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Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses [Paperback]

Richard Arum , Josipa Roksa

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Book Description

Jan. 15 2011

In spite of soaring tuition costs, more and more students go to college every year. A bachelor’s degree is now required for entry into a growing number of professions. And some parents begin planning for the expense of sending their kids to college when they’re born. Almost everyone strives to go, but almost no one asks the fundamental question posed by Academically Adrift: are undergraduates really learning anything once they get there?

For a large proportion of students, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s answer to that question is a definitive no. Their extensive research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and, for the first time, the state-of-the-art Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college. As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise—instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.

Academically Adrift
holds sobering lessons for students, faculty, administrators, policy makers, and parents—all of whom are implicated in promoting or at least ignoring contemporary campus culture. Higher education faces crises on a number of fronts, but Arum and Roksa’s report that colleges are failing at their most basic mission will demand the attention of us all.

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“A decade ago the United States led the world in the number of college graduates. Today this is no longer the case. Academically Adrift raises serious questions about the quality of the academic and social experiences of college students. Armed with extensive data and comprehensive analyses, the authors provide a series of compelling solutions for how colleges can reverse the tide and renew their emphases on learning. This first-rate book demonstrates why colleges, like K–12 institutions, now more than ever require major reforms to sustain our democratic society.” (Barbara Schneider, Michigan State University)

“This might be the most important book on higher education in a decade. Combined with students’ limited effort and great disparities in benefits among students, Arum and Roksa’s findings raise questions that should have been raised long ago about who profits from college and what colleges need to do if they are to benefit new groups of students. In this new era of college for all, their analysis refocuses our attention on higher education’s fundamental goals.”
(James Rosenbaum, Northwestern University)

“It’s hard to think of a study in the last decade that has had a bigger impact on public discourse about higher education and the internal workings of colleges and universities alike than has Academically Adrift.”
(Doug Lederman Inside Higher Education)

"A damning indictment of the American higher-education system."
(Chronicle of Higher Education)

“The time, money, and effort that’s required to educate college students helps explain why the findings are so shocking in a new blockbuster book—Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses—that argues that many students aren't learning anything.”

(U.S. News & World Report)

“For a short book, it takes a major step towards evidence-based assessment of student learning. . . . All university managers might like to read 40 pages of this book a week for the next five weeks and produce a 20-page report on ‘Countering Academic Drift: Developing Critical Thinking in the University.’”

(Times Higher Education)

“Whatever criticism this book provokes in the higher-education establishment, its value is enormous. The disconcerting findings of Arum and Roksa should resonate well beyond the academy.”

(Wilson Quarterly)

“Despite the book’s moderate proposals, some critics have painted this book as misguided punditry. Readers of Teacher-Scholar, however, would be remiss not to take this book seriously. Arum and Roska’s use and analysis of CLA data, although sometimes flawed, lift this book out of punditry and into serious scholarship. They show that almost half of college students do not improve on important skills that they should gain in their first years in college, and they convincingly connect this problem to the lack of academic rigor at many universities. Likewise, although their recommendations for more accountability are vague and incomplete, they raise an important question about whether we are entering a new era where the federal government or accrediting agencies will find new ways to hold universities accountable for learning outcomes. The future regulatory environment is uncertain and faculty members and administrators should take note of the growing critique of higher learning as well as these new conversations about accountability.” 
(Matthew Johnson Teacher Scholar)

“Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job.” 
(Bill Gates)

“Seriously researched, rich in data, and sometimes adorned with dozens of tables that the uninitiated may find cryptic, works like…Academically Adrift (2011) by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa focus on particular aspects of the system. They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings….In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become.”—New York Review of Books
(Anthony Grafton The New York Review of Books 2011-11-08)

About the Author

Richard Arum is professor in the Department of Sociology with a joint appointment in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. He is also director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council and the author of Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority in American Schools. Josipa Roksa is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
100 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and Alarming Feb. 1 2011
By Charles - Published on
The authors' research and observations confirm what I see as very disturbing trends as I teach courses that involve complex, critical reasoning, and as I follow the experiences of current and recent undergraduates. Each year there has been a very noticeable decline in preparation for higher-level thinking. The students I encounter increasingly expect that they can succeed academically with shallow thinking and little effort by employing the social and strategic credential management skills that the authors describe. Those who seek a more meaningful intellectual experience feel surrounded.

