Arum, Richard and Jospia Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College
Campuses. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Much has changed in American higher education in the last half-century. Fifty years ago, U. S. colleges and universities lead the world in undergraduate graduation rates. Students averaged 40 hours per week--the equivalent of a full-time job--attending classes and studying (Arum and Roska, 3). A majority of these students either paid their own way through school or relied on scholarships and grants (money that need not be paid back except in terms of the graduate's contribution to society) to cover costs, and a college degree was seen as one of several viable post-high school paths to career success.
Today, America has embraced the "college for all" mentality. As the U.S. looks to (re)gain its world leadership in the medical, scientific, and technological sectors, policy makers have introduced a variety of initiatives designed to improve the quality of education at all levels, to encourage young people to study math and science, and to raise the overall educational level of citizens. Moreover, in the wake of the recent recession, young people who might previously have gone straight from high school to the work force have decided that they need a college degree in order to remain competitive in the tightening job market. A college degree is now seen by many as a necessity.
Yet, despite an increase in access to higher education in this country, America no longer leads the world in college graduation rates (53). Figures vary by study, but a government study in 2005 found that only 54 percent of students who enrolled in 4-year colleges in 1997 had completed a bachelor's degree by 2005. In another dramatic shift, today's college student spends an average of just 27 hours per week attending classes and studying--less time than s/he probably spent attending classes in high school (3)--and most likely funds his/her education at least partially through student loans and on- or off-campus employment.
With so much on the line, parents, policymakers, and employers are beginning to ask just how much value students are getting for their dollar, and how effective the reform and accountability initiatives have been. What, exactly, should students be learning in college, and how well are they learning it?
These two questions are the subject of Academically Adrift. Sociologists Arum and Roksa surveyed educators and employers and compared courses of study across a wide range of disciplines. They concluded that the primary academic goal of a college education was the acquisition of critical thinking and writing skills. They then noted that most standardized tests of college-learning measure major content rather than skills. In order to find the answer to the second question, therefore, Arum and Roksa designed their own test of college learning--the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)--which could be administered to students of any discipline and which focused on critical thinking and writing. The test is open-ended (rather than multiple choice) and consists of two "writing tasks" (make an argument and break an argument) and a "performance" task that asks students to read several different texts and respond to a writing prompt by analyzing the texts, synthesizing the information, and producing a written solution to a practical problem.
Arum and Roksa administered the CLA to approximately 1100 students at 24 institutions of higher education at the beginning of their freshman year and again at the end of their sophomore and compared the results. After controlling for several demographic variables, they concluded that the average student's CLA score only improves by 7 percent in his/her first two years of college. They also found that 45 percent of students who took the test saw no statistically significant gains in critical thinking and writing skills at all in the same two years (36).
Arum and Roksa next turned their attention to institutional and cultural factors that might explain the "limited learning" demonstrated by the CLA. They concluded that none of the many parties involved in higher education--students, faculty, administration--has really made student academic development the highest priority. For students and parents, social development and "credentialing" were the top priorities, and while the latter might sound like academic development, today's college students have become consumers of educational services, seeking the highest (GPA) return for the least possible (time) investment (16). True "learning" takes a back seat. Research and student retention are the top priorities for college faculty and administrators. The technological advances of the post-World War II era fueled a shift within the academy from teaching to research, and most faculty now know that research and publication (activities external to the university itself) weigh more heavily in promotion and tenure decisions than student course evaluations do--and that better course evaluations are often linked to lower expectations and lighter assignment loads (13). Additionally, although administrators are interested in increasing undergraduate student retention, their efforts in this department tend to focus more on developing a close-knit student body, offering attractive residence halls, and improving student services rather than on increasing academic standards (135-6).
Few people, it seems, are really interested in teaching and learning. Yet the authors' research suggests that helping students develop critical thinking skills and good study habits contributes at least as much to retention as creating a positive social environment (ibid.). Based on their research, Arum and Roksa offer several practical suggestions for restoring the culture of learning on college campuses. For example, they note that students whose teachers require them to read more than 40 pages per week and write at least 20 pages over the course of the semester see the biggest gains in their CLA scores (94-5). They also urge adminstrators to train future faculty (i.e., graduate students) in good teaching techniques as well as in research skills.
As thought-provoking as this book is, the research behind it is limited. Only 24 schools participated in the study, and the students at these schools self-recruited. Thus, the study group likely contained a higher than desirable percentage of well-organized and highly motivated students. Additionally, over half the sample reported a high school GPA of 3.7 or higher (Methodological Appendix). Perhaps these students saw such small gains on their CLA scores because they came to college already in possession of the skills that the test measures. If the sample had included a higher percentage of "underprepared" students (those with the potential for greater gains in critical thinking and writing skills), would the test results have been more encouraging? Would the authors' conclusions and suggestions have changed?
In spite of its limitations, Academically Adrift is an interesting read that offers some good advice for those who work in the field of higher education, and the CLA is an instrument that has the potential to change the way we educate our young adults for the better. As much as this reviewer dislikes standardized testing, she believes that administering the assessment to more first- and second-year college students would offer some meaningful and much-needed insight into the education reform process. This book is highly recommended.