degrees

| 4. Core curriculum

| 5. More homework

| 6. Encourage completion

| 7. Cap athletic subsidies

|8. Rethink remediation

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  • Anette

    I would help universities challenge students at an existential level by shaking things up.

    First, I would make all exams group exams, make it a requirement that each consist of both an oral and a written part, that there were no credit to have during the semester, and that the grade was determined through a collaborative process, by the professor, an outside examiner, and the students.

    Then I would see what happened and think critically about how to apply the insights we would have gained.

  • rjs

    On the Washington Post Article:

    1. The “accountability movement” would be the death of effective higher education. All this approach does is move the emphasis from education to teaching for a test. This is appropriate in some professional disciplines and only in those professional disciplines.

    3. Three-year degrees won’t solve any real problems. Encouraging more students to finish a four year degree in four years would.

    4. Core curriculum … ah, who decides?

    5. More homework – well this gets to the last post on this book. Students should be viewing college as a full-time job and professors provide a work load consistent with that kind of effort.

  • rjs

    they are concerned ultimately with intellectual rigor and teaching students to think critically, reason deeply and communicate more effectively.

    Yes, here is the real key. Across the board and in my discipline I would like to teach these key skills. Specific information must be transmitted – but it is secondary to these skills.

    If we could measure this in some accountability assessment – that would be of value. But no accountability assessment in existence actually tests this. More than this, they force educators to devalue these traits and concentrate the secondary details.

  • Diane

    rjs, Have you seen this?,1


    Thanks for sharing this interesting article. As the parent of college sophomore with two more coming up fast, I have spent some time pondering the higher education system. I am also back in school (divinity degree) for the first time in 20 years, so like Rip Van Winkle, can see the changes.

    But getting back to my daughter, I think she falls into the category of many students who simply need a more structured–much more structured–school environment to really succeed and not bump along with that 2.1 GPA . Unf., since the 1960s, the vast majority of colleges have become one-size-fits-all and entirely focused on student rights. Parents can’t get any information–except, may I mention, bills. And more bills. Many students don’t fare well at all in a system where you take a few classes and then are let free to do what you want. We act as if all 18 yos automatically become radically non-adolescent on their 18th birthdays. I believe we need more schools that will impose strict study hall times, rules, curfews … all the things that were common pre-1968. Too much freedom is a disaster for many students, and for their strained parents paying the very high tuitions. I think colleges need to start being “more different” so that students and parents can find the right fit. One reason that parents with money shop for colleges like a car is that they realize it’s often basically the same model everywhere.

    This gets back to more homework–yes, students should work harder, imo, but giving more homework in the current “free for all, let’s hang out at conveniently located campus Starbucks and Facebook” mentality will just be an exercise in frustration.

  • Diane

    So yes, I would like some progressive version of the Bob Jones Academy for my children’s higher education. I think many parents would. One set of parents I know spent heavily on private high school for their daughter and for a semester of college, only to have her go wild and flunk every class. She had a great time, is now working as a waitress and they are … worried. I don’t blame the school for her choices, but she would have probably thrived at a college with strict structures and rules. As for my own observations 20 years later, at least at the graduate level, school has gotten a easier. This is not good–students, imho, need to have their brains exploded a bit. On the good side, professors are less godlike then they used to be and are fully expected to be responsive to student needs. Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Administrators, I believe, therefore, need to set much higher standards and deal with the screaming. But I doubt that will happen now, when schools are scrambling for students and money.

  • Diane

    OK, my last post … maybe.:) In the 1950s, in my home state, “teacher’s colleges” were two (or sometimes three) but mostly two-year schools. Again, everything wasn’t “one size fits all.” Mostly women attended, the tuition was either extremely low or free in return for teaching for two years where they placed you and students were better educated than they are now. Subsidies to teachers’ colleges were very high–the state made that up by the constant “churn” of women teaching a few years, marrying, having a baby and quitting. Now, at least prior to 2008 crash, we still had a huge churn, but that’s another story. Turnover does help keep education costs down, though it may not help students get the best possible education. But I digress. My point is, let’s try some different models for higher education.