The authors' observations about the importance of studious solitude and its increasing scarcity have obvious implications about the evolution of academic life. But I wonder if it is even worse than they describe. For example, the study hours they include in their data may be overly generous. Today, even those who want to learn and sit down to "study" are likely to be immersed in social media and other consumptive diversions. Students have many ways to avoid sinking into the depths of a subject or struggling with well-developed analytical writing, as the authors note. They rarely get honest and helpful criticism aimed at their individual intellectual and ethical development. I fear that the authors' important observations are only the tip of the iceberg. I hope that earnest students will read this book and set their own course.
194 of 218 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bombshell! Jan. 21 2011
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on
This book couldn't be more potentially explosive if its contents were 100% highly-enriched uranium; unfortunately, the vested interests realize this and are already hard at work smothering the authors' findings. Authors Richard Arum (sociology and education professor at New York University) and Josipa Roksa (professor of sociology at the University of Virginia) studied over 2,000 undergraduates from Fall 2005 to Spring 2009 at two dozen universities (large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and institutions that historically serve blacks and Hispanics). They determined that 45% "demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college," and 36% showed no improvement over the entire four years. Including dropouts would have made the findings even worse. Further, those that did improve did so only modestly on average - eg. moving from the 50th percentile to the 68th in those four years. These findings severely undermine President Obama's proposal to boost the proportion of U.S. college graduates from 40% to 60% in ten years, parents' sacrifices to send their children to college, students incurring crushing amounts of college debt, and the rationale for average tuitions now having risen to 257% of their 1986 levels.

The author's assessment was made using the respected 'Collegiate Learning Assessment' (CLA) from the Council for Aid to Education. That group adds that "Academically Adrift" confirms their own findings, and that when combined with our 47 million high school dropouts and the fact that 40% of entering college students cannot read, write, or compute at a college-ready level makes our overall education outputs even dimmer - despite world-leading per-pupil expenditure levels.

The main culprit, per Arum and Roksa, is lack of academic rigor. The authors also found that 32% of the students they studied did not take any courses with 40 pages or more of reading/week, and 50% did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages during the semester. The authors also report that students spend an average of only 12-14 hours/week studying - 50% less than a few decades ago (per Babcock and Marks), and much of that study took place in fashionable but inefficient groups (per the data analysis). Another conclusion from the authors - instructors tend to be more focused on their own research than teaching. Despite this lack of effort, professor Arum also noes that the students studied averaged a 3.2 GPA. The 'good news' is that students reporting high expectations from faculty members did better, and 23% of the variation in CLA performance occurred across institutions.

The authors' findings are also consistent, per the New York Times (1/17/2010), with the National Survey of Student Engagement's previous review of thousands of students at almost six hundred colleges. That survey found that 12% of first-year students did essentially no quantitative reasoning activity in their coursework, and 51% of seniors had not written a paper during their final year that was at least 20 pages long - even at the top 10% of schools in the study. Similarly, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni study of more than 700 top educational institutions found that students can graduate with ever having exposure to composition, American history, or economics ("The Washington Post, 1/19/2011), while the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy decline from 40% to 31% in the past decade.

The authors found that students in traditional liberal-arts fields improved more on the CLA, education, business and social-work students didn't do so well. Business students not doing well is understandable, given the nonsensensical training they receive on free trade and illegal immigration, as well as logic derived from previously different levels of competition; education students receive even more fact-defying nonsense on the 'benefits' of class size reductions, extra years of teacher experience and training, and the general usefulness of certifications and added spending.

Authors Arum and Roksa recommend increased measurement of student learning, increased faculty expectations from their pupils, improved K-12 performance, and less emphasis on group study. They conclude with a question: "How much are students actually learning in higher education?" Their answer - "for many, not much." They may graduate (57%), but they're failing to develop higher-order cognitive skills - exactly the skills that educators use to excuse our dismal comparative performance on international assessments of K-12 learning.

Bottom-Line: "Academically Adrift's" findings are also consistent with studies of K-12 international achievement that found we're out-worked by our competitors. Why then do so many Asians come to American colleges: weekend observations at nearby Arizona State University indicate they're much more internally motivated, evidenced by my repeated observations that almost all the students in the library then are Asians, even though their overall enrollment is relatively small. American students must similarly become much more motivated. Meanwhile, Kevin Care, policy director of independent think tank Education Sector summarizes the situation well - colleges can no longer say "Trust Us" in response to questions about how much their students learn ("The Chronicle of Higher Education," 1/18/2011).
89 of 106 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting findings, but using the CLA to measure "learning" is problematic Feb. 19 2011
By Chuck Paine - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is well written and analyzed (with good use of controls, etc.), and the findings are fascinating, though, unfortunately, not really surprising. The most significant problem is their mainly unexamined use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure "learning." They devote just a paragraph to discussions of the problems with CLA, with no mention, for instance, of Trudy Banta's insightful criticisms. So its arguments that certain groups of students fail to make gains at the rates of other groups are interesting and even useful, but these "gains" are gains of improvement in standardized testing. That's not necessarily the same as learning generally conceived.

Also because they surveyed students at only 20 schools, they are unable to say whether certain schools do a better job than others at fostering gains. For instance, do liberal arts colleges (there are two) do better? Do some schools perform better?

And they criticize surveys like the National Survey of Student Engagement because, as they ask, can we really depend on a self-report surveys to accurately measure learning, because respondents' memories are fallible. (Of course, that's true.) But they themselves depend on self-report surveys by students to describe which student-reported activities lead to more learning.

