Academically Adrift

I managed to finish the book, Academically Adrift, during Spring Break (by finishing at 9:17 PM EST Sunday, March 20).

I am wondering how many of you did as well? Would you like to start a conversation now?

I’ll start the ball rolling:

Initially I feel that things are not at a crisis point (that they admit in the last chapter). Yet things aren’t good, either! I believe that the students bear much of the responsibility. Yet so do faculty. And so do administrators who added programs (and financial resources) to help “keep them here.” Retention is important for our financial viability. But we have to think about the implications for student learning. There was an assumption (hubristic in my mind) that if they stayed (i.e., we retained them), they would learn. But are we sure they do? How do we know? I think our priorities need a bit of shifting. Yes, retention is a real issue, but what they do when we keep them here has to have the same level of support as keeping them here.

I *really* want to know if my students are learning. I do not want to assume that they are. This means that I do value assessment. It also means that I am not sure how to do it effectively. As a graduate student, I did not get any training on how to teach and *certainly* did not get any on how to assess whether or not my students were learning anything!

I’d love to know the best ways to assess the things I want to know.

And, as an aside (and maybe this is addressed in their methodological appendix which I did not fully understand and must re-read), who decided that 40 pages of reading helps learning? Or 20 pages of writing? My students read art historical scholarship – published stuff that is difficult to think about. But it’s not 40 pages a week. They do write quite a bit – but I’d have to count to see how close I am to this 20 page minimum. This book is making me rethink that and up the page limits. But why these particular numbers?

Any thoughts on these or other issues in the book?

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7 Responses to Academically Adrift

  1. rarmstrong says:

    I’m not quite done, but am well on my way (I will have time before may to finish it).

    1. I have yet to find any justification for connecting 40 pages of reading and 20 of writing to the skills that they tested for. Its not that i don’t think those things are important, but with all of the studies that they quoted, this bit seemed to come out of an unstudied left field.

    2. They did an analysis of which fields did and did not have this specific type/amount of homework, and then concluded that the fields without (engineering and computer science scored least on this) were not teaching critical thinking skills. i’m not in these fields, i’m in humanities, but it seems absurd to say that engineering and computer science would teach critical thinking with reading and writing and would NOT teach critical thinking with specific engineering and computer sciencey problem solving.

    3. Grades vs. retention. ya. this is a big problem. i’m totally adrift myself this term in my own class, where less than 50% of the class submitted the bulk of the work that was due during the first half of the class, and fully 1/3 submitted less than 20% of the work. I’m assuming that we will lose most of these students before the W date on Friday. Take this institutionally across the board and its huge. The work load was NOT out of line to the extent reflected in these numbers (I don’t think it was out of line at all, but i’m the one who wrote the damn syllabus).

    3. lots of discussion about the expectations that the students come in with being completely out of sync with our learning objectives – i.e. students come in with social objectives. while i haven’t finished the book yet, so far i have not seen any discussion of this as a problem; so far all i’ve seen is a discussion of the professors weaknesses, and no critical discussion of value systems students come in with and their impact on the process. so far i’m getting the impression that professors are being held to an impossibly high standard and students not held to be culpable for their own part in their own education.

    • gretchenmckay says:

      I agree on your Number 1. I don’t know where that notion of “rigor” comes from 40 pages of a textbook that says nearly nothing versus 20 pages of a scholarly article that they have to really read carefully to understand? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

      2. I think in one chapter they do talk about how these skills are taught in different ways that the 40 reading/20 writing benchmark. But I don’t remember where.

      3. I don’t know what I think about retention. I had been thinking of it from the admin side for so long — how to keep students here. But now I wonder? Is this the best thing for them? For us? Are they learning anything?

      4. I don’t think the book finishes with it’s all the professors’ fault. It talks about how everyone has a part in the changing dynamic and “giving in” to this new “social dimension” of college – parents, administrators, the students themselves, and yes the professors.

      • rarmstrong says:

        ya, i read another chapter this morning and they do begin to discuss more factors in ways that do not FEEL like professors get all the blame, and begin to offer a bit of connections between Grades given in class and site forms and all that scary stuff….. it is certainly an interesting read.

