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Academically Adrift November 21, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Uncategorized.
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I finally read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. It’s created quite the discussion about colleges since its release a couple of years ago. Using the results of a survey instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the authors conclude that college students don’t develop their critical thinking and writing skills very much during the course of their collegiate careers. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but the authors largely blamed lack of rigor in college class work and assignments. I won’t get into the details of the book, but some excellent summaries and analyses can be found at Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Several things struck me about the book. For one, the growth in critical thinking skills appears to be greatly influenced by what school you attend. More selective colleges generally seem to foster greater growth in CLA scores. There’s also significant variation in CLA scores between majors, with Business and Education faring poorly. When I saw the disparity, my first thought is that maybe the survey instrument is just not capturing the different types of learning and instruction that occurs across majors. I’m not well versed in the methodology and analysis of the CLA, though, so I could be wrong about that. I found one of the more disheartening themes of the book to be that socioeconomic  and ethnic status has a big impact on CLA scores. If your parents are white, have advanced degrees and higher socioeconomic status, then you’re more likely to do well. This corresponds with other studies and commentaries I’ve read that argue college simply perpetuates class differences rather than eliminating them. Finally, I’d like to see a study that teases out the connection between tenure status, courseload and student performance. The authors argue that professors and instructors should expect more of students, but they don’t account for the increasing use of adjunct and untenured instructors whose individual workloads are increasing, mostly because it was beyond the scope of the study and the data available. I don’t have an opinion one way or another on that, but I’d like to know more about that.

How do these research findings affect libraries? Steven Bell has a few thoughts over at Library Journal. He asks how much impact we can have on students’ critical thinking skills when we don’t see them nearly as often as their professors, which is a good question. I have some other questions: how should these findings affect library instruction, if at all? What kinds of services can we offer to help facilitate learning? Arum and Roksa note that group projects and studying together were correlated with lower CLA scores than were individual writing and studying alone. How does this inform our responses to student requests for more group study rooms and open study spaces? I don’t have any answers to these questions, and many of the issues raised are highly complex and require thought across campuses and across the country. But this thought-provoking book provides a good place to start exploring them.