Tossing a Rope to the Academically Adrift (Whether They Want It or Not)

In their Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (and contributors) perform intensive analyses of both qualitative and quantitative data from two dozen US colleges/universities to arrive at a number of conclusions about why so little is learned by so many students during the first two years of college, as evidenced by no or minimal growth between administrations of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) during 2005 and 2007. Before delving into the meaning behind the wonderfully alliterative title of the book, there is a point that must be made up front or it may be lost: The CLA is specifically designed to measure (a) critical thinking, (b) complex reasoning, and (c) writing skills. Within this introductory paragraph, then, you have what accounts for at least some measure of the “limited learning” seen with our aimless sophomores: If these new college students are busy taking remedial math courses or are otherwise engaged in coursework that does not (yet) provide ample opportunities for the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing, then we cannot expect to see large gains in these domains across that time period. This hunch is eventually confirmed by the authors, but only after a bajillion statistical points of interest are shared. I’ll share some of those bajillion statistical points with you now, albeit in more historian-friendly terms.

Let’s begin by talking about that title. What does it mean to be academically adrift? It means several things, actually, but the focus is on college students who may be motivated (want something badly) but don’t know what is required in order to attain it, or who don’t really know what they want beyond being able to articulate some level of credential (e.g., a bachelor’s degree) but are going about it in a haphazard fashion, taking whatever courses seem interesting, or to require less work, or that feature a “cool” professor who won’t demand much. Students, being as lazy as anyone else, seek to maximize rewards while minimizing costs–and the most precious commodity, of course, is time. The less time they can spend getting that bachelor’s degree, the better. Unfortunately–and this is an important finding of the book–the students’ performance on the CLA was powerfully associated with “time on task.” The amount of time students spent on coursework was often a function of (a) the expectations of the professor, (b) the amount of course-related reading and writing required, (c) prior academic achievement, and (d) time *not* spent “hanging out” or working or pursuing other nonacademic endeavors.

And, although colleges are trying to encourage the development of study groups, Arum & Roksa found that time studying in groups was not as beneficial as time spent studying alone (but also that time spent studying alone was also associated with parental education attainment and the student’s prior academic achievement). Parental education attainment is not something we can control (aside from how it may factor into the admission of students), and the popularization of higher ed mandates that we be more willing to accept students with less-than-stellar academic records coming out of high school, so even prior academic achievement–as indicated by Advanced Placement classes taken and GPAs earned–isn’t preventing guidance counselors from recommending college as an option to students who might otherwise not be “college material.” [Incidentally, with my 1.8 GPA and lack of AP classes, I doubt UT would have allowed me to cross MLK onto the Forty Acres.]

What IS under our control? Again, I’ll front-load the paragraph with the quick-and-dirty answer: At low cost and with relatively little effort, we can change how we approach the job of teaching. Yeah. Simple curriculum and instruction. Heightened teacher expectations, along with increased face time with the professor, would be good. The point about study groups notwithstanding, groupwork in class (on topic) would be good. Course-related reading and writing, of course, are essential–especially to the extent that they are the means by which students get to practice manipulating ideas, discussing them with others, and synthesizing their findings in written form. [That’s the cash-money way to ace the CLA.]

Speaking of cash: There appears to be some correlation between (a) grants & scholarships and (b) CLA success. In fact, it is a powerful enough correlation that it digs into the otherwise large gap between CLA scores for Whites and CLA scores for Blacks. There are many other factors at play in this gap, but among those that we can control, there is the list in the preceding paragraph and the alleviation of financial worries. We can infer from the distinction between (a) grants & scholarships and (b) work-study opportunities that the root factor is, again, time on task; the more time I spend at my work-study job (particularly if it’s over 10 hours per week), the less time I spend reading and writing for class.

Speaking of class: Working-class (and less affluent) students sometimes find the dominant middle-class milieu of the campus unwelcoming. One student was quoted as saying that she simply wanted to go to class, do her work, and leave campus. Such discomfort might be shared by students of color. When you figure the effects of intersectionality, the “discomfort” could perhaps be perceived as hostility.

The accusatory finger can be pointed at college administrators whose concerns involve donors and prestige, but do not involve student learning in any specific way. We could blame professors who are too concerned with tenure, which has a lot to do with publications within their niche, but somewhat less to do with student learning. We could blame students who view college as a social playtime, which has more to do with keggers and the journey into emerging adulthood than with student learning. In fact, as Dominic has mentioned in class, Arum & Roksa note too that we’re talking about grown-ass adults when we’re talking about college students, and they should bear some responsibility for their own learning.

“In the final analysis” (as the authors are fond of saying throughout the analysis), it is incumbent upon us as the people paid to teach college students to teach college students. We can’t physically force them to learn, but we can employ a number of techniques (it doesn’t take many) to create an environment in which these grown-ass adults would have difficulty *not* learning. The academically adrift need guidance; and although colleges aren’t as “in loco parentis” as they once were, there are still some habits of mind that are conducive to student learning and are therefore worthy of administrators’ attention. Dorm life is one sphere in which deliberate efforts toward facilitating both socializing and studying could bring success. But the classroom is where it’s really going to happen.

To that end, professors must find ways to channel the haphazard motivations of the academically adrift toward useful aims. Given some sense of purpose, and given some authentic end to achieve, students will find less to hate about having to read 40 or more pages per week or having to write 20 or more pages per semester in a history course. [Amazingly, the authors found respondents from “highly selective” universities who had managed to snag a bachelor’s degree without having taken a single course in which they had to meet the 40-page/week reading plus 20-page/semester writing criteria.]

As with almost anyone who is truly adrift, my vote is that we toss students a rope. Because, as with almost anyone who is truly adrift, they will probably appreciate it–eventually.

Richard Arum is a smartypants who went to Tufts, Harvard, and Cal-Berkeley before NYU threw him a rope. Josipa Roksa was less adrift than her co-author. She only had to attend Mount Holyoke and NYU to get her credentials. Both authors are sociologists who spend a lot of time thinking about higher education (particularly as it relates to social stratification) and policy analysis.

This entry was posted in HIS 392 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tossing a Rope to the Academically Adrift (Whether They Want It or Not)

  1. Pingback: Penne Restad & Karl Miller on Teaching History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s