  2. Deb Vance says:

    If we want to know what McDaniel students are like and what they’re learning, we need to ask them. It strikes me that one of the very few social scientists in the book discussion yesterday voiced her qualms about the methodology behind the book, but others in the room didn’t seem to mind that point. She pointed out that the test itself was full of logical fallacies: generalizing its findings to our population is also rife with logical fallacies. Maybe it’s on target with regard to our students, but maybe it’s not. And if we start making fixes based on this flawed and controversial book, we might not like ourselves after it’s over.

    In my qualitative research class, students practice data analysis by using data gathered on each other in class. It’s very revealing and tells me a lot about our students. For example, they say they like knowing and being known by their professors and they say they’ll do better in classes where they like their professor. I think we need to remember the recent brain research that says that brains are still only partly baked by the age of 21 and that brain growth is not a linear process. Not sure what role that plays in the intellectual growth, but it’s clear that emotional growth is going to affect intellectual engagement.

    One of the big differences in this generation is that they’ve been targeted by marketing since infancy and they’re trapped in a world of consumption that’s difficult to climb out of. They’re also trained to see themselves as children and us as adults and don’t see a connection. This is why I think we need to find less formal, intellectually and academically challenging ways for faculty and students to interact.

    (Just for the record, the book mention “communications” as a pre-professional discipline, but our department of communication is a social science. I’m not sure what kind of courses they’re talking about.)

  3. rarmstrong says:

    That bothered me too. But regardless of the validity of the CLA, The book makes an excellent case for the existence of a HUGE gap between students’ goals and “academic” goals and the HUGE diversity of student skill levels on entering college that seem to have a big impact on how well they do in college. Strikes me that if our own goals are to improve how we serve our students, these are two items that need serious consideration.

    • gretchenmckay says:

      It is not just the book. The book is confirming what we see in NSSE. And what we saw in the critical thinking WAGE report. No measurement is going to be a golden standard. But when you take THREE measurements, all of which come to some similar conclusions, how can we ignore it, IF we say that we care about students and their learning? I think NINE YEARS of NSSE data and the critical thinking assessment done two years ago shows we have challenges and weaknesses. I am not sure what the next steps should be, but I’d like to start seeing a conversation on how we are going to address these weaknesses instead of explanations of why measurements might be flawed.

  4. Elizabeth van den Berg says:

    I finished the narrative of the book this week. I’m afraid I can’t wrap my brain around the Methodological Appendix right now, so I’m leaving that alone.
    Based on the conclusions I’m drawing from the narrative, their biggest point seems to be that students spend too much time on social and co-curricular activities, not enough time studying, and we are not asking enough of them. I then pulled out the NSSE report that was handed out at a chair’s meeting earlier this year. I noted that NSSE reports “Participating in co-curricular activities” as one of our freshman and senior strengths. Perhaps our challenge then is to somehow link co-curricular activities to academics more directly? This is actually something we do in the Theatre – as we pick our production season based on our perception of what the students need to learn/experience more of in theatre. For example, when we offer an advanced acting course in Classical Acting Styles, we choose something in the classical genre for our production season the following semester. There may be other ways to help students link co-curricular activities more directly with academics. I’m sure other departments do this too – but in terms of assessing this – how?
    One of our first year “challenges” is that students do not spend “significant amounts of time studying and on academic work”. While I hate to burden the FYS classes, it seems to me that this is one area where we could apply more rigor in terms of what we are asking of our students. Additionally, if we want them to become better writers, it seems we should be asking them to write more in the first year. While I appreciate the Junior WID, I am already deploring the loss of ENG 1102, as I have majors enrolled in WID classes who still do not have the basics down: writing a strong thesis, supporting that thesis through research, finding appropriate source material, and not plagarizing from the web!
    If we expect students to think critically, then we must ask them to do so. One of the reported senior challenges according to NSSE is that they haven’t “examined the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue”.
    I’m recognizing some of my own strengths and weaknesses regarding my thoughts about this book. I certainly see some flaws in their measurement (agreeing with Gretchen’s comments about 40pages/20pages above). However, I also see the value in examining the issues that are raised. I don’t think it’s “all our fault”, but I am very interested in seeing what we can do better. I have little control over other aspects of what the books brings up as influences on student’s success such as socio-economic background, or what a student’s behavior is once they leave my classroom. However, I can ask more of my students. The challenge then comes from how to I ask my adjunct and untenured faculty, who are so reliant on student evaluations of their courses, to require more rigorous assignments, when this could affect their own retention in the job?
    Lots more thoughts – wish I could be at the discussion…

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