College students cut study time

College students aren’t studying as much they used to, reports the Boston Globe. The average four-year college student studies 14 hours a week, down from 24.4 hours in 1961, estimate Philip Babcock at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at UC-Riverside. The trend isn’t based on the student’s major, gender, race or SAT scores.

“It’s not just limited to bad schools,” Babcock said. “We’re seeing it at liberal arts colleges, doctoral research colleges, masters colleges. Every different type, every different size. It’s just across the spectrum. It’s very robust. This is just a huge change in every category.”

Babcock and Marks think professors are assigning less demanding work because of  “the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them.”

In theory, college students should spend two hours studying for every hour in class. Since 15 credit hours is considered a full load, that would mean 30 hours of studying.

Two thirds of  first-year college students say they studied less than six hours a week as high school seniors, reports Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), which has tracked declining study time for 20 years.

College students work somewhat harder, but many make it through without much effort.

In one CIRP survey subset last year, analyzing predominantly private institutions considered to be mid-level or high-achieving colleges, some 32 percent of college freshmen somehow managed to study less than six hours a week — not even an hour a day. Seniors studied only slightly more, with nearly 28 percent studying less than six hours a week. And other surveys of today’s students report similarly alarming results. The National Survey of Student Engagement found in 2009 that 62 percent of college students studied 15 hours a week or less — even as they took home primarily As and Bs on their report cards.

In a 2008 survey of  University of California undergraduates, one third of students said they “did not know how to sit down and study.” These are students drawn from the top 12.5 percent in the state, based on grades and test scores.

Some say today’s students can study more efficiently.

“A student doesn’t need to retype a paper three times before handing it in,” said Heather Rowan-Kenyon, an assistant professor of higher education at Boston College. “And a student today can sit on their bed and go to the library, instead of going to the library and going to the card catalog.”

But average study hours fell from 24.4 hours a week to 16.8 between 1961 and 1981, before the Internet was a factor. And the decline in studying isn’t linked to more students holding jobs or more marginal students on campus. It’s everybody.

Professors who demand a lot from students have to work harder themselves — and listen to students’ complaints, say Babcock and Marks.

Letting students rate their professors, a trend that started in the 1960s, encourages professors to go easy on homework in exchange for glowing course evaluations, said Murray Sperber, a visiting education professor at Berkeley.  It’s an unstated “non-aggression pact.”

In Kevin Drum’s comments on Mother Jones, summarized on Atlantic Wire, one person suggests that college students know prospective employers will focus more on extracurriculars and “leadership” than on their grades. Another blames the rise of adjunct instructors, who are very dependent on course evaluations.

A state university professor writes:

Right around the time studying went down, grades went up. From the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s, the average grade went from around a 2.5 to around a 2.9.

Grade inflation is the rational explanation, writes James Bowman in New Criterion. If you can get A’s and B’s by studying 14 hours a week, why work harder?

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “A student doesn’t need to retype a paper three times before handing it in,” said Heather Rowan-Kenyon, an assistant professor of higher education at Boston College.

    If by “retype” one means use a typewriter to type the whole paper over again after performing hardcopy edits, that’s probably right. But students *do* need to learn to edit if they want to develop their skills as writers (a BIG “if”), and they still need to perform hardcopy edits and then enter their changes.

    As for studying — it’s true: Why would they bother? The grades will come anyway.

    The pressure on TA’s to give good grades to students who don’t deserve them is enormous. And if the TA’s buck the system, they get viewed negatively AND their grades get raised anyway, either through norming (i.e., regularizing the distribution of grades across multiple sections) or through the professor simply raising grades in response to complaints by the students.

    I believe that studying is a skill though, and it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of students have never developed it. Frankly, I didn’t learn how to do it until I was in law school.

  2. When I got my BSEE in 1983, 14.4 hours a week might have been the homework load for a relatively easy three credit engineering course.

    OTOH, if most kids are in college merely to get a piece of parchment, without learning anything either because they want to, or because it might be useful to their careers, then the only honest universities are the mail-order diploma mills that provide that parchment for a fixed price without wasting four years of their lives.


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