Academically Adrift Redux: Countering the Memes #1

Academically Adrift Redux: Countering the Memes #1

The best way to counter the destructive notion that students spend much less time studying in college than in the past is to focus on getting better at learning how to value students’ time.

The main memes of Academically Adrift -- college has become less demanding, students don’t learn much in college, and students spend much less time studying in college than they used to -- are destructively misleading because they encourage stakeholders to seek remedies in unproductive directions. These memes aren’t going away, so we need productive ways to counter their negative effects.

Let’s start with the last one on this list, the notion that students spend much less time studying in college than they used to. The best way to counter the destructive effects of this meme is to focus on getting better at learning how to value students’ time.

As my recent ETCJ article argues, AA's insistence on equating academic rigor with number of hours spent studying is a legacy of outdated thinking. Skills such as putting in a full day’s work (and punching a time clock to verify it) and putting in long hours at the office or on the road (more time spent demonstrates dedication and increases chances for promotion for white collar workers) are still important, but they are becoming ever less relevant as new work environments (results-oriented work environments, telecommuting), technologies (mobile devices), and roles (micropreneurs, self-initiating employees) blur or diminish the relationship between work time and effort. The velocitization of society has a similar effect.

These new conditions require workers who know how to work smarter, not harder; who know how to optimize, economize, and synergize their time. Simply working longer and harder doesn’t cut it so much anymore, and these principles also apply to skills in every other life sphere. So why not apply these principles to seeing how students use their time as follows:

Focus on how they optimize their time -- The Academically Adrift study says nothing about the question of what the optimal amount of study time is. Is there an optimal amount? Is it more or less? Does it vary by student, course, academic year, moment? These are the kinds of calculations that many students are making -- in real time, week by week or moment by moment. Surely many students need to be spending more time studying -- but what will a single number do for them? The amount of study time needed is highly variable and also discretionary. So instead of focusing on how much time students spend studying, look more closely at how well they spend their time overall relative to their other priorities, needs, and goals.

Focus on how they economize their time -- The Academically Adrift study, and educators in general, tend to assume blindly that educational activities such as studying, lectures, etc. are valuable a priori. Students know better, and they act on that knowledge. Watch a videotaped lecture sometime and pay attention to the amount of dead time in that lecture -- administrivia, rambling digressions, time spent arriving at a point that many students had already grasped moments ago, time spent waiting for one’s turn to speak, etc. The traditional classroom and textbook are optimized for information transmission, not for learning, and students have long responded to this reality with various strategies which help them make economize their time --by skipping boring lectures when possible, for example. This is usually viewed negatively and often presented as evidence of greater laziness, less rigor, less learning, etc. And sometimes that’s what it is. But sometimes rationing one’s time in unproductive activities is also a highly rational behavior set. When is economizing one's time spent studying a rationally superior decision and when is it not? Now there’s a question worth researching.

Focus on how they synergize their time -- The Academically Adrift study does a good job of identifying useful categories of student life, but then it makes the anachronistic errors of assuming that a) these categories are mutually exclusive, and b) these categories signify ‘on’ and ‘off’ time. So, the “Hours spent studying” and “Hours spent studying with peers” become ‘on’ time, other categories become ‘off’ time, and the category of hours spent on the computer disappears altogether in the AA study . As my recent ETCJ article noted, college life has long involved activities which overlap between studying, socializing, and learning. Social media and time velocitization have only made this more so. So why not ask students more about what they learn from studying, AND from socializing, AND from other learning activities (such as reading books which are not required for class, for example)? We could also try to find out more about how these factors reinforce each other, i.e., look for synergies among these activities.

These categories (optimizing, economizing, synergizing) overlap to some extent, but they each get at two important truths which the Academically Adrift study ignored: 1) students’ time is valuable to them -- and it should be treated as such; and 2) the collegiate learning experience is a lot more complex than time spent studying for class -- socializing and other learning experiences enhance the study process, and vice versa. These are the dynamics which we should be studying, not trying to isolate a variable and assuming that increasing its activity automatically results in better learning.

There’s much more to be said about the kinds of reframing that will be needed for educators to value students’ time, but that’s a longer discussion for another time...