Is our college students learning?

Is our college students learning? Many college students aren’t learning “critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills,” concludes a new study of undergraduates at a broad range of colleges and universities.

After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Colleges are testing a voluntary accountability system that measures students’ progress and graduation rates.

About Joanne


  1. Those students must not have majored in engineering like I did.

  2. Very interesting article. Four-year college has become a sort of rite of passage with young people. Popular culture reinforces the notion that college years are party years, and parents are willing to pay for four years of substandard academic success. I wonder if a difference is seen with non-traditional students at community colleges who possibly have learned through hard knocks the need for a rigorous education.

  3. A fifth of their time would be 33.6 hours a week. If that’s the average, that’s not bad. And Jeff, while some of the best students I’ve ever had were engineering majors, so were some of the the worst students. It had nothing to do with how hard they worked, but with whether they were interested in an education or in training. The latter thought everything was about memorization. They rarely thought.

  4. “Is our college students learning?” Oh, the irony. I am sure that’s a typo 😉 , but with regards to the subject of the question, I am not so charitable. If they are indeed learning, it’s the best-kept secret in town.

  5. A fifth of waking time would be about 22 hours/week.

    Thinking is an issue.  I do a bit of on-line tutoring for fun, and the number of questions I get which show obvious refusal to think (wanting someone else to do easy homework problems) is depressing.  I like to tell these askers that they need to learn the HOW, because having their homework fed to them won’t help on a test or in real life.

  6. The headline was not a typo. It was a joke.

  7. Or you could say that 64 percent of the students showed significant gains in the named skills. That sounds like a pretty decent number.


  8. I majored in engineering as well. Friday evening and the Saturday evening were the only times I could allocate for partying to keep up with the workload. I specifically picked electrical engineering because I have a poor memory. There is little that can be memorized for EE – you just need to know a few equations. The tough part is understanding how to apply them.

  9. pity that it’s a joke .. I though it was an allusion to POTUS 43. In either case, clearly not a typo. (ne’er mind the ad)

  10. Therese, that’s what I’ve been telling everyone for years!  Mechanical engineering required too much rote memorization of things like materials properties, and I couldn’t keep up.

  11. Clearly, when 50% of the students who go to college shouldn’t have because they aren’t prepared and will never finish, it’s not surprising that so many are not learning while they are there. Add to that, the repetitive and mundane nature of so many general education requirements – classes that students feel at liberty to skip because they are unaccountable and even the professor doesn’t care – and it’s almost a guarantee that students will grow little during those years. It’s part of the scam that is rampant in higher education these days.

  12. Joanne – Just for the record: I understood that your headline was a joke.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    43 said, the question is, are the children learning. Leaving out the comma is good liberal politics.
    When I was in college, the story was two hours on the books for every class hour. That would have been about thirty hours on the books with an average load. Chem lab, though, was three hours and required no study. You prepared for those by studying the material in the lectures. Although there were disparities like that, two for one would usually had the desired effect.
    Had a fraternity brother who didn’t study as such, but would take his Electrical Engineering text to bed and read until he felt like going to sleep. Bastard had a four point.

  14. I teach college, and I’ve seen what Engineer-Poet mentioned: there is a percentage of students who just don’t want to think. They want to be given the fish rather than taught how to fish.

    It frustrates me when I’m trying to show someone the steps through a computation (or whatever) and how it’s generally applicable, and they’re sitting next to me going “THIS IS HARD. I CAN’T DO THIS.” Well, sure, if you’re gonna take THAT attitude…

    Fortunately there still are students who, when you start helping them, go, “oh, wait, I get this now” and show you that they do, and who actually learn how to do things. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be teaching college; it’s too frustrating dealing with the “THIS IS HARD, I CAN’T DO THIS” people without having some “Oh, I see how to do it now!” people.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suspect that, for about 99% of the time h. sap has been on Earth, one motivation or another, fear or hunger, has been more powerful than, “I can’t do that.”
    The take away from that is interesting. The take away from removing those two fundamentals is utterly predictable. In fact, it’s been proven.
    Working with a kids’ program a couple of years ago, I watched some eight-year olds trying to get something down from a hanger quite far up on the wall. First they dragged a chair over. Stood on the chair. Couldn’t reach it. One gave the chair-stander a stick. No go. Stood thinking. One hauled a table down the room and the chair stander went from the chair to the table and, with the stick, got the thing.
    I was glad some mother didn’t show up and in syrupy, diabetic-causing tones of concern, say, “I’ll get it for you, dear.” If anybody had seen me, I’d no doubt have been accused of meanness and lack of love for The Chilrun.