‘Academically Adrift’ claims students aren’t learning while attending college

By Shardae Smith

Imagine attending college for two years only to find out you didn’t retain much of the curriculum. The U.S. higher education system is failing its students, according to a recent book published by professors from New York University and the University of Virginia.

The book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” was written by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and was released in January. It asserts that students experience little, if any, growth throughout the first two years of college in their ability to perform tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.

According to Jonathan Keiser, director of evaluation and assessment for Academic Affairs at Columbia, the book is controversial.

“[The book documents], in some cases, how little college students are learning in college,” Keiser said. “It approaches [the idea] from a cultural perspective that college is perceived in many ways a social activity, more than an academic activity.”

The book is based on information gathered from following 2,300 anonymous undergraduates from 24 universities. An accompanying study that summed up the book’s findings was released on Feb. 7.

The study, titled “Improving Undergraduate Learning” which was published by the Social Science Research Council, found that based on the students surveyed, many reported they experienced limited academic demands and invested minimal effort in their academic endeavors.

Arum and Roksa collected data from schools that administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is essay-based, similar to a standardized test format and measures gains in critical thinking and other college-level skills.

According to the accompanying study, based on the CLA’s findings, students who majored in traditional liberal arts fields, such as social sciences, humanities and mathematics showed higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills throughout time than students who studied business, education, social work and communications.

Keiser said students in different majors think differently.

“What critical thinking [is] for a chemistry major will probably look different from what it’s like for a dance major,” he said. “And I think that’s what [is] flawed about standardized tests that are measures of

general education.”

But some are disputing the validity of Arum’s and Roska’s findings. A string of comments left on the academic website InsideHigherEd.com questioned the methodology of the results, saying the CLA isn’t an accurate method to measure students’ abilities because college majors have different requirements across the board.

The study said after four years of college, 36 percent of those surveyed didn’t demonstrate any significant

learning improvement.

Some of the comments on the article on InsideHigherEd.com agreed with the CLA’s findings and said students study to pass classes and not to retain learned information.

Keiser said the way the CLA collects information can be seen in various lights.

“You can attack the methodology [of the book], but it doesn’t mean there are not some elements of truth in the book and the big picture,” Keiser said. “It’s much better to understand that the methodology of the study it’s based on is flawed. But it still might tell us what going on in our college campuses.”

Director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Columbia Soo La Kim said she would be interested in finding more about the students who did learn and not the ones who didn’t.

Overall, Keiser said he’s confident Columbia students are learning within their first two years of enrollment.

“We have a requirement that students choose their majors right away,” he said. “There’s research that says engaging a student in their interest as early as possible keeps students motivated academically.”