Thoughts on ‘Academically Adrift’: Limited Learning on College Campuses

One of the books I’ve consistently been recommended at the many conferences I’ve attended of late is Academically Adrift. In it, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, two academics, analyze the American higher education system and focus on the quality of learning. Ultimately, they encourage universities to create college environments that enhance learning by concentrating on two essential functions of traditional colleges in the United States.

First, they make an argument that the moral (purpose-driven nature) of higher education needs to be restored. Their argument is not a “Christian” one. Rather, they suggest that purpose and meaning, absent in higher education for at least the last 40 years, needs to be reinvigorated. Students need to pursue purpose for both their own health and that of the culture.

The authors note that, historically, most colleges and universities in the United States have embraced both academic and moral education as an essential part of the mission of the institutions. Of recent days, though, they argue that American higher education “no longer has an adequate basis for establishing a consensus of moral values – other than support for diversity and mutual tolerance – and thus is in the midst of a moral crisis.”

They quote frequently from psychologist William Damon, who examined purpose in his recent work The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. Damon writes, “A growing number of adolescents lack a sense of purpose. Rather than embracing a deliberately chosen path to attain a set of valued goals, college students and other adolescents are argued increasingly to exist in prolonged states of ‘directionless drift’” (quoted in Academically Adrift, p. 75.). Young people have not found “moral grounding” that anchors their ambitions in the tasks, behaviors and practices required to achieve the ends they view as meaningful. Youth today have been unable to develop a sense of purpose in their lives not only because of general changes in parenting and the larger culture, but because schools have turned away from accepting the responsibility for youth socialization and moral education. Damon suggests that questions of meaning and purpose have been squeezed out of the school day – questions that should underlie every academic exercise. Damon comments, “Our obsessive reliance on standardized test scores deters both teacher and students from concentrating on the real mission of schooling: developing a love of learning for learning’s sake – a love that will lead them to self-maintained learning throughout the lifespan” (p. 126-127).

In this context, the authors note that it is important to remember that institutional and individual characteristics shape student lives in college. They suggest that, “although individual-level characteristics are a powerful determinant of many social choices, differing campus cultures influence which options are available or are more widely embraced” (p. 84).

With this premise, the authors stress the importance of residence life programs in forming the learning culture. Many institutions have followed a trajectory of developing single rooms – isolated apartment cultures that do not advance or encourage collaborative activity. In response to this model, the authors quote Lyman Wilbur, former president of Stanford, who noted that “when students are housed together there is developed a strong cooperative sense of loyalty and enthusiasm called the college spirit, which has a profound effect upon the development of the character of the students and upon the welfare of the institution” (p.128). The authors suggest that the residence halls should be designed today to advance learning and to “tie larger communal sentiments to the development of individual purpose and meaning in the lives of undergraduates” (p. 129).

I have worked with Brad Lau and our student life team for almost 12 years now. I was very encouraged when I read Academically Adrift because our student life team is dedicated to developing the type of collaborative community that Roksa and Arum describe. We try to structure our residence communities to reinforce and encourage a collaborative community of learning.

Second, Roksa and Arum focus on more formal learning, and they creatively suggest that learning in college is declining and has been so in American universities since the 1970s. They note, “Many students are not only failing to complete educational credentials; they are also not learning much, even when they persist through higher education” (p. 54).  I know that is a pretty bold statement, but when I finished the book I was convinced that they were right.

According to the authors, the American higher education system is in crisis.  Note this comment: “The typical student meets with faculty outside of the classroom only once per month, with 9 percent of students never meeting with faculty outside the classroom during the previous semester. Although 85 percent of students have achieved a B-minus grade point average or higher, and 55 percent have attained a B-plus grade point average or higher, the average student studies less than two hours a day. Moreover, half of students have not taken a single course that required more than 20 pages of writing, and approximately one-third have not taken courses that required more than 40 pages of reading per week during the prior semester” (p. 88).

In addition, they argue that students are increasingly placed in environments at our institutions that are not centered on learning. Students are encouraged to engage in all kinds of other activities outside the classroom that minimize their growth in academics. “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience. In a recent study of undergraduate student culture at a Midwestern public university, Mary Grigsby notes that 70 percent of students reported that social learning was more important than academics. And while students did not completely disregard academics, they referred to it as work in contrast to social learning, which was regarded as fun” (p. 59).

Still, it would seem that the way we do things now is working fine. Why change? They argue that, for the first time in recent history, many other countries are graduating higher percentages of young people than the United States. When you consider only the most recent cohort of young adults in an analysis of global higher education, the United States finishes sixth. “They are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are” (p. 123). In addition, although 90 percent of employers agree that written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving are very important in the labor market, only 1 in 4 believe that American colleges prepare students well in those areas (p. 143).

So, students have more freedom today, they are placed in environments that encourage focus outside the classroom, and the universities are generally organized for other purposes than learning. That is a rather significant indictment of American colleges. Did the authors find American colleges that actually encourage learning? Yes. What did the authors find that actually stimulates learning?

I don’t think you’ll be surprised at their findings. Arum and Ruksa found primarily that where faculty have high expectations students learn more. Further, universities at which faculty require more than 40 pages a week of reading and more than 20 pages of writing assignments during a semester experience significant increases in student learning performance. The bottom line is that students learn more when they study, and the impetus for study comes from the faculty (p. 93-94). Fascinating! Actual progress in learning is more closely identified with faculty focus and expectation than with technology, equipment or access to libraries. You need good libraries and equipment, but quality facilities do not necessarily enhance learning on your campus.

The authors define seven things that help determine learning: “student faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback (from faculty), time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning” (p. 130). Ultimately, the authors note, all real learning is about culture. “Institutions need to develop a culture of learning if undergraduate education is to be improved. This is not an easy or an overnight process, but one that requires strong leadership . . . Setting student success, and learning in particular, as a priority provides guidance and focus for future action . . .” (p. 127). “We believe that one way for higher-education leaders to communicate a greater sense of institutional purpose is for them to articulate to their respective communities that colleges and universities need to take greater responsibility for shaping the developmental trajectories of students, and to prioritize these organizational goals in decision-making” (p. 127).

After reflecting on Academically Adrift, I am convinced that we are doing many of the right things. We need to continue to focus on learning as our primary goal. In that context, we also need to work to create a facility culture that encourages collaboration and community work among our students and faculty. It is my hope that George Fox will become known as a place where students grow spiritually and learn vibrantly!


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