Friday, March 30, 2012

Issues with undergraduate rigor

Academically adriftIf you think students are arriving at law school less prepared than in the past, it’s not just your imagination, according to Dr. Richard Arum. Today I heard Arum, the author of Academically Adrift, discuss his study of undergraduate learning at a wide range of colleges and universities. His conclusion: “The picture is dismal.” A disheartening 36% of his student subjects did not improve during college on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which tests critical thinking, problem solving, and writing. Many of his subjects did very little reading and writing in college, and on average, the subjects spent only 28 hours a week in class and study time combined.  If law students follow the usual recommendation to study three or four hours for each hour in class, they will need to devote more than twice that amount of time to their studies.

Students in almost all other developed countries study more than those in Arum's study. In the U.S., the time students spend studying has declined since 1960, while grades have gone up. One cause of this paradoxical phenomenon, Arum said, is student evaluations of professors—or, as he called them, “consumer satisfaction surveys.” Professors know that to do well on them, they should entertain, not be too tough, and give good grades. 

Interestingly, when he checked with his subjects a year or two after graduation, Arum found that, among those who sought employment rather than attending graduate school, those most likely to be employed had shown the most improvement on the CLA during college.

To address the decreasing rigor in U.S. colleges, Arum stressed that a No Child Left Behind for universities is not the answer, partly because that approach does not foster critical thinking.  Instead, university trustees, administrators, and faculty need to invest in learning, partly by changing incentives. It’s well known to K-12 educators that students do better when teachers have high expectations. College professors, Arum concluded, should not ask little while giving out good grades freely. For more, check his website.


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