College Rust Out

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Concern that American college students may not be learning much during their years in school is not new; nor is it confined to think tanks like the Pope Center.  Back in 1999, the Pew Charitable Trusts made a grant to Indiana University to develop a means of probing the question of student achievement.  What emerged was the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a program designed to measure the extent to which students are active participants in their education.  If there is evidence that students are really engaged in their college work, that is at least indicative of educational progress – and vice versa.

NSSE accumulates data by sending a questionnaire to a large number of college freshmen and seniors.  For the 2006 survey, more than one million were sent to students in the US and Canada.  The schools those students attend range from the most prestigious to the least.  Institutions, however, have to choose to participate and not all do.  In North Carolina, all of the UNC campuses participated, along with 24 of the independent colleges and universities.  (The two best-known of the independents, Duke and Wake Forest, chose not to participate.) Results are based on approximately 260,000 randomly selected responses. 

The questions cover a wide range of school-related matters.  One set of questions deals with the level of academic challenge and asks students, among other things, about the amount of written work they have to do, the number of books assigned, the intellectual depth of the coursework, and the amount of time they devote to their studies.  Another set of questions seeks to find out how much active and collaborative learning students do, asking for example how often they make class presentations or discuss course ideas outside of class.  Another set of questions deals with faculty-student interaction – for example, how often students discuss class material with instructors out of class. The last two sets of questions ask whether students have enriching educational experiences
(such as internships or clinical assignments) and whether they regard the campus environment as supportive.

Before looking at the results, it’s worth observing that the student responses are not verifiable.  If a student overstates the amount of time devoted to studying, there is no way to know that. Moreover, many of the questions ask the student to make distinctions between imprecise responses – for example between “sometimes” and “often.” And some questions are very subjective, such as how often you “worked harder than you thought you could to meet an instructors standards or expectations.” Despite the imprecision of the survey, it certainly yields a good deal of useful information.

The most revealing question asked students how many hours per week they spent in preparing for class.  Most students apparently don’t spend much time studying. The question breaks the amount of study time into 5-hour increments (1 to 5, 6 to 10, etc.).
On the whole, 66 percent of freshmen and 64 percent of seniors say that they devote 15 or fewer hours to class preparation per week.  (The results are broken down by type of school, but there is surprisingly little difference in the amount of studying reported by students at top research universities and students at colleges offering only a baccalaureate degree.)  Only 18 percent of freshmen and 20 percent of seniors report that they study 21 hours per week or more.

The average amount of study time is roughly half the amount that professors think is necessary for adequate progress.  Students find that college is a fun environment and most of them decide that they don’t want class preparation to get in the way of other activities.

Another key question asked about writing assignments.  The decline in the assignment of major papers seems confirmed in the student replies: 82 percent of freshmen and 48 percent of seniors say that they never have to write papers of 20 pages or more. Shorter papers are far more common, but more than a third report that they never or less than 5 times a year have to write papers of 5 pages or less.  What we don’t know is how demanding those papers are – do they call for a good deal of research, or mostly personal feelings? – and how carefully they are graded.  Even so, the NSSE figures show that many college students get little practice in writing.  The weakness in writing ability among American graduates has been the subject of much criticism among employers, as the
National Commission on Writing reported.

Student engagement or lack thereof is also reflected in the degree to which they discuss course ideas and material outside of class.  Those who are mentally “plugged in” to their studies are likely to get into discussions outside of class often. Sadly, the NSSE data appear to show that large numbers of students are only marginally interested in their coursework since they say that they only “sometimes” or never discuss it.  Even at top research universities, 45 percent of freshmen and 38 percent of seniors give those responses. In this respect, liberal arts colleges have the highest level of student engagement, with 62 percent of freshmen and 69 percent of seniors saying that they “often” or “very often” discuss course ideas outside of class.

Similarly, the data show that very few students engage with faculty members outside of class, with the great majority of them reporting that they never (43 percent for freshmen and 28 percent for seniors) or only “sometimes” (39 percent for freshmen and 45 percent for seniors) discuss class ideas with faculty members outside of class.

All in all, NSSE gives a picture of American college students that tells us that many  appear to coast through their courses without putting in a great deal of effort.  This view is entirely consistent with the data in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy showing low and declining levels of literacy among college graduates. 

In his revelatory book Beer and Circus, Murray Sperber quoted a University of Missouri student:  “Most students here, except for the journalism majors, feel they don’t need to try hard [in classes] and they can get by and get their degree. You find that when you walk into your first class here….Most Mizzou students are satisfied with easy schoolwork because other things are more important to them, mostly partying and following the Tigers.”

NSSE confirms that that attitude toward college work is widespread.

George Leef is the Director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.