Study finds college might do little to improve critical thinking

Tuesday, January 18, 2011 | 1:57 p.m. CST; updated 7:35 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You are told that to make it in life, you must go to college. You work hard to get there. You or your parents drain savings or take out huge loans to pay for it all.

And you end up learning ... not much.

A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

The findings are in a new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. An accompanying report argues against federal mandates holding schools accountable, a prospect long feared in American higher education.

"The great thing — if you can call it that — is that it's going to spark a dialogue and focus on the actual learning issue," said David Paris, president of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, which is pressing the cause in higher education. "What kind of intellectual growth are we seeing in college?"

The study, an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally. But if students aren't learning much, that calls into question whether boosting graduation rates will provide that edge.

"It's not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive," Arum said in an interview. "It requires academic rigor ... You can't just get it through osmosis at these institutions."

The book is based on information from 24 schools, meant to be a representative sample, that provided Collegiate Learning Assessment data on students who took the standardized test in their first semester in fall 2005 and at the end of their sophomore years in spring 2007. The schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment has its share of critics who say it doesn't capture learning in specialized majors or isn't a reliable measure of college performance because so many factors are beyond its control.

The research found an average-scoring student in fall 2005 scored seven percentage points higher on the assessment in spring of 2007. In other words, those who entered college in the 50th percentile would rise to the equivalent of the 57th after their sophomore years.

Among the findings outlined in the book and report, which tracked students through four years of college:

  • Overall, the picture doesn't brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared with 45 percent after two.
  • Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.
  • Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.
  • Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. The racial gap between black and white students going in, though, widens: Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.

Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to students who don't study much and seek easy courses and a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.

Subsequent research found students one year out of college are not faring well: One-third moved back home, and 10 percent were unemployed. The findings are troubling news for an engaged citizenry, Arum said. Almost half of those surveyed said they rarely if ever discuss politics or public affairs with others either in person or online.

The report warns that federally mandated fixes similar to "No Child Left Behind" in K-12 education would be counterproductive, in part because researchers are still learning how to measure learning. But it does make clear that accountability should be emphasized more at the institutional level, starting with college presidents.

Some colleges and universities do not need convincing. The University of Charleston, in West Virginia, has beefed up writing assignments in disciplines such as nursing and biology to improve learning.

Its president, Edwin Welch, is among more than 70 college and university presidents pledging to take steps to improve student learning, use evidence to improve instruction and publicize results.

"I think we do need more transparency," he said. "I think a student at a private institution who might go into debt for $40,000 or $50,000 has the right to know what he can learn at the institution."


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Paul Allaire January 18, 2011 | 3:40 p.m.

The system of American colleges exist primarily as an avenue for the wealthy to continue their segregation at all levels from their would be peers for the sake of their own personal economic status.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2011 | 4:01 p.m.

"Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to...a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching."

The original mission of USA land-grant universities was 3-fold, in descending order of importance:

Teaching, research, service.

It is NOT that way now.

It's too bad it takes a peer-reviewed scientific study to show support for what many of us already know from daily life. It's my guess we'll see many more of these so-called "progressive" 40-year efforts go down the tubes.

Unfortunately, billions/trillions of dollars to late, imo. Maybe "boomer" kids/grandkids will make it a full circle!

Now THAT'S the kind of hope and change I can agree with...

(Report Comment)
Bob Hill January 18, 2011 | 4:03 p.m.

Paul, I couldn't disagree more. Colleges/universities have become -- much to their own making -- a dumping ground for ALL students whether deserving or not. What colleges need are a) much better preparatory at the elementary/high school level and b) more selectivity (irregardless of race, income...). These should be centers of excellence, not fairness.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2011 | 4:17 p.m.


That's the sound of Bob Hill hitting a nail right smack on the head.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Dick January 18, 2011 | 4:25 p.m.

First off this report shows something that reveals a bit about the nature of the schools they conducted research at. Quite a few students are avoiding the classes that generate changes in thinking and require more study time. Namely writing intensive courses. Another article links that with two majors in general, business and education majors.
I attend Columbia College online and I have had one class out of 19 that was not classified as writing or reading intensive based upon the parameters of this report. The other 18 usually have well over 100 pages of reading each week. I write anywhere from 5 to 20 pages of material a week in writing for the classes. So I will lay money that Columbia was not one of these so called typical schools.
The study also did not test for subject specific knowledge which is the true indicator on what a student has learned in college. I'm a history major. Why would I be taking advanced mathematics courses with this major? My math knowledge is going to be slightly improved based on what math I needed for my degree, not significantly improved. That shows this study is critically flawed because the tests it administered were only for general knowledge.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2011 | 4:47 p.m.


I submit that "general knowledge" is THE measure.

I admit that the above statement is based upon (1) my personal experience and, (2) the experiences of those with whom I have worked/played.

