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Posted at 11:46 AM ET, 01/27/2011

Academically Adrift: Ekman responds to ACTA's Neal

By Daniel de Vise

This guest post is from Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a group of more than 600 independent liberal arts schools and universities.

A recent study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press), and other reports raise the question whether colleges offer a solid education. Ekman_clr.jpgIndeed, a guest blogger on College Inc. last week, Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), claimed the study confirmed ACTA's view that "students aren't learning very much at all in their first two years of college." The Arum/Roksa study does raise doubts about whether students are studying hard and learning enough, but it does not confirm the ACTA view, expressed in its 2009 report, "What Will They Learn?", that students are not studying the "right" subjects. ACTA rates colleges only on whether they require survey courses in specific disciplines: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics and science. This rigid approach led to "F" ratings for such stellar institutions as Swarthmore College and Yale University.

Ms. Neal cites me as agreeing with her that colleges are not doing a good enough job, quoting from a November 20, 2010 interview with College Inc.'s Daniel de Vise, when I said, "I think the criticism that students may not be learning enough in general education resonates with most colleges." But Ms. Neal conveniently leaves out the rest of what I said: "Neal's group overstates the problem. Most general-education curricula require students to choose among highly specified courses -- a student who doesn't read Shakespeare will be taking Milton or Chaucer instead, which isn't bad." The complaint that students are not studying the correct subjects (her favorite: that all college students are no longer required to study Shakespeare) is off the mark. While few colleges have a highly specified curriculum, most allow students only limited choices within set categories. These diverse approaches are good for America, given the different missions, educational philosophies, and distinctive strengths among the 4,633 colleges in the U.S. Parents can be assured that there are very few colleges that will allow their children to study only what they want, and it's worth noting that some of the colleges with the least prescriptive requirements -- Brown University and Amherst College are good examples -- also produce some of the most successful graduates. While it is possible for a cynical student to navigate requirements in order to learn very little, the vast majority of students are eager to take demanding courses and to learn as much as they can during precious college years.

As for the concern about student learning raised in the Arum/Roksa study, the good news is that earlier wake-up calls have already caused colleges and universities to do a lot to improve student learning, reverse grade inflation, and assess how much students learn -- with the goal of improving curriculum and pedagogy. For example, a cohort of 57 colleges and universities that are members of the Council of Independent Colleges' Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) Consortium have been voluntarily using this standardized measure (some for six years now) of what students learn during college. Most of these institutions can point to gains in students' learning. Even Arum and Roksa report that 64 percent of all students demonstrate gains in learning, and that liberal arts and humanities majors do particularly well. "Students majoring in traditional liberal arts fields ... demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time." These results clarify the impression from the Arum/Roksa report that no students are learning. Moreover, the study did not differentiate among types of institutions, other than by selectivity, and we know from many other sources that what students learn at private colleges is significantly more than what students at public institutions learn. This is true for both highly selective and less selective institutions. Smaller, moderately-selective private colleges have shown some of the largest gains in CLA scores.

It's a no-brainer that studying harder produces more learning. The National Survey of Student Engagement, utilized by more than 1,400 colleges and universities, shows that first-year students at private, nonprofit colleges and universities are 28 percent more likely to have spent more than 15 hours per week preparing for class than first-year students at public institutions. Likewise, first-year students at private colleges are 42 percent more likely to have been assigned more than ten books, textbooks, or book-length packs of course readings and 41 percent more likely to have written five or more papers or reports between 5-19 pages in a semester than first-year students at public institutions. And Arum and Roksa note that students who spend more time studying and who take courses with more rigorous demands learn more than others. For student-faculty interactions outside of the classroom--also associated with increased learning--students at private colleges again fare better. In particular, seniors at smaller private colleges are 30 percent more likely to have talked about post-graduation plans with faculty members than seniors at large public universities. It stands to reason, then, that students attending private college that place strong emphasis on the liberal arts and make greater demands in their academic work--more reading, more writing, and more interaction with faculty members--exhibit greater amounts of cognitive growth.

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By Daniel de Vise  | January 27, 2011; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Research, Students  | Tags:  ACTA Anne Neal, ACTA What Will They Learn, Academically Adrift, CIC Richard Ekman, collegiate learning assessment  
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Ekman is correct that Anne Neal's column in this space was misleading to the point of intellectual dishonesty. (That, unfortunately, is par for the course for ACTA). He is also correct that NSSE has long shown that students in liberal arts colleges are more academically engaged than students at any other kind of institution, including Research I universities. However, students at liberal arts colleges shine only in comparison with the truly wretched performance of students at other universities. Rather than taking that wretched performance as his point of comparison, Ekman and the leaders of these colleges should aim for the Carnegie norm of two hours of study per hour of class time. As Ekman knows, even the students at liberal arts colleges fall far short of this norm.

Posted by: dissentingwren | January 27, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

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