Academically Adrift

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska

I am a greenhorn, greener than most I guess. I will begin my doctoral work in rhetoric and composition this fall. I have done M.A. work in rhet/comp and have taught for a couple of years at a couple of institutions in the capacity of an adjunct and a T.A.

I come from a very disconnected state. There is one large university systems with a dozen or so university and community college campuses. In addition to that, there are a couple of state schools outside of that system and a score of private (often stringently religious) private schools. All of those schools are at corners and in the crannies of the mostly rural landscape. That being said, the population of the state hardly supports that many colleges, so there are small class sizes in every institution (with the exception of the flagship school in the NW corner), and schools have to strive to create students’ preconceived college experiences.

I say all of that to preface this:

I do not have the political wherewithal or experience to speak specifically about the state of higher ed. I might be prematurely thinking about these issues. Still, I want to get my head around it.

It happened in Savannah

I learned about this book at a conference presentation at the 2012 iWAC. The panel was discussing preliminary findings of a cross-institutional study wherein students were asked to describe their meaningful writing. Before the panel’s participants really started cooking with gas and lights and sound, they discussed the context for their questions. They made a point to mention the publication of this book.

The room reacted strongly. All agreed. They were dissatisfied. I cannot recall their exact critiques. I do remember that it ranged from their articulation of issues in the current state of higher ed — labor distribution, faculty workload, the accessibility of college educations to all US high school graduates, etc. It touched on their methodology, a quantitative survey study. It touched on their conclusion, a lack of attention to undergraduate advising and rigor in undergraduate coursework. By rigor, the authors have a clear idea — more than 40 pages of reading and 20 pages of writing. This definition makes my classroom look like a scene from Bartleby (albeit I teach writing).


Here are the statistics that Arum and Roska present:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. A student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.
“How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.”

Is this is the quote that shook the world?

I do not know if it is true. It is a finding, close to truth. When I think about my classrooms of 20 students and consider that nine of those students did not make any gains, I want to spit. Their work tells me that they did.

But their findings support my intuitions. In the field in which I toil, gainless education may not be true as much. Regarding students in the humanities, they made “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Good.

Unsurprising Findings

Students who study alone for four + hours learn more. Students who write more, learn more.

So what?

They suggest some things that make sense and others that do not. There should be a larger focus on undergraduate advising. Students should read and write more (raise the standards).

The things that trouble me are these:

The disciplines should adopt a common set of standards. If cultural-historical context means anything, this does not make sense. The disciplines have their conventions and practices for long-standing reasons. To suggest to the sciences that they must collaborate with other disciplines that have distinct ways of doing and knowing themselves would be an uphill battle, I imagine.

The other issue addresses universities’ focus. Since schools have focused on creating the college experience for students and retaining those students until they graduate, learning has suffered.

“If the outcome is student retention and student satisfaction, then engagement is a great strategy. If, however, you want to improve learning and enhance the academic substance of what you are up to, it is not necessarily a good strategy.”

I like the Soviet psychologists and the neo-Vygotskian people a good deal, and from what I can tell, if we want to enculterate students into a department and the department’s practices, students have to make a start somewhere. The personal or social realm seems like a good start. But, I do not know enough yet.

Are students academically adrift?

I was. I didn’t know why I was in school. I knew that I was supposed to go. When I got there, I took some classes, and I went with the stuff I liked, the liberal arts. For others, this seems to be an increasingly frequent story. My students enter into college with a job in mind and little idea of what to do or how to do it. But is our job to help people get jobs? I am not sure. And if it is, then we are talking about the corporatization of higher education. Yikes.

From what I can tell, the way we talk about college has impressed something on students that needs some interrogation. I am talking about the job — to — degree correlation that I find students valuing and articulating with more clarity that the reading from the night before. Does a degree mean a guaranteed job anymore? I am not sure if it ever did.

I recall Faulkner here. Quentin Compson did his year at Harvard, because that was what you did. It was a rite of passage. Little was guaranteed to him after his year. It was a cultural habit put in place to help the young men of the south enter into adulthood.

I think about the WPA/CCCC/NWP Habits of Mind for Postsecondary Success. I think about the frequency with which critical thinking is dropped in conversations about education. I think about reporters going to college graduations and finding a happy but unsure population of graduating students.

Maybe there is something there, an old idea that students spit on at the mere allusion. College might best serve our country to shape minds first of all and secondarily to prepare people for work. It sounds like what everyone I know thinks, but is it being practiced?



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