First, the greatest gift my graduate adviser gave me was his refusal to allow me to "specialize", that is, take only those courses directly applicable to my major. I found myself not only taking those courses, but courses waaaaay outside my major.

Second, many folks (if not most) who go out into the business world find themselves meeting/greeting folks who may have a common business interests but have differing personal interests. Most business interactions are successful not just because the parties agree on the interest at hand; they are also successful because all parties can interact on other planes. In a social setting when one person is discussing a hobby or another interest, blank looks of ignorance do not contribute to the health of the personal or business relationship.

The most healthy and productive business relationships are those with friends. Why? Because you trust your friends, and the last thing you would do is sacrifice a great friendship for a few bucks. INO, you don't screw your friends.

You are a history major. I submit you need to know a smattering of info about the big bang theory, religions, philosophies, plant biology, water chemistry, coins, human physiology, soil science, social science, where Madagascar is, plate tectonics, mathematics, and not-a-few others.

Because if you only concentrate on history, and that's about all you are absolutely and categorically....stuck forever.

(Report Comment)
Tom de Plume January 18, 2011 | 6:47 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Jimmy Dick January 18, 2011 | 7:12 p.m.

To a point Michael, you are correct. That base knowledge is what forms the initial core of a college education, but only specialized knowledge will allow a student to fully expand within his or her chosen field. If one does not expand in their field they become a, "Jack of all trades, master of none."
No two fields are the same. Each requires specific knowledge in order to achieve the maximum results within them. If your field of business is best suited for a generic smattering of a liberal arts degree, then that's perfectly fine. Mine requires a deep knowledge of history. That isn't to say classes on government, astronomy, or whatever aren't good for me to take. I have taken them because they form the basic elements of my degree. However, they will not enable me to be a historian unless I take the specialized courses in history.
Again, each to their own. However, when referring to the study, I reiterate and stand by what I said. The study is flawed. A student should be taking their specialized major courses after the second year of school. There is no reason for them to develop deeply into other fields just to be a jack of all trades when their chosen fields often demand specialized knowledge.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 18, 2011 | 7:27 p.m.

Bob Hill failed reading comprehension. Mike Williams agreed with Bob Hill because he finds Paul Allaire to be annoying.

Bob I don't believe I commented on whether or not most of the students "deserved" their place in academia. I'm sorry you couldn't guess my opinion. I also did not comment on whether or not the demographic or the process that selected the demographic was "fair". You erroneously inferred a comment and my opinion from a single sentence.

I believe that more should be taught in the public elementary school system than is presently and that what is taught should be tailored to the needs of all, regardless of any future educational plans. I also believe that colleges should be more selective, if not for who they admit then at least for who they allow to continue.

However, the implementation of both of those ideas would severely inconvenience those who wish to perpetuate their social and economic segregation from those who would otherwise be their peers simply by paying tuition and then drinking and sleeping through four years of mind numbing mediocrity of their own making/choosing. So good luck with that.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley January 18, 2011 | 8:03 p.m.

Ohhhh c'mon Jake Sherlock! Do you REALLY believe that there is anyone in this whole world named "Jimmy Dick"? Really?

No offense, Mr. Dick (I can't even believe that I am addressing you by that made up last name), but we are supposed to be posting under our real name, or at least one that is not so obviously not our real name...

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2011 | 8:20 p.m.

Mr. Dick is not a real name?

Wow. I sure hope Richard Head of Toyota fame doesn't try to get on here.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2011 | 8:29 p.m.

Jimmy D.

I'm a chemist. Yes, you have to have the core plus a whole bunch of specialized classes to perform at an advanced level.

But general knowledge is what allows a person to perform beyond their narrow niche via interactions with others. INO, it's what allows a person to develop relationships.

It's the breadth of knowledge that identifies an educated person. Otherwise, a person just becomes a semi-savant.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Dick January 18, 2011 | 9:01 p.m.

Then we agree on the college education needs for both general and specialized education. Our disagreement lies with this study on whether or not it is valid. I say it is not. It ignores the specialized learning while assessing what most people have after two years of college.
By the way, this is my real name. Yes, it has been an amusing icebreaker for years. I wouldn't trade my name for anything.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley January 18, 2011 | 9:35 p.m.

Sometimes I guess all one can say without making matters even worse is "oops and sorry". Jimmy I am sure you understand and are hopefully a forgiving person...

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 19, 2011 | 7:05 a.m.

What were the declared majors of the students? (One assumes they weren't all of the same major.) Were any of the students enrolled in a technical major? How many? Were any of the schools involved technical universities or institutes? How many of the schools were state supported and how many were private? While the conclusions reached may be valid there seems to be a lot we don't know about the selection of students and schools.

(Report Comment)

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