  • Diane

    OK –one more: I think it’s a part of the huge loss of community in this society that we don’t have agreed-upon core curricula. It’s simply good for people to have read a core number of the same works. It’s a point of reference. So my thinking on my feet is that we have things backwards in higher education today: We’ve tossed out the “sameness” of a core curriculum, and substituted the sameness of a “total freedom” system. What we need –and I recognize how difficult this is–core curricula that is somewhat stable across colleges, but for colleges to be able to structure student time and rules differently. What if all students were reading Plato’s Republic, but some in an environment where they could thrive in total freedom and some in an environment of strict study times and lights out, etc, where they would also thrive? I do get alarmed these days when I meet college grads who haven’t, for example, even heard of Kant. Ot who never had a survey course in English lit.

  • Diane

    Core curriculum–who decides? It is a huge problem, but not impossible. I think the problem is that tendency to avoid the conversation. I believe that while painful, it can be done. It’s actually possible that we are past the point where colleges would insist on a core curriculum of reading predominately dead white men. 🙂

  • Rick

    “If you could do one thing for colleges and universities, what would it be?”

    Help raise appreciation and awareness regarding the importance of higher education. I don’t think contemporary society sufficiently values it.

  • Rick

    # 9 continued-

    …and I think many of the problems listed are grounded in that lack of appreciation.

  • Jason Lee

    rick(9): i think what you’re saying would help and is doable. we as a society prize certain things: money, sports, sex. these things are what we talk about with each other and place in the center of our attention. these things become symbols that get charged up with value in people’s minds/emotions and consequently Americans spend their lives running after them. why not try to charge up learning/education as a symbol?

    on a family level:
    praise, prize and model learning. this may mean mom and dad need to put the tv in the closet and pick up good meaty books for evening relaxation. maybe don’t get so excited about your kids sports and get more excited about their learning events (eg, science fair).

    on a school level:
    organized and facilitate formal and informal ceremonies and rituals around praising learning and academic achievement. help these learning celebrations/rituals compete with the level of enthusiasm and emotion that surround school sporting rituals.

    on a national level:
    iirc, president obama said several things in his state of the union that kind of help up learning/education in comparison to other activities. more of this from leaders and elites.

  • Rick

    Jason Lee-

    Good suggestions. More cheerleading for academic success is needed.

    Here is an ESPN story (that I just happend to have read after posting my earlier comments) that futher represents that issue:

    “A $500,000-per-year pay raise recently awarded Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville through 2015 has angered some university faculty members, who have been asked to take a pay freeze in 2011…”Regardless of the specifics of the money flow, there’s still a question of the symbolism of what this says about the university’s priorities,” said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors.”

    Included in that story was, “Faculty Senate President Richard Meek said some of the anger could result from a lack of understanding that academic and athletic budgets are funded separately. However, $2.5 million of the Tech athletic budget comes from academics.”

    I would like to see if the success in athletics of some programs could help fund academics. If I am not mistaken, the University of Texas’ new network has a stipulation that states some money from the deal will go back into UT academics. The UT athletic dept. is perhaps the most successful in college sports, so it may be the best case scenario. However, the rising interest in college football, and the resulting rise in money brought in, should allow money to be spread to academics, as well as the other sports in the dept.

  • Fred

    Good idea (Jason) on getting rid of the TV. My wife and I did that two years ago. I now average 350 pages per week (I cheat a little by reading John Grisham, just to keep my average up).

    I have noticed that we very rarely ask what we can do to increase our learning in church.

  • DRT

    Our situationWe are trying to decide where to send my oldest son now. He has excellent scores (95% on SAT, only kid in his HS to pass AP Calc and he did it as a junior), but his grades aren’t that great. We are thinking we will send him to a smaller school though it does not have as good of a reputation given his apparent lack of discipline. The smaller school is really selling to us how they use peer pressure and community to help the kids succeed.

    What would I request universities to doI believe part of what a college degree says is that the student has attained the maturity required to show self discipline. Having said that I think many kids need help the freshman year and I would like universities to help with that.

    When I went to college the emphasis was on weeding the population out, so it was intentionally difficult. Given the dubious status of many college degrees these days, perhaps the only thing of lasting value may be the discipline kids learn while there. So that does need to be a focus.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Diane, I’d like to push back on a number of things you said, but first I should probably tell you where I am coming from:

    I am a 22 year old junior at North Park majoring in Biblical/Theological Studies, and I have just as much freedom as any college student. I believe that I have done everything I can to make the most of the money my parents (and I, but mostly my parents) are paying for a private liberal arts education. I work very hard, read as much as I can as often as I can, talk to my teacher whenever possible, and do what I can to develop critical thinking (which is encouraged by all of my teachers). I just want to make clear that I am a student, not a parent, and this is my own experience and perspective.

