Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading, writing and rigorous disciplines are keys to college learning, study finds

The much-noted Academically Adrift study, to be released later this week, is already garnering a great deal of coverage -- much of it under headlines that suggest the "limited value" of a college education.

But the reality is actually something a bit more subtle. A key finding of the study is that students whose courses emphasize intellectual rigor over social interaction show much greater improvement. Students who engage in individualized study (rather group learning or social activities) and who are assigned larger reading loads and more writing show significantly more improvement.

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." .... (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

The report also points out that higher course loads, larger classes and fewer full-time faculty diminish an institution's ability to achieve that degree of rigor.

...many professors report that increases in class size and course loads are leading them to cut down on the ambition of student assignments simply to keep up with grading. With fewer full-time positions, professors at many institutions are overwhelmed...

The conclusion, then, is not that college is not a worthwhile investment. Its that the focus of higher education needs to be returned to classroom rigor and challenging students to read, write and think critically rather than increasing retention ratios, reducing time-to-degree statistics, or increasing student satisfaction scores.

Worth pondering.

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