Drifting Through Academically Adrift

Arum and Roska's book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=gentleeyeimagery&l=as2&o=1&a=B004LE9ILS has created quite a stir lately. The book reports a study of student learning in college. The data are from students that have completed their sophomore year at a small number of diverse institutions.  The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) instrument, a device designed to measure critical thinking skills, is their key measure of academic performance. 

Arum and colleagues interpret their data – which tracks students through 50% of their undergraduate college experience – to suggest that today's college students are "academically adrift."   This catchy phrase is intended to convey that today’s college students lack purpose, lack an understanding of the academic foundation necessary for aspired career paths (or a lack of an aspired career path altogether), and that today’s college students spend more of their waking hours on non-academic activities than they allocate to their studies.

"Academically adrift" makes great headlines. However, the connection between the reported findings and the “academically adrift” conclusion is tenuous. The authors provide no historical data to support that what they observe in today's college students is any different than what a similar study may have revealed if conducted twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. They provide no evidence that today's college students are any more (or less) "academically adrift" than college students of yore. Further, the conclusion appears to emanate from the authors’ normative stereotype of undergraduate college students specifically, and the undergraduate college experience, generally. The reported data could be interpreted to suggest that the data don’t align with the authors’ stereotype of the undergraduate college experience.

The authors’ observe that many college students lack a clear understanding of their career path and of the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) necessary for career paths they may aspire to pursue. And, some undergraduate students are found to be unclear on their career aspirations.  It is unclear to me how this lack of understanding or clarity of career aspirations affords evidence that students are academically adrift in college. This symptom could evidence failure of multiple systems: our high schools, parenting, and/or other institutions that socialize young Americans about their options ahead of their progression to college. Besides, isn’t it common knowledge that one purpose of the traditional four year undergraduate experience is to afford opportunities to identify one’s destiny?

Courses that require reading and writing are are key factors in improved CLA performance. Whether a student took at least one course that required more than 40 pages of reading per week and at least one course that required more than 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester.  It is difficulty for me to conceive of any college course that does not require at least 40 pages of reading per week and in which students generate at least 20 pages of written material. That said, it appears that such experiences are in fact rare for many of the freshman and sophomore college students in the CLA database.

The analysis of how CLA performance varies across fields of study is problematic (p. 104). Their data suggest that business students evidence significantly lower scores on the CLA relative to all other fields studied (science/math, humanities/social sciences, health, engineering/computer sciences). This finding holds after partialling out variance attributable to other factors (e.g., social background, academic preparation, prior CLA performance, institutional factors, reading/writing requirements encountered in college course work). This finding is problematic because most undergraduate business schools do not admit students until they achieve junior standing and they survive a screening process. This implies that students self-identifying as business majors as freshman and sophomores are not yet in the business program; they are taking courses in hope of successfully achieving the GPA and other requirements for enrolling in a business program. (These students might be more usefully classified as 'undeclared.' ) A consequence is that we would expect substantial variance in the ability of freshman and sophomore students that self-identify as business majors. The performance of business students on the CLA would be more appropriately measured if the analysis categorized as business majors only those students that successfully matriculated into a business program at the end of their sophomore year.

What explains variance in CLA performance? Two class activities consistently emerged as predictors of CLA performance. One, students that took a course that required more than 40 pages of reading per week tented to perform better. Two, students that took  a course that required writing 20 or more pages during the semester  tended to predict better performance. Students that fell into both of these categories – i.e., took a course the required reading more than 40 pages per week and took a course that required writing more than 20 pages over the course of the semester – proved even more powerful as predictors of CLA performance. The authors suggest that courses with this sort of academically rigorous activity further in meaningful ways the critical thinking skills the CLA is designed to measure.

Unsurprisingly, academic preparation also emerged as a significant predictor of CLA performance; better prepared students tended to exhibit greater increase in CLA scores in the first two years of their college experience. This finding speaks to the preparation of students for college and not to the value added by the college experience.

"This pattern suggests that higher education in general reproduces social inequality" (p. 40). This seems a specious conclusion.  Implicit in this statement is the assumption that differential ability on the input end of a process will somehow disappear or be eliminated by the educational process.  A fairer conclusion is that higher education, in general, does not eliminate differences in ability.

The final chapter, A Mandate for Reform, strikes is oddly disconnected with the reported findings. The chapter reads more like the author's dream for the educational process rather than a discussion of potential implications of their findings.

The data for their study were collected from freshman and sophomore students. Accordingly, the findings afford some insight into what happens during the first two years of college for a sample of undergraduate students attending a finite number of institutions. Consequently, the data set affords a platform for offering recommendations for enhancing the effectiveness of these first two years of the college experience. To extrapolate data collected from freshman and sophomores to the totality of the undergraduate collegiate experience is unsupported by their data.

This is too bad. Their findings, to my eye, afford the foundation for some very pragmatic recommendations. For example, it would seem to flow naturally from their data that institutions should expand the number of courses that require reading more than 40 pages per week and/or require writing more than 20 pages over the course of the semester. Simple.

Ultimately, Academically Adrift affords interesting insights into the experience of some students, at some institutions, during their first two years of college. Arum’s extrapolation of their findings into an indictment of the entire educational system -- as they choose to do -- takes their rhetoric into territory not supported by their data.

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