Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Academically Adrift Part 5: When College Education Absolutely Has to Work

 I had a surreal experience teaching philosophy once. I was applying for a temporary job and got invited down to give a sample class. It was an introduction to ethics class and the reading was chosen ahead of time (Epictetus's Enchiridion). And when I got there to teach the class, every student was on-time, patient, and ruthlessly prepared. They'd read all of Epictetus, written down questions about his position, challenges to his position, and connections to other topics in the moral philosophy they'd read so far. In class, after my brief introduction, there was a  mini-competition amongst students to see who could impress me the most with his or her preparedness and help his or her fellow students at the same time. It was incredible. I'd walked into a classroom at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

I didn't end up taking the job. The hours were too demanding for a grad student in the last stages of his thesis. But it was all I could think about when I was reading Chapter 4. I don't think college professors needed to be told that students are spending less and less time on studying and other learning related activities. But it's nice that Arum and Roska actually give us numbers. That 75% of student time is spent either socializing or sleeping tells volumes about the amount of learning one can expect. It's not the worst theory to guess that classes with "rigor" (basically extensive requirements backed up by a credible threat of doing very poorly in the class) work the magic they do because they give strong incentives to take a little time back from the 75% and redirect it to academic work.

The consequence of not running good military academies is having a bad military. Highly armed, under-educated officer corps are a recipe for despotism and deadly accidents in the field. So military academies absolutely have to work. The fact that we don't see the same worry about the consequences in the rest of the academy can keep one up at night. (And I take it that's what Martha Nussbaum's book — the subject of our last ISW bookclub — was supposed to do.)

Obviously I don't think the solution is to run all academic institutions like military academies, but the results are impressive and bear further investigation. If it turns out that the results aren't merely a consequence of forcing students to follow orders, perhaps the rest of academia could benefit from some of the ways that military academies educate future officers. And I don't see any reason why we should assume that the results are merely the effects of threatened punishments. That technique may be effective in the field, but ultimately the kind of students I saw in the classroom that day have to be the product of a culture of learning.

So aside from a threat of punishment, what do military academies do in order to get such good student outcomes? My answers are speculative and anecdotal (if anyone else has actual literature or experience, please educate me), but here they are:

  1. Military academies offer a clear career path to students who progress and excel in school.
  2. Military academies establish a culture of learning centered around respect for officers and professors.
  3. Early on, military academies grab the opportunity to define the college experience as something other than socializing.

Perhaps all three are necessary, but (1) involves the (in my opinion mistaken) strategy of designing college curriculums around business needs as opposed to social needs. (2) would of course be nice, and something like it is probably true at upper-echelon universities, but ultimately it may be a larger cultural problem that universities can do little to solve. That leaves us with (3).

I don't have a lot of specific suggestions on how to accomplish (3), but the recent trends aren't good. Students arrive on campus the week before school starts and attend orientation weeks that are increasingly social affairs. Student retention experts say correctly that these activities dramatically increase the chances that students will gel with a couple of friends and thus have a social experience that will keep them at the university. But while this may be true, it also gives in to the picture that college is free time with your friends that is occasionally interrupted by classes and classwork. Professors are also largely invisible on campus until classes start, as we have turned over the first-week duties to administration.

If the state of student learning is dire (and if we are to believe Academically Adrift, it is), then it might not be the worst time to re-think what students experience when they first get to college. The model I'm imagining is a little like West Point's Cadet Basic Training without all the grenades, guns, and yelling. (West Point has apparently been taking strides to turn itself into a better liberal arts institution.) A university could make a big name for itself by opening two weeks early and requiring students to attend a class in which they have a highly regimented routine, eat meals together, participate in (ethically acceptable) rituals, do memory drills, have opportunities for physical exercise, take inventories of their current levels of knowledge and preparation, and so on. Sort of like Hogwarts, but for muggle university students. A program like this seems like one of the few things that might be able to change student priorities and prepare students for the academic rigor that professors will be called upon to provide in the near future.


