About once a week all summer long I've checked our online library catalog to see whether a certain book was available. First it hadn't arrived and then it was being processed and then, nanoseconds after it became available for checkout, someone nabbed it. Every week I've looked at that little notation in the online catalog, the one that says "Due 8-15-11," hoping that whoever borrowed it would return it before August. It is, after all, a fairly quick read, with only 144 pages of text plus an extensive methodological appendix--and if you skip the appendix, you can read it in an afternoon. But apparently the borrower is a very slow reader, because every week all summer long it kept saying "Due 8-15-11."
Finally 8-15-11 arrived, and what did I see in the online catalog? "Due 8-15-11." In fact, it still says that. So we're dealing not only with a spectacularly slow reader but with a spectacularly slow reader who can't be bothered to return a library book.
Well, phooey on that. I ordered the book via Ohiolink and read it in an afternoon, but did that make me happy? No it did not.
The book is Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which I suppose every academic in the country has already read and digested and commented upon (except for Mr. Exceptionally Slow Reader Who Can't Be Bothered to Return Library Books). The argument is simple: Arum and Roksa studied whether college students show improvement in certain important skills during their first two years of college, and the answer is: not really.
Of course that's a ridiculous oversimplification but one consistent with the tone and content of the book. "Three semesters of college education thus have a barely noticeable impact on students' skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing," say Arum and Roksa on page 35, and they hammer that message over and over. Their conclusions are based on a longitudinal study of students at various types of colleges and universities who took the College Learning Assessment test before starting college and again in the second semester of the sophomore year.
The study has sparked a great deal of critique since it was published last year, but Arum and Roksa counter many of those arguments within the text--and they plan to publish additional results showing how those same students fare after four years of college. Even a skeptic should sit up and take notice of statements like this one: "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 our study" (Arum and Roksa 36). That's right: almost half of the students showed no significant improvement at all.
I was more cheered when Arum and Roksa considered the "college experiences and contexts that facilitate student learning" (57). They conclude that spending more time studying improves learning (no surprise), but only if students study alone. At first glance, the alarming graph on page 101 seems to suggest that studying with friends makes students dumber. Surely I am missing something here.
Arum and Roksa examine a variety of factors but the point they emphasize over and over is that the students most likely to show improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing are those required to read at least 40 pages per week and write at least 20 pages per semester. It's no wonder, then, that students enrolled in programs in the humanities and sciences performed better and improved more on the CLA than those in programs like business or nursing. I'm happy to teach in a program that is part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
And I'm happy that I finally had a chance to read the book everyone's been talking about, because my colleague and I have constructed a whole series of events designed to counter the idea that we must be academically adrift. Academically Empowered is this year's theme for our Center for Teaching Excellence, with various events and workshops falling under categories called Fuel Up, Tune Up, Rev Up, Pit Stop, Recharge, and Finish Line. Workshop presenters will receive a very special thank-you gift: a copy of Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa.
So you see why I had to read the book. I may not understand all the statistics or agree with all of its conclusions, but if it gets people to talk about why we do what we do in the classroom, then we all ought to read it.
Except Mr. Exceptionally Slow Reader Who Can't Be Bothered to Return Library Books. Someone should brutally demand his library card.