Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Review: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is interesting material here with lots of data, but in the end it is utterly unsurprising. Students by and large learn very little in college (except good students, they tend to learn a lot). This can vary across some demographics and different institutions, but still not a lot of learning going on. Partly this is because the students come in quite unprepared for academically rigorous college courses, but also because the college teachers are either more concerned with their own research or overwhelmed by larger and larger classes. Add to this administrators who have little incentive to focus on improving undergraduate education (I’d add as well that they also don’t know how to do this) and you get the situation we have: Students pretend to learn and teachers pretend to teach.

The authors offer reform proposals in the last chapter. Most of these amount to calls to teach undergraduates more rigorously and for the institutions to support that. Noble as that sounds, it seems to miss the core issues. (1) There is little incentive for any of the parties to do this. For students, the credential more than learning matters more (See The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money). For professors, by and large it doesn’t makes sense to engage all that much in improving teaching since the money and prestige is all in publication. And for instructional faculty, there is not a lot of room for career growth so little incentive to invest in improving. And these faculty are teaching such high loads, they have little time or capacity to do so even when they want to. For administration, they have a little to gain from investing in undergraduate education. Like professors, the status and prestige comes from other parts of the university (graduate programs, athletics). As long as students persist and pay tuition, they seem happy. (2) No one really knows how to improve teaching – or to measure how effective teaching is. Each teacher, in each classroom, dealing with different students calls forth many different ways to go about teaching. Each new teaching proposal and technique holds promise and can work--with some teachers, some students, some subjects, some of the time. In many ways, it is a very local problem to solve and no amount of grand reform program is likely to work.

For those really interested in digging into the data, this book could be useful. Otherwise, reading the introduction/summary is all that is really necessary.

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