College Students Lack Critical Thinking Skills, But Who’s To Blame?
A new study suggests that American universities are failing in what is supposed to be one of the their core missions:
NEW YORK — An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.
Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.
Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.
Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.
Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.
The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.
Perhaps most the most interesting thing about the study is the manner in which the results seem skewed by field of study:
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”
Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.
That’s welcome news to liberal arts advocates.
I would think it would be, but on some level such an analysis would seem to ignore the reasons that students go to college today. Unlike in the past, when a college education was viewed as an opportunity for learning, there seems to be more of a focus today on learning skills that will lead to a high rate of monetary return after college. Majoring in history or political science may help you to learn to think critically, and that is a skill that is valuable in fields like medicine and law, but its unlikely to lead to the same level of monetary reward as someone who pursues, say, a Masters In Business Administration. On some level, colleges have become vocational school almost as much as they are “institutions of higher learning.” I’m not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing, but it’s the world that we live in and it’s unlikely to change.
Ann Althouse, who teaches law at the University of Wisconsin, wonders why the study concentrates so much on the students and not the professors:
I’d like a study analyzing whether the professors know how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument, and objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.
It strikes me as a fair point considering that it is sort of difficult to teach someone a skill you don’t possess yourself.
Another blogger points out that this isn’t just an indictment of college education in the U.S.:
By the time our kids get to college it is too late to change habits por learn new skills that should have been taught to them in grade k-12 in my opinion. This study does not merely condemn colleges, it throws a harsh light on our primary education system on this country. In general, the US doesn’t pay our teachers well (compared to other professions and other nations), nor do we reward them for excellence, nor do we often provide them with a system that accurately assesses their efforts (i.e., No child left behind ring any bells?).
This is a fair point. Students do not walk into college blank slates, but as products of the education they received for twelve years before that. If colleges are failing at their primary mission, it isn’t necessarily their fault.