    When you say, “I believe that while painful, it can be done. It’s actually possible that we are past the point where colleges would insist on a core curriculum of reading predominately dead white men.”

    On the contrary, students of my generation read more and more books written by African-Americans and books from Latin America (like the book “When I Was Puerto Rican,” for instance)- it’s all part of our “cultural” education. I believe that we should be learning new perspectives and seeing the world through other peoples’ eyes, but in reality, it’s more accurate to say that it is an education in sympathy and political correctness, rather than actually learning about other world-views, but I digress.

    My point is to say that part of my own frustration with my education is that we don’t read the works of those “dead white men” enough, and that my education would be vastly improved if we did.

    Those dead white men made significant contributions to human knowledge, even if they failed to contribute to human sensitivity. You yourself recommended Plato’s Republic and Kant- those are dead white men you referred to in the previous post.

  • Chuck

    Athletic subsidies are a very real but often ignored part of the problem. IMO the draw down that athletic programs have upon the overall academic mission of the school is significant and a dirty little secret that no one wants to lay bare to public scrutiny. Here in Texas the salaries of athletic coaches eclipse all other state employees, including the Governor. We are running huge for-profit businesses under the banner of a state college with “student-athletes” paid with scholarships, often in spite of their utter lack of academic qualifications. If we are serious about rescuing our institutions of higher learning we had better rein in this enormous problem.

  • Joshua Wooden

    @ Diane (again)

    In your words:

    “One set of parents I know spent heavily on private high school for their daughter and for a semester of college, only to have her go wild and flunk every class.”

    Well, perhaps you don’t see what I see, but I know kids like this- they’re friends of mine who went of private school their whole lives, or at least part of it.

    I’ll just be frank: they’re not pissing away their education for the heck of it- they’re rebelling against parents who were too strict, and didn’t give them enough freedom in the first place. I am not one of them, because my parents did give me that freedom, so going to college wasn’t a huge shock in the freedom department. Students don’t know how to handle the freedom of college because their parents did not (and still don’t) know how to let go. You suggested a progressive Bob Jones University. Hmmm- let’s not.

    The students who handle themselves well, in my experience, are the ones whose parents are NOT of the mentality that what universities need is “more rules and structure.” They’re adults- at least, they will be very soon. If they can’t wake up and discipline themselves to read and do homework- then that’s their fault, and they’ll learn from their mistakes. Or, they won’t, and they’ll suffer the consequences; but that’s part of being an adult. The kid-gloves have to come off at some point- why would that not be in college when they’re on their own anyway?

  • Joshua Wooden

    I think the biggest problem I see with my peers is this: education is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. A degree is about employability, not actually being able to think critically. Because of this, apart from superficial facts that they learned in lecture, they don’t SEE more. They know more stuff, but they don’t think any more critically than people with no more than high school diplomas.

    The mentality that needs to be undone is pragmatic view towards college. Doing whatever we can to get kids into college is a dumb philosophy- some kids were clearly not cut out of academia, and that needs to be okay in our society. We could encourage trade-schools instead as a suitable, and noble option.

  • Barb

    Joshua–can I introduce you to my daughter (age 21) :)jk

    Her values and experiences at a Christian Liberal Arts University are very close to yours. We (her parents) are paying alot–but she is working hard and getting an excellent education. They have had a core curricullum since 1968–I know because it was MY freshman year.
    Everything that I read about college life today makes me thank God for his gift of having my daughter choose this school.

    on another note–my father left a sizable sum to his alma mater (a well known state U in a southern state). He did this because of what they did for him back in the 30s. He asked for the money to be used to fund programs in his field. This university sends me, as trustee, mailings that ONLY tout this school’s football team. My father would be devastated.

