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Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Josipa Roksa; Richard Arum
University of Chicago Press, 2011
272 pp., 25.0

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Jerry Pattengale

The Next Big Test

Is a new assessment agenda adrift?

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi knows 26 languages!" The host of the massive retirement party at Miami University continued, "We counted. We actually went through his piles of publications and counted." While working as Yamauchi's graduate assistant, I observed as he learned Russian for researching the Scythians (for his Foes from the Northern Frontier). He switched from first-year to third-year level courses over Christmas break and earned A's in both.

As Yamauchi's doctoral students, we had a rare firsthand view of his indefatigable nature—and of his similar expectations of us. Try studying Sahidic Coptic, Classical Greek, and German simultaneously. Add two seminar classes with dozens of required books. Next add grading duties. The workload beneath Yamauchi was so stringent that "social life" became oxymoronish. Near my breaking point, I asked Professor Jack Temple Kirby how I could possibly continue. While swirling his Zinfandel, he said with his southern charm, "Jerry, you'll learn to read a book a night whether you can or cannot."

I spent a decade doing coursework that year.

Just as Cyrus Gordon pushed Yamauchi, and Yamauchi us, countless others do the same. No easy rides under James Hoffmeier, Walt Kaiser, David Lyle Jeffrey, George Marsden, Helen Astin, Arthur Holmes, and the like. Yet Academically Adrift , a well-researched indictment of higher education, claims that colleges lack rigor and students aren't learning. Their professors lack high expectations. Students are lazy or preoccupied socially. There seem to be too few Yamauchis and Miami learning cultures.

You don't have to count the bricks in a razed building to prove it has fallen. But if you wanted to, you'd likely want the research acumen of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and the backing of the Social Science Research Council. Arum and Roksa commit 40 percent of Academically Adrift to their "Methodological Appendix," citations, and sources (pp. 145-248). But before you humanities professors turn your examination copies into cartonage, you may actually want to read the book—it is likely a watershed study for accreditation's next preoccupation.

Adrift's inquiry canvas is straightforward, especially since the most common goal in college mission statements is to improve critical thinking skills. "But what if increased educational attainment is not equivalent to enhanced individual capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning?" Utilizing the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), Arum and Roksa conclude that student performance is "disturbingly low"; they find that "a pattern of limited learning is prevalent on contemporary college campuses." Students with harder professors scored higher on the CLA—unsurprisingly, they learned more. However, and counterintuitively, interaction with such professors outside class had little effect on the students' performance on the test.

The merits of the CLA are hotly debated. The Adrift articles posted at Inside Higher Ed (January 18, 2011 and February 8, 2011) include over 100 sharply divided respondents. These include the educational stats guru Cliff Adelman, who calls the CLA a "phony half-test" but also praises one of the sponsors of Arum and Roksa's study, the Lumina Foundation, for its robust Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). If Arum and Roksa have finally given us a standardized test that measures a key part of cognitive development, and are finding American graduates wanting, perhaps the DQP could ensure through outcomes-based measures that students are doing more than simply amassing credits. The ramifications of the CLA and especially the DQP will likely reach into your university's administrative core and your younger colleagues' paperwork before they retire, setting the agenda for assessment.

Of course, to claim that "no significant learning" is taking place at American universities is bogus. You'd have to be a few heat shields short of re-entry to miss that fatal flaw in the over-reaching claims made for this test.

The authors note that 37 percent of students study five or fewer hours alone weekly, and all students average only 12 hours weekly of any study time. Half of the students haven't had a course that requires at least 20 pages of writing; 32 percent of the students had a course the previous semester with only 40 pages of reading required weekly. (Such results make one wonder if these students correlate with the 35 percent nationally that also fail to graduate from college.) The real kicker is that small group or peer study practices have little influence (or even negative influence) on learning gains. Fraternity and sorority involvement has a negative effect on learning. Keep in mind, it's learning measured by the CLA—one aspect of critical thinking gains.