The book is worth buying, but one has to wonder whether their methods and findings warrant an entire book. Then again, it might take the publication of a book to engender the huge media coverage the study has received. And maybe that's a good thing. Higher education needs to pay more attention to teaching and learning, and this book brings that issue to public attention.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strong indictment of higher education, but one with limitations Feb. 18 2011
By Arthur Digbee - Published on
Arum and Roksa mean this book as a strong indictment of the American undergraduate experience. The report received a lot of media attention when released in early 2011. Its headline findings are that undergraduates experience essentially no improvement in critical thinking in their first two years of college, and a much smaller improvement over four years than we would expect. There are two broad exceptions: elite national universities; and classes that require more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester.

It's important to recognize that Arum and Roksa stack the deck, by defining "learning" in ways that advantage students in the humanities and social sciences. Engineering schools train students in a different way of thinking rigorously and solving problems. Pre-med programs cram student brains with facts. Both evaluate their students with difficult exams leading to professional certification. It's fair to say that neither Arum nor Roksa could pass those professional exams, which demonstrates that these students have learned a lot along the way.

I'd like to see a subsequent study that gets at the problem-solving skills that we expect of engineers or medical diagnosticians, and see how well economists or English majors solve similar problems in their own area of substantive knowledge. Certainly good grad students in the various fields I know can solve problems effectively, but undergrads are a mixed bag.

Setting that aside, there is a lot of provocative material here. When we look at their preferred measure, "critical learning," students in math, science, social sciences and the humanities do make progress. Business students, or those in social work and (ahem) education - - not so much. Students who read and write learn critical thinking skills, apparently no matter what they read or write about.

Whatever one thinks of their specific findings, the book is valuable for a high-level view of the American undergraduate experience. They summarize many findings from the literature, often providing a disturbing view. Though they don't phrase it this way, I was left with the impression that too many undergraduates view college as a sabbatical between the rigors of high school and the rigors of full-time employment. During this time they socialize with friends, network, and borrow money to finance consumption (including but not limited to drinking). Academic work is a ticket to enable the sabbatical but they may not assign it any intrinsic value or view it as a necessary step toward their future.

Fortunately, Arun and Roksa's findings also show that institutions matter. Colleges and universities can provide academically-oriented environments in which students are motivated to learn, and motivate one another to learn. Some schools already do this. I hope this study sparks more to do so.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thoughtful, Interesting and Important Book April 11 2011
By Richard B. Schwartz - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a thoughtful and interesting book, but readers should be wary of the reviews, responses and attention that it has received. It was hyped mightily in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and it has received a great deal of attention in the popular press and throughout the media. Variously characterized as somewhere between cataclysmic and apocalyptic, it has since been attacked as the (educational establishment) empire struck back.

Basically, the book looks at the results of the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment) instrument that was administered over several years to 2,000+ students at two dozen diverse American colleges/universities. The CLA instrument does not assess content; it assesses the takers' ability to understand information, sort through it and propose answers/interpretations/solutions in clear and persuasive prose. In short, it measures those skills (written communication, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.) that the educational establishment in general and individual institutions in particular claim to be enhanced, refined and expanded by the college experience.

The bottom line is that for many students these skills are not expanded in the course of their undergraduate experience. This epiphany is an epiphany only in the sense that it has been supported by elaborate testing and elaborate, skilled analysis. There are, of course, loopholes. Not all institutions and not all students were tested. How could they be? And, of course, whenever we are talking about human performance or behavior there are a multiplicity of possible reasons that can be adduced as being causal. Critics, including defenders of the current situation, have seized upon these loopholes in an attempt to reduce the force of Arum and Roksa's argument.

The main point that I would make is that that argument is made very convincingly and in great detail, with full awareness that the authors are providing reputable social science, not an apodictic proof that will absolutely compel belief and silence any possible opponents. Readers should be aware that this is a piece of thoughtful research (supported by a 60+ pp. methodological appendix), not a polemic, not a screed, not a phillipic.

The reasons for students' lack of academic progress (in this particular sense and area) has been addressed by dozens of commentators. Arum and Roksa are well aware of their work and they present it clearly and effectively. Very little of this work is counter-intuitive and very few if any of Arum and Roksa's own conclusions are counter-intuitive. The conclusions do, however, step on toes. Some of the conclusions include the following: a) more progress is made by students of the sciences, social sciences and humanities than by students in business, education and social work; b) individual study is generally more effective than group study; c) participation in the activities of sororities and fraternities does not notably enhance the learning process; d) students are not being challenged by faculty in the ways that they should be challenged; e) students are often avoiding courses that involve decent levels of writing (20 pp. per course) and reading (40 pp. per week), and so on.

For the most part, the book confirms what many have long known and believed. It does so within the context of multiple applications of an important assessment instrument, but it also adduces a great deal of other evidence that is part of the ongoing research into the experience of students in the contemporary American college or university.

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