Local: Education

Are college students academically adrift?

Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
The recently published book "Academically Adrift" by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa paints a grim picture of student higher learning. Two thousand and three hundred students in 24 institutions were tracked throughout college and tested three times for writing ability and reasoning skills. Only 55 percent had improved during their first two years, and as seniors that number had only increased to 64 percent. The bottom line is that 36 percent of those seniors showed no improvement in writing or critical thinking as a result of their college educations.

The essay test used to measure their learning is the College Learning Assessment, subject of some of my recent columns. Designed to measure students' ability to problem solve, the CLA asks students to answer a question based on a series of documents that can range from informal e-mails to newspaper articles to technical drawings and graphs. They must evaluate the merits of those documents, and compose a reasoned argument in response. (One sample question uses documents related to a small plane crash and asks students to make a recommendation to an employer thinking of buying a similar plane.)

What kids are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. The books below are a continuation of last week's list.
Publishers Weekly best children's books 2010
1. It's a Book by Lane Smith (ages 4 to 8)
2. A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead and Erin Stead (ages 4 to 8)
3. The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska (ages 4 to 8)
4. City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems and Jon Muth (ages 4 to 8)
5. Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems (ages 4 to 8)
6. Art and Max by David Wiesner (ages 4 to 8)
7. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (young adult)
8. Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (ages 9 to 12)
9. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (young adult)
10. Matched by Ally Condie (young adult)

This is the sort of task students will be asked to do in the future -- whether they are doctors, teachers or lawyers. Doctors need to decide the value of studies with preliminary findings of serious side effects in certain medications, teachers need to evaluate contradictory information about the effectiveness of particular teaching techniques, and lawyers can spend much of their time weighing the relative worth of eyewitness accounts. Reality is never simple, and the CLA test thrusts the student into the messy world of hearsay and contradiction as well as statistics (both reliable and unreliable.)

The CLA also asks students to "make an argument" and "break an argument" in well-organized essays. These questions measure more than writing ability; students' reasoning skills are an integral part of the writing process. In the "break an argument" essay, for instance, students need to evaluate whether the point of view presented is supported by convincing facts. Once again, nearly every workplace environment demands an ability to argue for or against decisions and issues.

Should we be upset that fewer than two-thirds of college graduates know how to do these tasks? Yes and no. For most of us, college consists of figuring out what's required in particular courses, meeting those standards, and repeating that process until graduation. Real-world skills? Those we learn out in the real world.

Would it be a good idea to present college students with real-world performance tasks similar to the ones on the CLA? Of course! But training teachers to incorporate those activities into their entrenched curricula is an uphill effort -- one that has largely eluded the professional development workshops offered by the scholars who developed the test.

In the absence of widespread training of college teachers -- a huge expense that isn't about to take place in this fiscal climate -- the workplace will have to be the "teacher" that presents our students with tasks requiring sophisticated problem solving. College performance will continue to be based on the widely variant standards of each individual course. Many of our students are not so much "academically adrift" as "academically delayed."

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at

View article comments Leave a comment