Rarely is the Question Asked: Is Our Professors Teaching? Part III

Randall Stephens

Guess what? Many college students do not learn analytical and writing skills during the four years they spend in college. Students don't study. Courses are not demanding. Collaborative learning does not work like professors think or hope it does. . .

Or, so argues a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. More and more students--more likely parents--are throwing down the cash for college. But the authors ask: "are undergraduates really learning anything once they get there?"

Last week the Chronicle highlighted Academically Adrift and the authors' controversial findings. (David Glenn, "New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps," Chronicle, January 18, 2011.) Arum and Roksa tracked 2,000 students at 24 four-year colleges. Thirty-six percent of these students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment essay test showed no significant improvement from their freshman to senior year.

Arum and Roksa certainly have their critics. The study asked too few questions about collaborative learning, say some. Others say that the study, limited in scope, should not challenge the whole undergraduate enterprise.

But, overall, the findings should give us pause. "Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa don't see any simple remedies for the problems they have identified," writes David Glenn in the Chronicle. "They discovered more variation in CLA-score gains within institutions than across institutions, and they say there are no simple lessons to draw about effective and ineffective colleges." Still, Glenn points out that business and education programs in Texas colleges require that students "take only a small number of writing-intensive courses." The path of least resistance.

Are students today less likely to major in history when the workload is high and the perceived payoff is so low? ("So I'm going to spend all this time reading primary and secondary works just so I can be unemployed after four years of reading, writing, and reading some more?") Five years ago Robert Townsend noted in Perspectives that: "Information from the latest Department of Education (DoE) report (pertaining to the years 1997–98 to 2001–02) suggests that in the competition for students, history lost ground while the total number of undergraduate students at colleges and universities grew quite quickly." I haven't see more recent data, but I can't help but think that there are fewer majors today then there were 20 years ago.

Perhaps history departments could do a better job of emphasizing the portable skills students learn in the major. Why not stress in clear terms that history trains students to think critically and to write clearly? I have my students read Peter Stearns excellent essay, "Why Study History," for this very reason. They learn that history students gain: "The Ability to Assess Evidence. . . . The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations. . . . Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change." Stearns ably shows that "Work in history also improves basic writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential." I've also had students read Heather's excellent post on this subject from our blog. She noted: "History is the study of how and why things happen. What creates change in human society? What stops it? Why do people act in certain ways? Are there patterns in human behavior? What makes a society successful? . . . . When you study history, you’re not just studying the history of, for example, colonial America. You’ll learn a great deal about the specifics of colonial America in such a class, of course, but you’ll also learn about the role of economics in the establishment of human societies and about how class and racial divisions can either weaken the stability of a government or be used to shore it up."

Sounds like a cure for the "I-learned-little-in-four-years-of-college" blues.