Here’s the summary of a new book showing that US university students don’t learn much while they’re in school. The study, conducted by two sociologists, focused on the acquisition not of specific content but of critical thinking and analytical reasoning. While students showed improvement over four years of college, the improvements, say the researchers, weren’t large: on average, seniors scored about half a standard deviation higher than newly-enrolled freshmen.
According to the statistical rule of thumb, a 0.5 standard deviation change constitutes a moderate effect, so maybe the researchers are being unduly pessimistic. As far as I can tell, however, the researchers didn’t compare seniors with an age-matched cohort of non-students, so it’s not possible to distinguish school learning from other learning experiences from maturation. The write-up also doesn’t say whether the study accounted for dropouts — it’s possible that those students who make it all the way through to graduation score better not because they learn in school but because they have more innate aptitude for abstraction and analysis.
Some other key findings cited from the article:
The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.
The research then goes on to find a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:
- Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
- Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
- Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
- Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
- Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)
“[E]ducational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not,” the authors write.