Four Things I Learned about Students and Faculty from Academically Adrift

Cover of Academically Adrift

Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

Earlier this year, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa created quite a stir with their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Their central claim: if the goal of college is to teach students how to think critically, then colleges are failing at their primary purpose.

With a large sample of more than 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in the study. (36)

Academically Adrift is based on a 2005-07 study of 2,300 students using the College Learning Assessment (CLA) Longitudinal Project, with assessments taken at the beginning of their freshmen year and again midway through their sophomore year. Others are much better qualified than I am to critique the study, so I’m focusing on what I took away from the book as it relates to the Emerging Scholars Network. If you’d like to read more about the study from people in the field, here are a couple of places to start:

Have you read Academically Adrift? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book.

If you have seen other good takes on Academically Adrift, please link to them in the comments. Without diving into the data too closely, here are four things that I learned from the book.

1. Students have high aspirations. I’ve known for a long time that most high school students expect to go to college, and that a large number of undergraduates want to go on to graduate school, but I had no idea that the percentages were so high. According to the authors, more than 90 percent of high school students expect to attend college (35). Meanwhile, in their own research,

81 percent of students in our study planned to attain a graduate degree following the completion of college, with 39 percent expecting this at a doctorate or professional degree level…(75)

It’s a live question whether these student expectations are realistic, or if they are based in anything other than the assumption that more formal education is always better. Even if that’s the case, I see two major opportunities for faculty, campus ministers, and ESN here. First, we can help students discern the right path for themselves, including discovering what kind of work and education they want to pursue. Second, we ought to be helping undergraduates prepare for graduate school.

2. Faculty — and faculty expectations — can make a difference. Within the study, students varied greatly in how much improvement they showed in their CLA scores. One of the key factors was how much reading and writing their professors asked them to do.

…when faculty have high expectations, students learn more. (93)

Specifically, students who took classes that required them to read 40 or more pages per week and to write more than 20 pages over the semester showed higher CLA improvements than other students (94). Interestingly, it was the combination of reading and writing that seemed to make the difference; neither reading nor writing on its own was statistically significant.

3. What you study makes a difference, but how and where makes an even bigger difference. Over the past 30 years, traditional majors (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics) have lost significant ground to more pragmatic majors like business, education, and health. Arum and Roksa, however, found that traditional disciplines correlated to much higher CLA scores, even when students’ starting points were taken into account:

Science/mathematics majors scored 77 points higher than business majors on the 2007 CLA, while social science/humanities majors scored 69 points higher (after adjusting for the 2005 CLA scores). (106)

Part of this gap can be attributed to family and social background (students from better educated families tend to major in natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities), while the school you attend also makes a difference, especially in science and engineering fields. After all these factors are taken into account, faculty expectations stood out again as important factors. Additionally, students who spent time studying by themselves showed larger improvements than students who didn’t.

4. African-American students have a much different college experience than other ethnicities. African-American freshmen scored lower than white students on the CLA (so did Asian and Hispanic students, by the way, but the gap was nowhere near as large) and fell even further behind by their sophomore years:

During their first two years of college, white students gained 41 points [on the CLA] while African-American students gained only 7 points. (39)

The authors attribute these differences to many factors: family background, academic preparation in high school, and the quality of college experience. Highly selective colleges do a much better job than less selective colleges in improving students’ CLA scores, but African-American students are disproportionally underrepresented at these highly selective colleges. In my own reading, I have learned that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) do a much better job of preparing African-American students for graduate degrees. Arum and Roksa studied only 24 colleges and universities, and I wonder if any of those schools were an HBCU. I doubt it.

I could share much more from this fascinating, if possibly flawed, book, but I’m going to end here.

Have you read Academically Adrift? What do you think of their findings? What questions or concerns do you have about this research?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

    Tracy Brisson commented on October 29, 2011 Reply

    Great post. I read Academically Adrift last February and what was striking to me is how the “achievement gap” persists into college graduation. Culturally we still believe that if we can get a kid into a decent college, that closes the gap and the kid has all the opportunities in the world, but based on the data, that’s not even close. I am also disappointed that the media did not pick up on that finding because I think it’s major.

    Interesting stuff on HBCUs, too. I’m going to look at that- thanks!

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