Reform College by Making Learning a Priority

Academically AdriftIn Academically Adrift Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue, with substantial empirical evidence, that most college students in the U.S. improve little or not at all in writing and critical thinking. These findings constitute a mandate for reform, while another—that under certain conditions some students learn quite a bit—gives the mandate moral and practical urgency. For Arum and Roksa, improving learning is not only the right thing to do, it’s also possible and it’s what’s best for colleges and their constituencies, which include, finally, the world in which college graduates will or will not make a positive difference (p. 144).

Few readers of Academically Adrift have missed the significance of Arum and Roksa’s claims about how little students learn. But too many overlook what they say about how to improve. While the particular reforms they put forward are ones we’ve heard before (and need to hear again), they articulate them clearly and forcefully—and do so on the heels of an empirical demonstration of why learning needs to improve.

Make Learning a Priority, Everyone

The most crucial reform: everyone involved in higher education must make learning a priority. Adapting a term sometimes used in K-12 education, they describe this process as “academic press” (p. 129). For Arum and Roksa, we all have a part:

  • Students can socialize less and study more (p. 120).
  • K-12 educators can work less on “improving students’ standardized test scores” and more on “developing a love of learning” (p. 126-27).
  • Doctoral programs can better prepare doctoral students to be effective teachers (p. 133).
  • Government agencies can invest more heavily in higher education, for instance, through grants for improving learning (p. 142).
  • College administrators can “develop a culture of learning” by providing “the vision” for learning, hiring people “committed to undergraduate learning,” and increasing “support for student academic and social development.” They can also prioritize “rigorous academic instruction” over “cater[ing] to student consumers”—even if doing so means “sacrificing” “personally, professionally, or institutionally” (p. 127-29).
  • College teachers can improve their pedagogy. (More on this below.)
Don’t Repeat NCLB at the College Level

Arum and Roksa acknowledge that some people would like to see “coercive accountability” in higher education, that is to say, “externally mandated accountability systems . . . similar to the ones required and promoted in elementary and secondary school systems through policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)” (pp. 140, 137). They also acknowledge that this “may appear as an attractive policy option to legislators and policy makers frustrated with the current state of undergraduate education.” But they insist that such an option would not work, at least not “in the near term” (p. 140).

Why not? Simply put, no method for assessing learning exists adequate to the task. Even though current studies and instruments do provide useful information, “the measurement and understanding of learning processes in higher education are considerably underdeveloped” (p. 141). To put it another way, “we are simply not at a state of scientific knowledge where college students’ learning outcomes can be measured with sufficient precision to justify embracing a coercive accountability system . . .” (p. 141). This argument is particularly notable given that they include their own attempts and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) on which they base many of their findings (p. 140).

Improving Pedagogy

Of the slate of reforms that Arum and Roksa argue for, the one most closely connected to the particulars of their own study also seems the most important, the most interesting, and the most likely to enable other necessary reforms. While no one reform will solve a problem that has no one cause, improving college teachers’ pedagogy seems most likely to make an immediate and profound difference.

Arum and Roksa found that students who perceived that their teachers had high expectations of them and who were asked to read and write substantial amounts improved substantially more than those who missed out on these things (p. 93-97). Effective teaching certainly involves more than just expectations, reading, and writing. Still, the strong connection found between these practices and learning more than justifies the argument for paying attention to pedagogy.

In an important passage from the book’s conclusion, Arum and Roksa write:

At the core, changing higher education to focus on learning will require transforming students’ curricular experiences—not only the time they spend sitting in their chairs during a given class period, but everything associated with coursework, from faculty expectations and approaches to teaching to course requirements and feedback. Scholarship on teaching and learning has burgeoned over the past several decades and has emphasized the importance of shifting attention from faculty teaching to student learning. Once student learning is the focus of the enterprise, faculty can attend to strategies that improve it. (p. 131)

They ask college teachers to learn more about teaching, to improve their own teaching, and to ask more of students. They point to the “burgeon[ing]” scholarship on teaching and learning, work by Chickering and Gamson, National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), Wabash National Study, and Harvard Project Zero as resources for improving (pp. 130-31).

In discussing this research, they single out “active and collaborative” learning as particularly important. However, while noting that the “preference for active engagement in the learning process over passive acquisition of information can hardly be disputed,” they also suggest that “what ‘active/collaborative’ learning really entails in the day-to-day activities of the classroom” should not be taken for granted. They caution that such approaches “are likely conducive only in specifically structured contexts that focus students’ attention appropriately on learning” (pp. 132-33). In other words, while active and collaborative methods can be effective in ways that passive methods cannot, they carry no guarantee. How effective any approach will be depends, among other factor, on how well it is implemented—which underscores, again, how important it is for teachers to develop their own pedagogical knowledge and skill.

To put it plainly, most college teachers “are not very skilled” at using active and collaborative approaches to teaching (p. 133). Of course, that should not be a surprise, given that most college teachers “receive little if any formal instruction on teaching” and given that many of the graduate programs they come from “deprioritize and perhaps even devalue teaching” (p. 133).

The bottom line is that teachers need to develop their pedagogy and that colleges and universities need to support them in doing so. While certain teachers and programs have no doubt made important and effective innovations, Arum and Roksa argue that:

transformational change will remain elusive as long as the principle tenants of the academy remain in place: as long as teaching remains a solitary activity as opposed to one that is shared and valued in community; as long as faculty members spend little time reflecting on teaching or engaging in the scholarship of teaching, and have little incentive to do so; as long as a doctorate is fundamentally defined as a research degree, as opposed to at least to some extent as a teaching degree. (p. 134)

Can Reform Work? Differences Among Schools Suggests It Can

In outlining their findings about how little students learn, Arum and Roksa stress that some schools promote learning better than others (p. 114). Part of this can be accounted for by the fact that different schools enroll students with different academic inclinations and abilities. But even when they controlled for initial scores, socioeconomics, and academic background, they still found that “students in some institutions experienced larger gains than others” (115). While they never suggest that any schools are “getting it right” completely—the better schools only do relatively better—what these differences demonstrate is that “specific activities and experiences in college can either facilitate or thwart learning” (p. 114).

In other words, what we do matters. And we can change what we’re doing to better promote learning.

This post, the second of two on Academically Adrift, deals with Arum and Roksa’s proposals for reform. The first post looks at their findings about how little most students are learning and why.

2 responses to “Reform College by Making Learning a Priority

  1. Pingback: While Most Students Don’t Learn, Some Do | Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.·

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