College Students Aren’t Actually Learning Much According to Study

How much are we actually learning in college?

Now that having a college degree is as necessary to get a job as having a high school diploma was forty or fifty years ago, what exactly are we getting out of college besides  the letters “B.A.” on our resumés that is so important to succeed in in our society?

According to a study published in a recently released book called “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College campuses,” a surprising amount of college students aren’t getting a whole lot more than that. The Burlington Free Press’s article on the study explained that after giving a carefully crafted standardized test to over 2,000 college students, “about 45 percent showed no gains [in learning]after two years, and 36 percent did no better after four years.” The study cited lack of academic rigor and choosing classes that did not have much reading and writing as a key reason.

Another article on the book noted from the study, “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.'”

Considering this quote, and the high level of rigour found in nearly every class offered at Middlebury, it seems safe to say that this isn’t really a big problem for us. But another quote from the sociologists who wrote the book made me wonder if this problem does exist here on a less extreme scale: “For many undergraduates, they write, ‘drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent.'”

Now that going to college is essentially a prerequisite for our generation to enter the workforce, how many of us are here mainly because we think we have to be? And how does that affect the classes we take and how much we get out of them? I’ve been very surprised to hear how many (intelligent, driven) people I know are taking gap years or “febbing themselves” in order to reassess the purpose of their Middlebury education.

Readers, do you think this is a problem at Middlebury? Big enough to be addressed by the College? What do you guys think about a stronger core curriculum, like that of Reed College or the University of Chicago, to push many of us drifters to learn more and find purpose where we wouldn’t otherwise have found it? Or more encouragement to take gap years or semesters off?


7 thoughts on “College Students Aren’t Actually Learning Much According to Study

  1. Great post, Luke. I think one important question to ask is also: How does Middlebury, through its curriculum and its advising, ensure that no student “falls through the cracks” and graduates without really ever being challenged or having to take an “academic risk”?

    I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with “drifting” for a certain period of time. Now, as a senior, I’m glad that I did have that time to experiment, to make mistakes in picking a few classes I wasn’t crazy about, and then to eventually settle on something that I am, at the end of the day, happy with. Again, my concern has to do with making sure that every student is challenged and that there isn’t an “easy” major that’s chosen for being easy, while students in a different department slave away into the night in the GIS labs and the like. Is it right that Chinese 101 meets more times a week than any other language, or should other intro language courses be made to be “more challenging” in terms of course load?

    Additionally, I think that engaging in a bit of “drifting” by taking time off from school to travel or work does have its merits for some–though I don’t close my eyes to the fact it’s definitely a privilege that might not be financially feasible for just anyone who needs time to “find themselves.” I’ve repeatedly heard Bob Clagett, Midd’s Dean of Admissions, affirm his belief that students who defer from Middlebury and take a gap year before matriculating develop skills and maturity that are beneficial to have already developed while getting a degree. Two years ago (I think, it was), in its letters to admitted students, Middlebury started to encourage students to consider deferring for a year if that seemed right for them. Though partially out of a need to free up housing space, I think the Feb admissions program is evidence that Midd believes in a allowing for bit of “drifting,” but obviously with the end purpose of finding something–a major, minor, thesis, career, project, etc.–and then pursuing that for as long as it makes sense to.

  2. I agree that drifting while at college and making and learning from mistakes choosing classes can be very important, but to an extent.

    I find it really disappointing how many kids never take a classics class, or a history class or a philosophy class before graduating just for the sake of being an educated person and challenged in realms they don’t often think about, because they aren’t as flashy as, say, a sociology class or an environmental science class (as important as they are). These classes involve a lot of fundamental reading and writing and critical thinking skills but I feel they are not attractive anymore in the current college “culture” and therefore maybe should be required in some way, maybe even in the form of a broad western civ class required before graduation.

    So in answer to your question, I think that might be one way the college ensures no one falls through the cracks and that each Midd graduate has been intellectually challenged and educated up to some basic level.

    And I agree, as a Feb, I think that MIddlebury’s Feb program is a great oppurtunity to have time to figure out why you are going to college and what you want to get out of it, without getting too detached from the academic world. But again, I find it interesting how many of my feb friends are taking still another semester off.

    • Luke, you mention a “broad western civ” class. Why not “world civ?” So many people today (50+ years since I left Midd) are bopping all over the world for both business and pleasure that I think “world civ” would be truly valuable.

  3. the campus says grades are going up
    middblog says students arent learning
    my tuition bill says college costs more

    something to think about

  4. Maybe the axes are mislabeled––wonder what Average GPA vs. Average Tuition looks like?


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