Posted by: crudbasher | January 19, 2011

Study Shows Many College Students Don’t Learn Anything

(cc) _rockinfree

Wow this was quite a controversial study.  It seems that while we spend vast sums of money sending kids to college, there has been very little research on how much they are learning.

A study just released in a book called Academically Adrift talks about how many students don’t learn anything in colleges. Is it true?  Well, there are other things you learn in college that can’t be measured directly.  I don’t for a second say that the price of college is worth just those things.

Businesses have said again and again that what they value most is critical thinking and problem solving abilities.  Is there a way to measure that?

So let’s get this straight.  Colleges tuitions are going up much faster than inflation.  This is driven by the vast sums being shoveled into the system by the government.  The whole house of cards is sustained by this belief that getting a college degree will get you a better standard of living than not getting one.  We also believe that the cost is worth the results.  The problem is, there is very little actual evidence to support this belief.  Some of the evidence even suggests otherwise.

Once enough people decide not to go to college or pursue alternate skills training, the bubble will pop.  When it does it will be worse than the housing bubble. Ker-POW!

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  • Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • study that shows many people graduating from college don’t learn anything. Dang.

    tags: education highered study profound nell

    • “Trust us.”

      That’s the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.

    • Still, “trust us,” they say: Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study. We don’t need to systematically evaluate student learning. Indeed, that would violate the academic freedom of our highly trained faculty, each of whom embodies the proud scholarly traditions of this venerable institution.
    • Now we know that those are lies.
    • Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, recently completed a study of how much 2,300 statistically representative undergraduates—who enrolled as freshmen in a diverse group of 24 colleges and universities in 2005—had learned by the time they (in theory) were ready to graduate, in 2009. As a measuring tool, the researchers used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills. Their findings were published this month in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) and in an accompanying white paper. It is, remarkably, the first study of its kind.
    • Their finding? Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. “American higher education,” the researchers found, “is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”
    • The study also found significant differences by field of study. Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math—again, controlling for their background—did relatively well. Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not.
    • Financial aid also matters. The study found that students whose financial aid came primarily in the form of grants learned more than those who were paying mostly with loans.
    • Learning was also negatively correlated with­—surprise—time spent in fraternities and sororities.
    • The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don’t get even that.
    • the higher-education system must seem like a gigantic confidence game, with students and colleges conspiring to produce hollow degrees that nonetheless define the boundaries of opportunity.
    • The study suggests that we have overcomplicated the practice of higher education. It comes down to what it always has—deep engagement with complex ideas and texts, difficult and often solitary study, the discipline to write, revise, and write again. What students need most aren’t additional social opportunities and elaborate services. They need professors who assign a lot of reading and writing.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.



  1. The article linked suggests that an increase in attention to critical thinking skills and to deep comprehension of written material is essential. And yet, I have seen few for-profit institutions which focus on these skills, being instead much more vocational. Carey himself argues that “[m]aking college less vocational will actually help more students learn the skills they need to succeed in their careers.”

    I’m not sure this is really an argument against the existing model of higher education, so much as a reminder that, no matter what form education takes, it *must* challenge its students to think in ways they previously have not. This, it seems to me, *does* require substantial resources in skilled professors, probably teaching relatively small classes, provoking meaningful discussions about the extensive written material they assign.

    • Hi Daniel,
      I agree with most of your points. There really is a dearth of critical thinking skills taught these days. I’m not sure that I agree that learning requires substantial resources and small classes. I would say it requires engagement, access to information and enough time to master the material.

      I do totally agree with you that challenging the student is an important part of keeping engagement. I have taught about game theory and if a game is too hard people won’t play it. Also though if it is too easy they won’t play it either. School can be like that too I think.

      Thanks for commenting!!

  2. Let me clarify what I meant: I’m not convinced that if a professor has fifty or a hundred students in a class, he/she can reliably determine if students are really properly engaged with the material, or just showing up to class/doing the mandatory work. I’m open to the possibility of using online forums, etc. to facilitate monitoring this better, but it seems like a fairly large degree of individual attention is probably needed to ensure no one’s slacking off.

    • One of the ways I avoided that problem is by focusing more on project based learning. That way there is an actual deliverable. Of course I taught college so I wonder at what age is too young for project based learning?

      • I’m not sure what age is too young. One of the problems I think college professors face is that students often have little experience, and therefore little skill planning projects and keeping on top of the required work. It’s probably easier for both professor and student if there are explicit assignments/things to memorize.

        But I think if students were given more responsibility younger for planning what is needed to learn/master a given skill, they’d be better equipped for project-based learning, and probably would less often require smaller classes.

        That being said, even in project-based learning, there’s obviously still a degree to which professors/teachers guide students in designing their projects. Moreover, this also takes place when students discuss their projects with one another–this certainly could be easier to facilitate in a smaller-class setting, although, again, I thing increasing use of online/web technology may diminish this advantage somewhat.

  3. hi.. my name is heehyun chae..a international student at De Anza college in San Jose

    my question is that i’d like to use your idea on my debate in EWRT 2 class..

    your opinion is exactly i want to debate about..

    not this post it is about “college students do not learn much”

    it is my mail address… thank you

  4. […] Our economy would be very unstable because the people who went to the Ivy League schools didn’t actually  learn anything. […]

  5. Colleges focus on teaching something they can sell a textbook with and repeats the basics skills of lower education classes. For instance, Upper division Engineering classes often reteach math in an applied way. Upper level journalism classes may teach writing in their way. That would be fine except 4 the fact that they never teach the on the job skill sets needed to do the job.

    50 yrs ago this was acceptable because employers had a shortage of ppl with just the basic skills. But now employers want ppl ready to be fully productive in the 1st week that they’re hired. Schools dont want to spend the money or make their Prima Donna instructors show that they R relevant on the job. Many employers no longer see schooling as relevant since they dont feel applying theory is as useful as being practical on the job.

  6. Yes. University is so frustrating. “We don’t want any of your own opinions, find someone who thinks like you and reference them. You can’t write your own opinion until after you’ve published.” What a load of b.s. I am currently studying to be a teacher, but I doubt I will finish this degree. I go there, listen to lectures and afterwards comment to people, ‘That was great,’ though I’m trying to figure out what I actually learnt. What did she actually say that opened my mind in any way? Nothing, really. My friend is a lecturer and he gets paid over $300 per lecture. Academia is an industry. I have learnt far, far more from my life experiences than I ever will from university. From dealing with a very traumatic childhood, from my time spent teaching children as a volunteer in a rural Tanzanian village. Uni is all about ‘academic language,’ and referencing properly and repeating yourself. When you try to slip some real meaning into your work they disapprove. Incidentally, my dad, who is a convicted paedophile of a hellish degree, has a PhD. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that education was in some way connected to enlightenment. ?????

    • It’s sad but what you describe is all too common in many schools. I’ve found that academia is one of the most restrictive in thought of any others. Still, there are starting to be valid alternatives. As you say, education is not connected to enlightenment. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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