  1. I used to dismiss all military people as un-intellectual. UNTIL I did an internship with the US Army JAG Corps for 6 months and was impressed by the people I met.

  2. I wonder if the military academy model is at all apt for most of us.

    1. Military academies attract a particular kind of highly motivated individuals.

    2. Military academies are very selective about who, among those motivated individuals, they admit.

    While it's true that they may have interesting programs once students enter. It seems they've cleared the biggest hurdle to success on the front end.

  3. Matthew's thoughts echo my own exactly. The military academies are *extremely* elite. Wikipedia writes of the USAFA:

    > The Air Force Academy is among the most selective colleges in the United States. Many publications such as U.S. News and World Report do not rank the Academy directly against other colleges because of service academies' special mission.[4][5] However, a few do; Forbes Magazine recently ranked the Academy the #2 public college in the United States and the #7 college overall in its "America's Best Colleges 2009" publication.[6]

    And in one of my own areas of interest, functional computer programming (Haskell), the pre-eminent researcher on functional data structures, Chris Okasaki, is a... teacher at West Point.

    So finding the cadets well prepared for class is akin to walking into Harvard and being shocked that they actually read the assigned reading.

    (Well, maybe Harvard isn't the best example. I only visited once, and impressions can be misleading. But you see what I mean.)

  4. Matthew and gwern:

    Of course you're right about military academies being highly selective. But I don't think that means we can't take a lesson from how they help students use their time more effectively. My main point was really that rigor is simply going to alienate students most students unless we do something to help them radically restructure their use of time in college. Military academies seem to be able to do that with their students.

    If students who aren't highly motivated aren't using their time for academic pursuits in college we can't just install motivation. Entertainment doesn't work. According to Academically Adrift, rigor does. So we need models from somewhere that help students prepare for rigorous education.

  5. A nice, quick read book by Michael Barone that raised these sorts of issues came out about a decade or so back: "Hard America Soft America". He used the military as one example of Hard America, and of course -- with the exception of professional programs -- most of contemporary academia fit into Soft America

    As a vet who entered the Army back near the end of the Cold War, never intending to go to college, and who has taught Army and Air Force ROTC students in his classes, I've never held the typical academic standoffish attitude towards the military and its means of formation.

    I can also say that, while several of the previous commenters are correct in noting the elite status of the military academies, ROTC programs are not, and they provide -- admittedly, not at the same level -- similar formation of malleable students' (which is as they ought to be -- docile, i..e teachable) basic characters.

    Nor, for that matter, is the experience of being an enlisted soldier, marine, etc. "elite" except in the very important sense that standards matter, people depend on one getting it right, adequate rewards and punishments are in place, and there's an expectation of competence, initiative, and responsibility for one's part -- which certainly makes one part of an elite in our culture.

    The subtitle of Barone's book "Competition vs Codling and the Battle for the Nation's Future" indicates where some of these discussions get derailed. The issue is not so much competition, as being held to standards, and getting used to being held to standards -- developing (to go back to the discussions of the last Academically Adrift post on this blog) a nexus of habits that then allow further habits to be developed.

    One can do very little with college students, for example (like my own) who not only don't read the assigned texts, do practice work, come to class prepared, but often unashamedly don't even know what building my office is located in, or to look on their syllabus, or the course site for that information. One could go on and on -- the basic point being that many of our students in lower and middle-tier institutions do not have even the baseline of habits required to productively be engaged and work on developing further, higher-order habits -- and learning basic concepts of a course by memorizing is "higher-order" (Bloom notwithstanding) for students whose K-12 education has placed them in such a plight.

    What the military provides is not so much competition as a culture of constant accountability, where that becomes a basic expectation -- and accountability not only to oneself and to one's superiors but to one's fellows. I love teaching ROTC students and Veterans because I can rely on that formation.

