This piece was originally posted on Teaching the Past

Over the past couple of weeks I have had some really concerning conversations about the state of teaching and learning in Canadian universities.  In one, a colleague of mine – a university instructor – claimed that universities do not have an overall curriculum governing their operation.  In another, a senior educator stated bluntly that students learned little in the average undergraduate program.  Both of these statements took me aback and got me thinking a little more deeply about teaching and learning in the classroom.  Surely universities and individual academic departments have curricula that structures student learning outcomes, I thought.  But to what extent does this govern the content of specific courses and class pedagogies?  And in what ways do we measure what students learn from university programs as a whole?

This question led me to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recently published study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. They conclude that despite lip service paid to critical thinking, many universities in the United States (though not all of their programs) are not teaching their students sufficiently.  Their results suggest that the conversations I have had over the past couple of weeks are indicative of broader problems in the university system.

Although Arum and Roksa’s study suggests better performance by students in the liberal arts (budding historians, I am sure), their results are troubling.  Combining their research with the results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which focuses on critical thinking skills rather than retention of particular bits of information, their study suggests that although there is variation between schools, forty-five percent of university students exhibit no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of university.  What’s even more concerning, their results also indicate that higher education reproduces (rather than reduces) social inequalities.

Arum and Roksa take a broad look at the problem, emphasizing important ways in which their data varies both between and within universities.  They illustrate its roots in the development of the university system as well as more recent changes.  No one group is blamed, but neither are there those who escape criticism.

Studying habits are a central problem. Students are studying less.  Using the work of Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, the study notes a steady decline in the time students spend on academic work. From the 1960s until today student study time has dropped from 25 to 13 hours and the overall time spent in academic pursuits (including class time) has shrunk from over 40 to 27 hours – less time during the week than most students spent in high school.

University administrators (and government policy-makers) are focused on churning out students with the proper credentials to meet society’s perceived needs without a focus on whether the needed skills have actually been developed in students.  This has amounted to increasing teaching loads in an effort to crank out more “qualified” students.  It’s about bums in seats rather than minds in action.  With this shift, increasing emphasis is being put on student experience, and the more social aspects of university, in an effort to keep students attending school. Student centred non-academic departments have added to university bureaucracies, shifting their focus… and increasing costs.

Tenured faculty don’t get off scot free either.  Publish or perish culture, which the authors demonstrate has not always existed, has helped move the focus of the university from the student to the professoriate: from teaching to research.  This move away from teaching has created a cyclical problem in which graduate students are taught to devalue teaching in lieu of research – a particularly pernicious problem given that academic research positions are increasingly rare.

They also look more narrowly at university curriculum and the structures put in place governing student learning over the course of a four year degree.  The authors observe:

“While at most colleges and universities course syllabi are collected from instructors and administratively filed… there is often little evidence that faculty have come together to ensure that coursework is appropriately demanding and requires significant reading, writing, and critical thinking.  Faculty share a collective responsibility to address this issue.”

As evidence to support this position, they point to the relatively minimal demands placed on students.  For many of their respondents, average course work was limited to less than 40 pages per week of reading and 20 pages per semester of writing.  A quantity which they deem insufficient for learning critical thinking and writing skills.

It is hardly surprising that their solution is focused on returning student learning to the core of undergraduate education.  Arum and Roksa call for high schools and universities to both encourage good study habits and work together to develop in students, what William Damon has called, a ‘path to purpose.’  At the heart of this idea is developing in students a connection between their goals and the behaviours and tasks required to bring them about; through this framework studying is a means to an end and becomes better tied into a student’s life goals.

University administrators and faculty are also called to make reforms towards building a positive student learning environment.  Universities need to refocus on student learning, rather than on the student experience.  Arum and Roksa are very clear that activities based on social interactions often compromise rather than enhance learning.

“In our analyses, interactions neither with peers nor with faculty outside the classroom had positive consequences for learning.”

The study suggests that social interactions may build a student’s attachment to their university, and help them continue to attend classes, but it does not facilitate their learning.  The issue here is not social engagement, but rather its relationship to a student’s learning goals.  Student learning needs to become the central goal of every university department (academic or not).

The study’s authors put forward two proposals for how to do this.  First, they suggest that universities develop greater measures for accountability on student learning by implementing a more transparent and standardized form of evaluating what students have learned.  Although cautious of standardized tests, they suggest that along with rigorous self-assessment, tools such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment can help to assess and compare the skills that students are learning at particular institutions.  Arum and Roska also suggest that universities invest more heavily in developing rigorous research programs that focus on teaching and learning, a call which was made specifically to historians by David Pace in The American Historical Review in 2004.

Academically Adrift suggests that the conversations I have had over the past couple of months are a symptom of a university system that may be failing many undergraduate students.  Ambiguity over the existence and purpose of university curriculum and a feeling by some teachers and professors that students are not learning what instructors intend are perhaps good bell weathers that, although there are significant differences between Canadian and American universities, there are important lessons in Arum and Roska’s study for professors and instructors teaching in Canadian universities.


Here’s what some others have been saying about the book: Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times.  For a critique see the review in Sociology Lens.

Author’s note:  I read Academically Adrift on an e-reader which does not provide page numbers.  Short of seeking out a paper copy of the book, I have not been able to determine the exact page numbers for my quotations.  I imagine that this will become an increasing problem as e-readers become more common in the classroom.  Does anyone know how to do this?

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