This is second installment of Gabacho’s review of the book Academically Adrift.

Student culture is characterized less by study and rigorous academic work and more by socializing, spring break travel and entertainment than ever before. According to the researchers, college students in the 1960s spent forty hours per week in class and studying. This average, however, has declined. Currently undergraduate students on average report spending twenty-seven hours per week on their academic activities. When we consider that many high school students spend 35 hours per week in class, we conclude that students are reporting that they devote less time to their studies in college than in high school. Moreover, this reduction in studying hasn’t affected their grade point averages or their progress toward degree completion. Hence, authors conclude that students have mastered the art of managing their environment. The point that Arum and Roska make repeatedly throughout the report is that students avoid courses that require reading an excess of forty pages per week of reading and courses that assign twenty or more pages of writing each semester. Many professors simply don’t maintain stringent requirements.

The failure of many young people to take advantage of this time develop their skills in critical thinking, complex problem solving and writing, is our failure, too. Education in the United States was supposed to be the great leveler; it was supposed to be a means through which women, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and any other underprivileged group could carve out a piece of the American Dream. This is not however how things have turned out. Researchers cited one study that stated that 40% of college faculty agrees that most of their students lack the basic skills for college-level work. Disturbingly, the report demonstrates that the inequalities are maintained in higher education. The researchers found that African-American students and other non-English speaking groups that came from poorer schools took courses that were less academically intense and made fewer strides in critical thinking. Individual learning in higher education is characterized by persistent and or growing inequality.  Students that hailed from upper-class families were said to come to their institutions of higher learning with a higher degree of linguistic and cultural competence, which gave them a set of tools and predispositions that are rewarded in college.  Students whose parents had college or professional degrees also fared better on the CLS.

In regard to explaining why students are performing at lower levels, Arum and Roska note throughout the study that students are spending much more time pursuing leisure and social activities, and they are avoiding courses that have strong reading and writing components. On average students are reporting that they spend 12 hours studying per week, and 37% of students reported spending less than 5 hours a week preparing for class.  Students in general invest 9% of their time attending class; 7% of their time studying; 9% of their time working or participating in student organizations; 24% of their time sleeping; and, 51% of their time socializing.  Those students who tend to be more successful are those who are majoring in science and math who study on average 14.7 hours per week. Those who are majoring in on average study 10.6 hours per week; those in communication on average study 10.5 hours per week; and, those in business study on average 9.6 hours per week.

With respect to academic rigor, when students were asked often during a semester that took a class in which they wrote 20 or more pages over the course of the semester, and how often there were required to read more than 40 pages per week, only 42% of the students reported experienced both of these requirements in a prior semester. In contrast, 68% of students concentrating in the humanities and social science reported taking at least one course that required 20 pages of writing in the previous semester, and 88% reported taking at least one course requiring more than 40 pages of reading per week.

The study concludes with a review of the activities that are conducive to student learning. Among the activities that were not considered as having a positive impact on learning were: faculty interaction outside of class; extracurricular activities; working more than 10 hours per week; and, studying in groups. Researchers note that although members of fraternities and sororities express higher levels of social integrations, these activities actually impede the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The activities that were conducive to skill development were studying alone and attending an institution with high expectations. In effect, doing homework and studying alone have stronger and more widespread positive effects than almost any other measure. 

The final chapter is a mandate for reform to a system that is not yet in crisis. At the moment, students, faculty, parents, and administrators are content with this problem. Moreover, universities are investing in upscale student housing with semi private suites, food-court style dining, hyper modern recreational centers, and tutoring centers. The only thing that is missing is the Jacuzzi. If progress is to be made in turning this situation around and re-centering students on academic pursuits rather than leisure at the university level, it must start with university professors and administrators. For professors to spend more time in class, demand more from their students and work, and challenge them to develop critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills it requires dedication to the undergraduate mission of the university. To do this, however, professors will expect their efforts in fomenting student learning to be rewarded. If not, their best bet is to conduct their research projects, build their scholarly reputations and contribute little or nothing to undergraduate programs. One means by which university administrators can facilitate this process is by adhering to their assessment plans and ensuring that academic departments live up to their mission statements.

About the Author

Jimmy Gabacho

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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