  • John Mark

    Joshua, I couldn’t agree more on your last point: college seems to be mostly about making sure if you end up working for Wal-Mart of “Mickey D’s” you will be management instead of labor. And not everyone is made for the academic world: there are very bright people whose learning styles really aren’t made for the college setting.
    I don’t know about rules: it seems no matter how lenient or strict schools are there will always be those who find any rules too restrictive; I’m talking even rules about not parking in faculty spaces, or some equally trivial thing. The root is rebellion, to be sure, but one wonders why some students can’t even comply with rules that seem to function only as common courtesy.
    Schools need to be upfront about behavoral expectations, and stick to their guns when disicpline problems occur. I know this is a bit of a tangent, but I think it has some bearing on the issue of why some/many students don’t do well; and you can’t blame it all on parents-my opinion is that permissive parents are in many cases much of the blame. Some students have never heard the word ‘no’ in their lives, and are shocked, seemingly, when someone at university says it to them. I’m not discounting your background and experience, per se, just making an observation.

  • Kenneth McIntosh

    To state the obvious, this is why we need to fund higher education! In a post a few days ago on this site it showed that Evangelicals want to fund education at only half the level desired by their peers in the broader society. That’s ironic, given this discussion!

    I’ve taught five years at a public college. During that time our federal and state aid monies have been cut in half. The result? First, the overall mood has soured. Administrators, workers and teachers are much more negative. Second, everyone is expected to do more. Frankly, I am requiring fewer papers from students because I have larger classes and more side-work required by the college, which leaves less time to focus on class work. One person can only do so much.

    There is a mood of attack on educators as overpaid and unworthy of their support (witness Wisconsin). I certainly am not overpaid (no salary increase for past five years, etc). If we want better colleges we need to pay college instructors fairly and make sure they are not stretched too thin.

  • I come at this problem from the view of a workforce employeer and learning expert in the corporate world. To be brief:

    Our current formal education systems was designed in the post-agricultural, early industrial age and focuses on mastery of minimum standards of content. The world is changing so fast, a content driven, certification focused system can simply not keep pace. We need a more connection based system that is rich in context, so learning becomes a matter of process mastery, not content memorization. Four shifts are critical to the next workforce:
    • From Conformity to Creativity • From Information to Wisdom • From Generalized to Personalized • Fom Tangible to Intangible… if this interest you. Take a look at:

    This an article I ghost wrote for our company for a futurist journal. It is not focused on higher education, but I think the philosophical underpinnings must be address to reconceptualize the process of higher education.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Barb @19, which college does your daughter attend? 🙂 If I did end up meeting your daughter, would that fall under the category of blind date or internet dating? Only joking!

    John Mark @20: Well said, and good point. Actually, I didn’t think of that, but yes, that’s true, too. I was more-or-less thinking of my PK (pastor’s kid) friends that go crazy first chance they get. But yes, come to think of it, there are plenty of others that had too much freedom, as well.

    Kenneth @21: Amen. I’m currently reading Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” and it has awakened me to the reality that, as far as my upbringing in an evangelical church goes, there wasn’t a whole lot of focus on critical thinking and exposing ourselves to ideas which are disagreeable. (Apparently, it’s too difficult to teach people how to disagree). That may contradict my former point about the importance of seeing trade schools as viable alternatives, but for what it’s worth, I think we should be doing both, not one or the other.

  • Rick G.

    I too think it would be good to see both a wider acceptance of trade and technical schools by employers where appropriate, and a return to the idea of college being less about getting a good job and more about a “well rounded” education.

    Being in the tech industry for many years, I have seen people go through a certification program (usually 6-8 weeks of courses) and come out the other side every bit as effective a developer as someone fresh out of college. Even 20 years ago, most of my college classmates simply crammed for the core curriculum courses that didn’t interest them, and actually studied for the courses in their field of interest.

  • I’ve heard good things about this book and am glad to see you’re blogging through it Scot. I just hope that after the doom and gloom the message ends with good ideas that are either testable or have been proven to work.

  • Oh, and easy there Joshua… 🙂

  • Bob Arnet

    Some very good points have been made regarding the need for student creativity, critical thinking etc. Having been a high school teacher for 32 years, I have struggled trying to get students to think for themselves and work independently to enhance these traits. The main problem I’ve noticed is that young people want instant gratification, instant results, and a good grade. They tend to worry about their grade, but not whether they are actually learning how to think. As soon as they take a test, they want to move on to the next test, unconcerned about building a foundation for higher thinking skills.
    Alcohol consumption at most colleges is approaching epidemic proportions. More homework would interfere with students’ partying. When curriculum becomes more rigorous, grades will drop precipitously.

