Entry from July 8, 2010

Sunday’s Boston Globe reported on an article in the Review of Economics and Statistics which has revealed that the average college student today spends over 40 per cent less time studying than college students half a century ago did. “What happened to studying?” asks the Globe reporter, Keith O’Brien.

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. “It’s not just limited to bad schools,” Babcock said. “We’re seeing it at liberal arts colleges, doctoral research colleges, masters colleges. Every different type, every different size. It’s just across the spectrum. It’s very robust. This is just a huge change in every category.”

Of course, now kids have so many electronic distractions from studying that didn’t exist fifty years ago — and also many research tools, thanks to computers, that must cut down on the sheer drudgery and therefore the time spent in studying. “But,” cautions Mr O’Brien, “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).”

So what could be causing this lazy student syndrome? Mother Jones ran a piece by Kevin Drum asking for suggestions, and some of these were reported on in the Atlantic Wire by Max Fisher as “8 Theories on Why College Kids Are Studying Less.” Only one of the eight, submitted by “Lisa” strikes me as at all persuasive:

Rise in numbers of temporary, adjunct faculty, who teach many, many courses, and are terribly vulnerable to course evaluations (that”s me, by the way). One can only assign so much work and expect to be invited back to teach — plus, if you assign it, you have to read it and/or grade it yourself, which, when you”re teaching four or five classes on multiple campuses, becomes impossible. This has become the bulk of university teaching, by the way.

Well, yes, but the boom in temporary, adjunct faculty as a cost-cutting measure also post-dates, for the most part, the biggest part of the decline. You have to look down through the whole list of the replies on the Mother Jones site, to find what seems to me the obvious answer to the question of what is causing the problem.

I am a professor in a medium-large state university. Complaints about students not working hard enough are pretty much universal among my colleagues. But, the data are actually pretty clear. Right around the time studying went down, grades went up. From the mid-60”s to the mid-70”s, the average grade went from around a 2.5 to around a 2.9. (I don’t have a link, but there was a NYTimes article with this data a few months ago.) There was a fundamental change in the university system all across the board. It is not the students’ fault, it is a systems failure. (Or at least, a systems alteration.)

Duh! That’s why most of the drop took place more than thirty years ago. Grade inflation. It swept through colleges and universities across the spectrum, partly as a result of the new importance being given to student evaluations of their professors, back in the 1970s. But although everyone knows about this, even today not many people talk about it. Especially in the schools of education.

How hard can this be to figure out? If you can get As and Bs today working 14 hours a week when in 1961 it took you 24 hours a week, why would you continue to work as hard as dad or grandpa did back then? There is an oblique allusion to the problem of grade inflation in Mr O’Brien’s article when he writes that “The National Survey of Student Engagement found in 2009 that 62 percent of college students studied 15 hours a week or less — even as they took home primarily As and Bs on their report cards,” but no hint of any causal effect. “‘Are students just that much more efficient that more than 60 percent of students study less than 15 hours a week and still earn As and Bs?’ [Jillian] Kinzie [associate director of the National Survey of Student Engagement] asked. ‘Or are we really preparing students for the world of work if they’re able to get by spending that many hours studying and preparing for class?’” Gee! I wonder. But it should come as no surprise that educational researchers and writers will go to any lengths to avoid seeing the obvious.

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