As Tony Wagner argues in his essential book, The Global Achievement Gap, I too think that we need to be very concerned that our secondary and college students are not learning what they need to be learning.   We can be deceived: they may go through the motions of learning, and the bright ones (bright from unique combinations of lucky genes, supportive parents/households, and strong K-8 education) may score well enough on the SAT to convey to us we are educating them.   But are we, and how do we know we really are, succeeding in facilitating their development of the essential critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills they most need?

Academically Adrift, the new book which I haven’t read but have read several articles about, is about college students, not secondary, but I believe it has compelling information for us.  From the NYTimes article, How Much Do College Students Learn, and Study?:

the authors followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at two dozen universities, and concluded that 45 percent “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.”

The universities are not identified — the authors only say they represent “a wide range” of the nation’s approximately 2,000 four-year institutions

The Chronicle of Higher Ed. offers the  Academically Adrift authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roska (Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?) space to make their case:  “further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.”

NPR reports in its piece, A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students Adrift in College, quotes the author Arum to say:

“Our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher order skills that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole,” Arum says.

But the book and accompanying articles also go further to offer insight into the problem’s causes and potential remedies, most particularly that students need to work harder.

Four observations:

1. The book itself and the articles about it treat the CLA, or Collegiate Learning Assessment, as the gold standard for evaluating student proficiency in the vital thinking skills at stake.   To quote the Times: “the yardstick against which such judgments are made is the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that is essay-based and open-ended.”   As many are often surprised to learn, the CLA is exactly the same test and tool as the College Work Readiness Assessment, (CWRA); the CWRA is the high school application of it, and one swiftly growing among the high schools which are most serious about student learning in these domains.

At St. Gregory, where we are using the CWRA, we found that our student performance in these same areas is rising at double the rate of that at the average CWRA school; we are continuing to track these responses closely.

2.  To examine what student activities are most effective for CLA measured thinking skills improvement, the study uses the NSSE, the National Survey of Student Engagement.   This is similarly the gold standard for assessing how engaged students are in their studies, and its near-exactly analogue, the High School Survey of Student Engagement, is what we in high school education should be using for evaluating our own students’ engagement

3.  The Academically Adrift authors are pretty clear on where the problem lies: Students are not reading and writing enough, and their coursework is not demanding enough.  From the Times:

For example, they found that 32 percent of the students whom they followed did not, in a typical semester, take “any courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week” and that 50 percent “did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the course of the semester.”

And from the authors themselves, in the Chronicle:

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks… existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

My first  take-away here is we need to be sure to maintain our high standards of expectations: our students do need to read widely and deeply and write lengthier works regularly.  Certainly at St. Gregory, our students have 20 page papers to write and more than 4 pages of reading  a week.

I write this and know too there is a tension– we want rigor, and hard work, and challenge, and substance in our students’ education, and we want not to overwhelm and stress them out in a Race to Nowhere.   This is not an easy line to walk or challenge to reconcile, but I know in part the solution lies in school-work which is more authentically grounded in deeper learning, connected and relevant to real-world concerns, with large opportunities built-in for choice, student passion, and creativity.

4. The Times piece reports that one seeming insight from Academically Adrift is that group or cooperative study is counterproductive.  “Students “who spent more hours studying alone” had greater gains on the standardized exam being used as a benchmark.”

I am sorry to read this, because I fear that too many will take the Times’ word for it and discourage group study among our students.   I believe from my own observations and experiences as a student and then for many years as a teacher that group study, done right, can be an excellent, dynamite tool for student learning.   What is critical is that it be done right, and I am sure that often among students, high school and college, it is not.

A Chronicle of Higher Ed reporter, David Glenn, to his credit, is similarly unwilling to let this assertion stand un-challenged.    I am going to quote at a greater length than usual because I think this is so important. This is from his article Researchers Find New Evidence that College Students are Failing to Learn.

One element of the book that is already drawing criticism is the finding that score gains on the CLA were smaller, all else equal, if the students said they did most of their studying with friends, as opposed to alone. That insight cuts against the grain of the recent trends toward collaborative and experiential learning.

Studying in groups “seems to be difficult for students to pull off in a way that promotes learning, as opposed to being a social occasion,” Ms. Roksa said.

“A lot of institutions and actors in higher education have invested a lot in this idea of collaborative education,” Mr. Arum said. “These are very well-intentioned folks, and I know that they’ve been taken aback by what we found.”

One such person is George D. Kuh, a professor emeritus of higher education and founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington. “For many students, studying alone can be as good as any other strategy,” Mr. Kuh said. But for others—especially those with weaker high-school preparations—there is a long train of evidence to support collaborative learning.

As the study stands, it is impossible to know whether the students who reported that they often study in groups were doing so because they had been given group assignments by their professors, or simply because they preferred to study with friends.

Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, shares Mr. Kuh’s concern. “They really just used two questions,” Mr. McCormick said. “How many hours do you study alone, and how many hours do you study with peers. When people say ‘I’m studying with peers,’ presumably that includes sitting in a room with a bunch of students where the TV is on and there are all kinds of distractions. But presumably there is a subset of students who are actually sitting around a table and really working on the material with other students and striving to understand. By mixing those two very different kinds of activities, I think we run a risk of overinterpreting this finding as an argument against collaborative learning.”

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa concede that their study does not reveal anything directly about the value of collaborative assignments. In theory, they say, such projects could be very effective. But they add that they doubt that many faculty members have been trained to design effective collaborative projects.

“If professors aren’t even being trained in traditional pedagogy,” Mr. Arum said, “it’s a lot to ask them to pull off these more-complex collaborative models.”

I’ve written before about effective group study among high school students; it does have to be disciplined, and perhaps supervised at first, for the good practices to become internalized.   But among the things we need to be teaching kids, and ensuring they learn, is effective collaboration, and study is a great, real world, place to put this particular teaching and learning.