Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oh great. Students are studying even less!?

As if helping students learn isn't hard enough: The time students devote to studying is in long term decline:
It is a fundamental part of college education: the idea that young people don’t just learn from lectures, but on their own, holed up in the library with books and, perhaps, a trusty yellow highlighter. But new research, conducted by two California economics professors, shows that over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping. According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.

Obviously, this trend undermines one of the central assumptions of the collegiate learning experience:
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: The central bargain of a college education — that students have fairly light classloads because they’re independent enough to be learning outside the classroom — can no longer be taken for granted. And some institutions of higher learning have yet to grapple with, or even accept, the possibility that something dramatic has happened.

Studying has long been considered a key part of a college student’s growth, both as a means to an end — a deeper understanding of the subject matter — and as a valuable habit in its own right. A person who can self-motivate to learn, academics argue, is not only more likely to be a productive worker, but more fulfilled citizen. As a result, universities for decades have stated — sometimes officially — that for every hour students spend in class each week they are expected to be studying for two hours on their own.

 And some of the expected explanations don't seem to wash:
According to the skeptics of the findings, there is one other notable change: Today’s students are working with more efficient tools when they do finally sit down to study. They don’t have to bang out a term paper on a typewriter; nor do they need to wander the stacks at the library for hours, tracking down some dusty tome.

“A student doesn’t need to retype a paper three times before handing it in,” said Heather Rowan-Kenyon, an assistant professor of higher education at Boston College. “And a student today can sit on their bed and go to the library, instead of going to the library and going to the card catalog.”
That’s true, Babcock and Marks agree. But according to their research, the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14). Nor do they believe student employment or changing demographics to be the root cause. While they acknowledge that students are working more and campuses attract students who wouldn’t have bothered attending college a generation ago, the researchers point out that study times are dropping for everyone regardless of employment or personal characteristics.
And I certainly don't think I have been a party to the "nonaggression pact" put forth as one explanation:
One theory, offered by Babcock and Marks, suggests that the cause, or at least one of them, is a breakdown in the professor-student relationship. Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, they suggest, is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.

“No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class,” Marks said. “To make a tough assignment, you have to write it, grade it. Kids come into office hours and want help on it. If you make it too hard, they complain. Other than the sheer love for knowledge and the desire to pass it on to the next generation, there is no incentive in the system to encourage effort.”

The problem dates back to the 1960s, said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California Berkeley. Sperber, at the time, was a graduate student at Berkeley and was part of an upstart movement pushing for students to rate their professors. The idea, Sperber said, was to give students a chance to express their opinions about their classes — a noble thought, but one that has backfired, according to many professors. Course evaluations have created a sort of “nonaggression pact,” Sperber said, where professors — especially ones seeking tenure — go easy on the homework and students, in turn, give glowing course evaluations.
 The simplest explanation? In order to study, you have to know how!
But one sign that studying still has value is that students themselves are concerned about it. In a 2008 survey of more than 160,000 undergraduates enrolled in the University of California system, students were asked to list what interferes most with their academic success. Some blamed family responsibilities, some blamed jobs. The second most common obstacle to success, according to the students, was that they were depressed, stressed, or upset. And then came the number one reason, agreed upon by 33 percent of students, who said they struggled with one particular problem “frequently” or “all the time”: They simply did not know how to sit down and study.
And are there pedagogical avenues to increasing study time? This is advice I've always tried to follow.
Professors are being told to give explicit tasks to students. Just telling them to read these days is often considered “too generic, too general of a request,” said Kinzie. And many professors today are using Internet-based systems, like Blackboard, where students are required to log on and write about the assigned reading for all of their classmates to see.
So in Lenin's famous words: "What is to be done?"


  1. I really don't see why the assumption is that students are slacking off rather than they are studying more efficiently. Studying is ultimately a means to an end: perfect students would study very little because they'd get the material on the first pass.

    Just because one pokes a few holes in the information technology explanation doesn't mean that there can't be some other source of effiency. For instance, style of teaching has presumably changed since 1961. Or perhaps the students themselves been able to cram information into their heads faster, rather than merely the technology they use. (Perhaps TV has made us more accustomed to taking in information by listening to people talk?) Also, in 1961 far fewer people went to college, so it may have been the case that people subconsciously studied more than they actually needed to reaffirm to themselves that they were in the high elite of learners.

    I repeat that it's of course very possible that studying less is having a negative effect. But without providing concrete evidence that shows that students actually are learning less, the article (the Boston Globe article, anyway. Haven't actually seen the paper) just feels like it's appealing to people's natural biases to consider "the young people" lazy and immoral and to long for the "good old days."

  2. I'm not sure how to answer the question. I've tried quizzes, threats of bad grades if you don't read, mini-"sermons" on why reading is good for you. We probably need to try several things to give extrinsic and encourage intrinsic motivation to read and study. In the end, we will have to accept that some or many of our students, especially at the introductory level, just do not and will not read. Having said that, we still need to encourage those who do read to continue to do so by rewarding their efforts in some way, and helping those on the fence to actually crack open their books and read. I'm considering calling on students by name in class as I ask them questions about the reading, something that I haven't done much. It happens in foreign language and math class all the time, so perhaps this is one more thing to do?

  3. I very rarely call on students by name, partly because I hated being called on so much in high school that it affected my ability to learn. I want my students to listen, think, and speak, not pray that they won't be called on. It's also possible to read a philosophical text and yet still be unable to answer questions about it. The idea, I guess, is that students who can't answer the question will be embarrassed and so make sure they are better prepared next time. But I'm not sure about using embarrassment as a weapon or tool (for ethical reasons), and I'm not sure that it would actually work with my students. I can imagine some laughing off their lack of preparation, or even taking pride in it.

    On the other hand, having said all that, the least satisfied of my students last semester complained precisely about my not doing this. So I'm curious what other people have to say for and against it.


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