What Can We Do About Adrift Students?

Jason Fertig

The news jolted the academic world like a triple espresso – students don’t learn anything in the first two years of college. Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses had everyone from professors to pundits talking about the ramifications of the earth-shattering news. But after the rush has subsided, is anything really going to change with student learning?

Anyone serious about higher education reform should read Academically Adrift, but he should know in advance that the book is not an editorial about poor learning. Arum and Roksa’s book is a 140-page academic study with a 70-page methodological appendix that brought back nightmares of my dissertation. The text of the book is not jargony, and the concluding chapter is worth reading even by itself.

The central theme of students not learning anything is well-publicized. Technically speaking, the actual finding is a lack of improvement in student scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing ability. Critics of Arum and Roksa will instantly gravitate to the notion that the CLA is not truly “learning.” After all, a music major can learn to play a beautiful cello and score low on the CLA. Nonetheless, this is a case in which higher education is guilty until proven innocent. Most professors who have taught a class recently can attest to the feeble academic ability of many students enrolled; Arum and Roksa’s data simply provides empirical evidence to support what they already know.

Yet, what is of potentially more value to higher education stakeholders beyond the main thesis of Arum and Roksa’s book is their analyses of the differences in CLA performance.

Most notably:

  • Students who study alone score higher on average than students who study in groups with other students. 
  • Students learned more when they enrolled in rigorous courses – in this case, ones that assigned at least 40 pages of reading per week and at least 20 pages of writing per semester.
  • The more hours that students worked off-campus, the lower their scores.

These findings suggest that the flexibly scheduled, collaborative environment may not be the best atmosphere for learning, even if it is more enjoyable. Along those lines, I like to highlight my students’ work when they provide articulate insight on a given topic. In this case, one of my students provided an editorial on the difference between management theory and practice that paints a clear picture of what it means to be adrift.

The discussion on Mary Parker Follett’s theory of conflict management made me take a look back and reflect on the pros and cons of the past four years of my life as a college student. I thought about all the Intro classes I took, and I tried to remember what I had learned. I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t learn all that much. I guess I shouldn’t say I didn’t learn it, because at one time I was tested over the material and I passed my team projects. A better way to put this is that I don’t remember a whole lot of what I learned. After a little deeper thought, I realized that maybe this type of learning isn’t the most import [sic] thing that people take away from college.

There are many people in the world that would love to have a certain job, but are not qualified for the position, for no other reason than they have no college degree. This doesn’t mean that, given the right opportunity and situation, the person wouldn’t be a great choice for the job. They might be able to do it better that any college graduate. But this person, because of a lack of a college degree, may never get the chance. College is a weeding out process that not everyone is capable of getting through, or even wants to complete. For those who stick with it, perseverance is rewarded by the higher salaries and broader opportunities that college graduates are provided. Degrees help open doors for graduates to get jobs where they can learn and grow, and gain the experience necessary to become good managers. But can these management skills be taught enough to justify going to college to learn them?

A really smart student could memorize all the management theories in the world, ace every test, and still be a lousy manager after graduation. Becoming a great manager involves learning from experience and taking something away from every situation.

There is more than one correct way to manage; what works in one situation may not work in another. So much depends of success depends on the people involved, their personalities and attitudes, their expectations, and much more. Effective management, in any position or type of company, is not something that one can be successful at just by reading a book and following the steps outlined in management theories.   Follett’s business philosophies could work very well in a given situation, but on the other hand, they might not work at all.

Good management skills are not learned from a book. They come from personal experience and growth. Simply having a college degree in management is no guarantee that any given person will have the skills necessary to be a great manager, but it won’t stop people from going to college to get that degree.

Adrift students are not simply the ones who are clueless, as my student’s essay implies. Arum and Roksa present evidence to support what many of us already have observed – students see school as a social and credentialing experience more than one of intellectual growth. In turn, the concluding chapter asks if there is really any onus to reform undergraduate learning, because it’s hard to deny that selling a social experience draws in more students. Are schools really going to turn down building a new luxurious dormitory in favor of expanding the library’s collections? Will professors forgo “good on paper” service learning projects in favor of a Great Books program that is assessed through traditional exams and papers?

Arum and Roksa conclude their book by stating:

A renewed commitment to improving undergraduate education is unlikely to occur without changes to the organizational cultures of colleges and universities that reestablish the institutional primacy of these functions – instilling in the next generation of young adults a lifelong love of learning, an ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and a willingness to embrace and assume adult responsibilities.

These are suggestions we should take seriously. We can start by instilling Arum and Roksa’s ideas in our classes, working with colleagues to have consistent rigorous expectations across classes, or developing honors programs that allow for the truly motivated to be enriched instead of demoralized by low standards.

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Why not use the findings in Academically Adrift as a springboard to try something different?

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