Arum and Roksa's research is tight; so what? Most of the academy has shifted to small group and experiential learning models. Volumes of datasets attest to their value, but not to gains in critical thinking as measured by the CLA. And here's the rub. This book implies that it's the CLA or the highway. If critical thinking is a main missional goal of most universities, and now there's a test that measures this, you had better understand the ramifications. No wonder that major educational groups are saluting Adrift's findings.

And yet it's a book marked by the thumping repetition of a worn-out retread. The authors tell us, for example, that 87 percent of faculty surveyed claim that "promoting students' ability to write effectively is 'very important' or 'essential.' " The book is replete with basic stats restated as if they were new, revealing that "co-authors" varied for each chapter. It is as tedious at times as the middle third of Bleak House, loaded with trite suggestions: "Our findings suggest that high expectations for students and increased academic requirements in syllabi, if coupled with rigorous grading standards that encourage students to spend more time studying, might potentially yield significant payoffs in terms of undergraduate learning outcomes." You don't say?

Tedium aside, the book is bedeviled by inadvertent ironies. The authors note that the large number of private institutions poses a challenge to the needed (mandatory) implementation of the CLA, but they fail to remark that the more effective schools in their own study are also the ones most likely to resist a standardized accountability. According to the CLA, students at modestly selective private universities learn at the highest levels in the academy, and traditional liberal arts majors at both private and public colleges show the strongest learning gains within their institutions. Nevertheless, the authors stubbornly maintain that ALL colleges need "some exogenous shock to the system." Their proposed Sputnik is enforced testing for CLA-defined learning outcomes. After all, providing "rigorous and high-quality educational learning experiences" is a "moral imperative."

To use the CLA to measure what it purports to measure is helpful, but to use it as a proxy measurement for all that happens in institutions of higher education is ill-informed at best. The CLA is much too narrow for that ambitious purpose; it misses the richness of whole-person development. This new test comes at a time when schools like DePaul are rejecting even the hallmark standardized tests, the SAT and the ACT, while Malcolm Gladwell has brilliantly dismantled the effectiveness of data for college rankings by revealing the bias of the structure, similar to the bias regarding what to assess in the complex area of cognition.

Of course, to claim that "no significant learning" is taking place at American universities is bogus. You'd have to be a few heat shields short of re-entry to miss that fatal flaw in the over-reaching claims made for this test. The 2010 Carnegie Professor of the Year, John Zubizarreta, is livid about Adrift's acceptance. After the timely aaup session devoted to the book, he asked me, "How can anyone claim that most students aren't learning? We need someone to stand up and challenge this limited assessment." Tens of thousands of engineers, doctors, and lawyers are walking outliers to this study, not to mention the research-laden Social Science Research Foundation that co-released this research.

That doesn't mean that liberal arts professors can go to their gardens with Candide and Pangloss, complacently assuming they can simply avoid the learning assessment wave. The Teagle Foundation's new book, Literary Study, Measurement, and the Sublime: Disciplinary Assessment, brings an aspect of learning assessment into their very classrooms. Student development personnel, deans, administrators, and education regulators also need to study Adrift and its aftermath, as the last two decades of mega datasets on student success and retention are in tension with the CLA findings.

In short, Adrift is a very mixed bag. Solid research. Precarious claims. If you assign students The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and their understanding of paradigm shifts becomes a lifelong help, does a static CLA score matter? What if Atlas Shrugged prompts them to look more critically at others' motives and capacity? Does the CLA capture this type of learning? Can you imagine a serious reflection on Elie Wiesel's Night not being valuable, even if CLA results are flat? Are small groups really worthless when they correlate with so many gains in other valid tests? Does it make sense to assert that time with a professor outside class is not beneficial, when there are infinite benefits to track and measure?

And if someone tells you that all professors are soft nowadays, you need to take a trip south with me. Yesterday I learned of an elderly professor who recently failed 17 first-year students. Only 17 students were enrolled.

Jerry Pattengale is director of the Green Scholars Initiative and senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute and at Baylor's ISR. He is a Writing Partner for GiANT Impact, executive director of National Conversations, associate publisher for Christian Scholar's Review, and an assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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