  • Joshua Wooden

    @ Justin: Yeah, I realized after I commented that it was a bit on the harsh side. Sorry to Diane if that came off as rude. I think it was the Bob Jones comment: I instinctively went into, “Oh, no….” mode….

  • DRT

    I want to think about extending the thinking that Tom contributed in 22.

    Today I was offered and I accepted a new job in a field that I have no experience. Here I am, potentially 10 years from retirement and I am starting career number 4, or 5 or whatever. The reason is because I specialize in what Tom talks about in his article in post 22. Learning, relating, and applying. Creating synergy.

    Yes, there will always be the need for facts, figures and concepts, and the universities need to make sure kids have the body of knowledge and background; they need to know how to wash the dishes and do it well. But then they need to know how to get along with people, to contribute to the vision, to sell, and to support. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. To be good one needs to do both.

    So here are more thoughts:

    1. We talked about group projects in a previous post in the past month or two. That is a good way to learn, but I don’t think most professors actually teach the kids how to be effective in the group, they just throw them in and everyone hates it. Teach group dynamics, relating, selling, buying, supporting in the group projects.

    2. My BS only allowed one independent research class. There needs to be more of them and the bar has to be pretty high on grades. Appropriate research of the problem, good analysis, good expert consultation, good benchmarking, and great synthesis and exposition of results.

    3. In high school they used to have a class called home economics (do they still do that?). In the professional space people need a class called Professionalism. How many hours a week do you work? How do you develop hobbies that complement your career. How to continue learning beyond college. How to be part of a profession and professional organization. How to kiss up in the workplace. How to set expectations so others know what you are doing. What flexibility looks like in the professional world. Etc.

    4. Teach problem solving. Not just solving problems related to the course work, that helps, but how to approach real world problems and apply learning, experience and expert opinion to these problems.

    5. Teach sales. Everyone needs to know how to sell and sales in the world today is not what sales was in the world of last century. All sales is now consultative sales. Understanding the other person/group’s issues, developing advantage for them, relating to their specific needs, and using all the arrows in your quiver.

    6. As far as WaPo’s eight points, they look like they are just another form of institutionalism to me. I don’t think there is anything inherent in doing those particular things that will enable universities to put out better students. But, there would be tremendous benefit in instituting them. Here is what I mean. The bar moves and moves and moves. Any of the ideas implemented will have an impact since it will force people to concentrate on that thing for a time. The key is to change up the motivation periodically so people concentrate on different things and eventually you will target all the important areas. Pick homework and focus on that for a semester. Everyone. Come up with the good and bad ways. Accelerated learning another. Focus on how we can increase the speed of learning whether it is 5 to 4 years as rjs says or if it can be 3. I personally am against 3 years. Core curriculum but instead of institutionalizing it, figure out how to keep it current. The finiancial part of the article is institution specific if you ask me.

    Sorry for the length. Just in case someone wants my thoughts.

  • Diane


    I am not offended and you sound like the type of student well-suited to the college environment, with the maturity to do well. I hear you too on wanting to read the dead white men–they have a lot to say–but we also, of course, need to hear other voices. I had to find the other voices post-BA; it sounds like you may need to do the opposite. My main point, from the pov of a parent, is how little variety I have found in how colleges are structured–and that structure doesn’t meet the needs of every student well. I think this has less to do with age, than with temperament: some people are happier in more structured work places, others like freer environments, even with more stress.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Diane: If that was your main point, then I certainly agree- the structure is more-or-less uniform. People that seek that kind of structure often enlist in the military (as I know personally- military family). But as far as school goes, you’re correct- you have to be self-motivated.

    “Structured” universities are an exception, and I know a few; the worst being Pensacola, the second worst being Bob Jones, and more moderate schools like Liberty, Moody or BIOLA. It is worth noting that these are all Christian schools, and they rarely seem “structured” because of any desire to accommodate students who would thrive in that type of environment. Rather, they are largely “reactionary” in their strict implementation of rule, fearing that their students might turn in to “those liberal students” that you might find at a less-structured school. My point is, it’s usually for deeply emotional reasons (with a Christian facade)- not academic reason.

    Anyway, maybe you are right, then- Bob Jones, but more progressive (much more progressive…. 🙂