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COLUMN: Little truth to findings that college students are not learning

Thursday, January 27, 2011 | 3:32 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 p.m. CST, Monday, February 28, 2011

Dear Missouri School of Journalism,

I want my money back.

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According to a new study released last week by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, many students learn little-to-nothing during their first two years of college. The findings, part of their book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," 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. After four years, 36 percent did not demonstrate improvement.

My first response to the findings was to look up who these researchers are and how they came up with these conclusions. It took me no time to learn who these sociologists are, yet it’s still unclear to me and other critics just how exactly they arrived at these new findings.

The most common shock factor utilized in media reports from the findings says that half of students in the study did not have to write more than 20 pages in a single course their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course with even 40 pages of reading per week.

I write more than 20 pages in any of my writing-intensive courses. But, take into consideration I am a journalism major. My roommate is an architect and interior design junior. She wrote her first paper in more than a year this week. My engineer friends would probably have a panic attack if a professor asked them to write even five pages.

According to Arum and Roksa, the lack of emphasis on reading and writing is an alarming and detrimental omission in their educations. But who are we to value one skill over another? I could never spend the 30-plus hours a week my roommate does building models and could easily confuse an engineering exam with a Chinese test. Different majors require us to learn different skills. It is possible the half not writing and the one-third not reading were busy building or calculating mathematical equations.

Do I read 40 pages of assigned reading per week? Not always. Am I assigned it? Yes. Some might consider this slacking off; I call it prioritizing. I work between 20 and 40 hours at two different jobs a week in addition to my full-time course load.

Often times I rush home after four to five hours of classes and quickly change for work. After roughly five hours of loud children, clanging cash registers and repetitive show tunes at Chuck E. Cheese's — where I work as a party hostess and cashier — reading for class is the last thing I want to do.

If I didn’t have to work, I could focus more on studying and spend more time on my assignments. I always feel at a disadvantage when I compare the time I have to complete work to that of classmates without jobs.

Last spring when I reported for the Missourian, I realized just how inconvenient working was to my journalism education. I couldn’t cover stories without a week’s notice to take off work, causing me to miss out on a lot of great reporting opportunities.

In between reporting, other classes, Chuck E. Cheese's, my second job tutoring, meetings and the occasional Starbucks break, it was hard to find time to study for other classes. I had never earned a C before in my life. That semester, I received two.

Perhaps the disparities in the findings come from the incorrect representation of students who hold jobs. Of the students surveyed, 35 percent did not work, compared to the national average of 29 percent of students who do not work. Even the students who were surveyed clocked in eight fewer hours a week (12.48) compared to the national average (20.50).

There are other significant differences in the “representative” sample detailed on the Social Science Research Council’s website. In addition, without knowing which schools participated, it is hard to ensure that the 24 institutions accurately reflect the U.S. undergraduate population enough to make these accusations.

Arum and Roksa blame the lack of improvement discovered in the study on students who seek easy courses and universities that value research over education.

So maybe my generation likes to work smarter, not harder. We can find the answers to just about anything, anytime, anywhere with just the click of a button on our  phones. We can lug around thousands of books in a tablet comparable to a notebook. We know everything our friends are doing and thinking without seeing them for weeks. Let’s face it: technology has changed everything about our society.

It’s not just my generation — we’re all prone to texting addictions and a reliance on Google. Even the way we think and read is different. We see long paragraphs and skim instead of peruse. After a few scrolls we get bored, and with one simple click we drift to the next topic.

As a society, we’re all getting dumber. It’s not just the college kids losing key skills; we’re all in danger. Perhaps we all lost a little bit of our complex reasoning, critical thinking and writing skills over the years. Consider that for your next sociological study.

OK guys, you caught us; we sometimes do choose classes that are easy. But what is easy for me is not always easy for others. A friend of mine in the business school decided to take a freshman-level finance class as an easy course his last semester of college. Numbers, money, insurance policies — no thank you. Math is not my strong suit. Do I think he could handle my "16 and Pregnant" women’s and gender studies course? I’m guessing not.

I think we excel when a course captures our interests. Of course I pick classes that I’m interested in, and thus, I engage myself in the learning and succeed. Do I avoid courses I know I’ll dread and greatly struggle in? Absolutely.

We live in a society where we have stairs that move for us because simply picking up our feet step after step is apparently too strenuous. Why people are surprised that, gasp, in America we prefer the path of least resistance puzzles me.

Though I think there are many problems with this study, my biggest concern is the suggestion that we are learning absolutely nothing. College is about so much more than simply earning a degree and moving toward a career. It’s the time when a student learns who he or she is as a person and define who he or she wants to become.

My first two years of college taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. I went from a shaky freshman struggling to adapt to a new culture of independence and insecurities to a strong junior seeking to jolt myself into new experiences and adventures. My experiences in the classroom are important, but what I’ve learned outside of textbooks, lectures and readings have had far more impact and influence over my future.

I’ve learned professionalism from reporting, patience from working and humility from volunteering. I’ve learned how to network through the Journalism School, perform through my part-time job and organize through my service fraternity.

Hopefully what I have learned these past two years and what I will learn as I finish up my last two at MU will help me land a job after college. I don’t want to be one of the one-third of college graduates moving back home or the 10 percent unemployed a year later, “troubling news for engaged citizenry,” as Arum called it.

People are struggling to find jobs? Another groundbreaking discovery.

Alison Gammon is a junior at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is pursuing a minor in women's and gender studies. She is a former reporter for the Missourian.


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Comments

Connie Holubar January 27, 2011 | 5:11 p.m.

Great article, Alison. As a parent of a college freshman who is not on scholarship and who doesn't qualify for any financial aid other than loans, I was really upset by the study you are discussing and the attention it received on national news.

Like you, I know my son has written numerous essays and reads far more than 40 pages a week for most of his classes. He's only been at college for about six months, but like you, he's learned more than he ever could have learned if he was commuting to the local junior college and living at home, or if he had gone to work at the local factory, if there even was such a thing.

Sure, I could have saved thousands last semester and this one, but he would not have had the experiences that he had -- experiences of going off to a state where he didn't know a soul, where he had to meet new kids, adjust to a different climate, and learn to manage his time. He got to go to Big 12 football games and massive street parties. He had incredible experiences that I fully believe were well worth the money we spent, even if much of the best learning was experienced outside of a formal classroom.

I've seen many studies that compare a college student who goes into debt to earn a degree with the high school grad that instead starts working or uses college money to start a business. Some show the high school grad better off financially in the long run, but money is not what it's all about, and I have my doubts about that scenario anyway.

College is not a waste of time or money, no matter what a study might say, and you get out of an experience what you put into it. Students who aren't learning anything probably aren't there next year.

Alison raises some really good points about the way current students learn, and I believe education is years behind in changing the ways and the subjects kids are taught. I do not think all technology is good technology. I believe there's an entire generation missing out on "real" social interaction, because as Alison says above, she can know what her friends are doing without seeing them. I find that sad. We had fewer show up at our 30th high school reunion than ever before this year and a lot of people said they didn't come because they were "up to speed" on their friends thanks to Facebook. Sad.

College may not be a bargain, but it's not a waste of time. Expenses for college are out of control. We can't expect the government to step in and regulate that, because they loan the money to everyone to put their kids through school. The more it costs, the more we borrow. It's the foxes watching the hen house. And perhaps it is time to revamp those first two years of college a little so that students can get into their major sooner and college costs can go down a little bit.

Every student has a different experience in college. To say no one is learning is just a bunch of bunk.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 27, 2011 | 6:57 p.m.

Note to author...
What is your point?

(Report Comment)

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