Learning in the first two years of college

A few days ago, USA Today posted an article documenting that little to no learning seems to occur in the first two years of college.  According to the survey done as part of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, about 51% of a 7-day week is spent socializing while 7% is spent studying.  Stunned by this news, I felt compelled to explore the various possible explanations, such No Child Left Behind as detriment and over-socializing, by discussing the paper with them.  The responses varied from

“yeah, a lot of the stuff I’m learning in my classes is just a repeat of high school”


“some people just don’t really seem to want to learn in my classes”


“yes, socializing is huge part of dorm life”

To provide a fuller picture on my institution and my small, 30-student sample, I’ve learned that the school tends to have a 30% attrition rate for students within the first year.  Most students do not live in the dorms, but live in off campus apartments or with family.  These students are currently in their 2nd quarter of their freshman year, so I don’t have a full two-year perspective on the learning.  Furthermore, these students this semester are much more organized and have follow through to complete my assignments in comparison to last semester where I was lucky to get 50% to participate in discussion boards.  Several questions about the other academic backgrounds of these students remain a mystery, but the overwhelming “well, yeah, of course I don’t feel like I’m learning anything” from the class as a whole was shocking.

From the instructor’s point of view, I understand how this non-learning can occur.  As a lecturer, I’m given pretty open reign on how I run this course.  Having taught versions of the course at least 5 other times, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Students lament about the amount of work I expect them to complete for the 1 or 2 unit course.  Based on campus standards, my 1 unit course should equate to 56 hours of studying, lecture, assignments, etc.  For an 8-week course (I’m a condensed version), that means there is about 7 hours of work per week.  On average they have to watch various videos (45 min. max), read a “chapter” (max. 1 hour), complete a 10 question, multiple choice quiz about the chapter (1 hr max), a discussion board question (30 mins.) and a weekly assignment that involves students to apply their reading and video info to their research either in the stacks, the databases, or the web (max. 2 hours).  In total, that adds up to about 5 hours and 15 minutes a week on average.  For the first two weeks, angry, snippy students bemoan this course’s existence but almost always end the course talking about how much they LEARNED.  I’ve tried conducting the course without the chapters readings, the quizzes, and the weekly assignments and those that already knew the information or could think critically did great while the large majority floundered.  From various higher-ups, I get pressured to keep my enrollment stats high and to reduce the grading workload, but how else can they learn in a hybrid class unless I provide feedback?  How else do students learn about info literacy unless they apply it, refine it, and get guidance on it?  Most likely, the low workload in other courses work against me in terms of workload expectations.  However, those are presumably the courses in which students aren’t learning.  Even some of my fellow course instructors have mixed feelings about how I conduct the course.  Sometimes, they really like my assignment ideas, such as when I have students learn about copyright through traditional definitions but also through analyzing news articles about real-life plagiarism and intellectual property infringement.  My students even reacted, at least a bit, when I showed them the YouTube mashup of Jay-Z and The Beatles.

Other assignments, such as practicing citations, get eyerolls for being so archaic and unapplicable to real life.  But, for all those academic papers they have to write in the next 3.6 years, won’t they need to know that?  Shouldn’t we help them learn to do that if they don’t already?  What about the more abstract reality that citations are just a way to track info, similar to tagging or filing?  We can’t assume anything with these guys because even though they grow up with MySpace and Facebook, it doesn’t mean they can articulate why a website is a trust-worthy website for academic research or even for recommendations on treating a personal illness. Google is often times still a magic eightball that just shakes out an answer.

Returning to the “no learning” issue, I think there are a variety of culprits out there and the “phone it in” by automating or minimizing grading or pairing down the class to meet what our students want to do is part of the backslide.  The No Child Left Behind policies are also horrible, as the grading systems at some institutions here in California refuse to fail kids or reward kids for cheating off other students because “at least they put in effort.”  Beyond the college classroom, what type of message do we send to kids if we just lower the bar of expectation?  Do you think Google will take that into consideration when hiring a candidate?  Not likely and nor would any other job consider that a factor either.

I know I work A LOT when it comes to class season, perhaps more than I should, but I know that my students learn.  Share any thoughts you have about this situation or other interesting methods you’ve developed to defy the odds and have your students learn, too.


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