  6. Adam, I think you're exactly right that too much emphasis is placed on socialization when it comes to students making the transition to college life. Doubtless, feeling socially integrated makes students feel comfortable, but it does little to ready them for a college learning environment that is, in many respects, radically different from their secondary school experience: less structured, less supervised, more content-focused and mastery-focused, etc.

    It still surprises me how many students never fully make the transition to university-level academic life: I'm talking about the ones with no time management skills, who don't read the syllabus, etc. And I think your ideas for putting academics front and center in this transition are good ones. George Kuh has been advocating learning communities for some time:

    If nothing else, I think the faculty should 'go first' in orientation, i.e., that the first thing new students encounter should not be the other students who will be their peers, but the faculty who will be their academic guides and resources.

  7. Here here. Faculty should go first during orientation and the orientation should be geared around those habits that will help them excel academically. Unfortunately, administrators in charge of student life and indeed many administrators on the academic side care primarily about student retention and customer satisfaction. This doesn't just take the focus away from academics - it positively works against it.

    In addition, in my experience, institutions do very little to introduce those in student life to the values and demands of academia. As a result, many honest charitable folks on that side of campus bring the kind of unreflective anti-intellectualism that is endemic to our society to their jobs, especially if their self-conception is that they are "on the side of the student."

    Administrators talk a lot these days about integrating academics and student life. What they mean is asking professors to engage with students in non-academic and non-intellectual, primarily social ways - making the very people responsible for rigor and intellectual values complicit in the practices that are turning our colleges into entertaining four-year waiting rooms.

    Academics and student life should be integrated - in the other direction. Student life should have as its central self-conception that they are there to ensure the academic and intellectual success of students, not their socialization. Unlike professors, they can't do this by being their teachers (despite the current mantra that everyone on campus is an educator) but they can do it by cultivating that nexus of habits about which we have been speaking and being clear that these habits are being cultivated because they are necessary for academic success.

    The first step is to eliminate the customer satisfaction model. As long as this is how people in student life are told, implicitly or explicitly, to think of their jobs, they have every motivation to emphasize the social and de-emphasize the intellectual.

  8. Gosh, what a coincidence! I was just writing on my blog ( about my search for what constitutes good academic teaching and good learning environments and now I read this article which is so closely related. Many thanks, a great article! A great counter against the commercialisation of academic education whilst still paying attention to the dire need to innovate academic education.

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  10. Adam, I didn't take your comments about the academies too literally. Your larger point (I think) is that the academies create a student body-wide academic culture. Now as several commenters point out, the academies are especially well situated to create such a culture, thanks to selectivity, a more deferential or hierarchical relationship between faculty and students, etc.

    But I think the question is what could be done in other institutions to establish this academic culture. I was an undergrad at one of the most academic-y places I know (you could have a pretty awesome alumni philosophy conference:, but I don't know to what extent that comes from the students, from the institution, etc.

    One thing I wonder about is institutional size: I remember that one contributor to academic culture is students taking the same classes with the same professors, etc. I wonder if part of the problem in establishing a common academic culture among students at larger universities is that such universities are, academically at least, like sprawling suburbs: many, many degree programs, and while there are common GE/introductory courses taken by many students, they're not likely to have the same instructors, etc. I gather one point of the idea of 'learning communities' is to segment the large university so that students do have a common base of academic experiences.

    But again, I'd be interested in any ideas about how to establish and maintain an academic culture among students at institutions that lack the institutional advantages the service academies have.

  11. I really like the idea of integrating faculty into orientation (in an academic way, not a social way). I would imagine that the Office of Student Life (or whoever runs orientation) could be talked into it, too. After all, I assume that getting students into the right courses and helping them do well in those courses are important for student retention, too.

    Does anyone know of any universities that have such orientations? What kind of activities would be useful? Would enough faculty be willing to participate?

  12. Culture isn't the issue. The issue is incentives. Why don't professors have high expectations and fail students who don't meet them? Because they fear for their jobs. Create different incentives for professors, and the expectations will change. Change the expectations, and student performance will change.


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