November 22, 2017

What Do We Do Now? | From the Bell Tower

Every so often a new development so shakes the foundations of higher education that it absolutely demands our attention. Some “wake-up call” news that made headlines last week fills the bill. How big was this news? Well, it’s sort of like when both Time and Newsweek had Bruce Springsteen on their covers—the same week! That kind of big. That’s what happened last week when the higher education media and blogosphere prominently featured news about the release of the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. This story dominated the higher education press for the entire week, and is likely to do so into the foreseeable future.

As academic librarians we need to not only make ourselves aware of the issues, but to put it into perspective from our space in the higher education enterprise. What does it mean for our work, and how might we respond to new information that could require a great deal of rethinking about our role in the teaching and learning process?

The big headline

Books about higher education are continuously published, but what drove this one to the top of the heap was the simple research finding of its authors that conveniently made for great headlines: college students are learning next to nothing. The book’s core argument is that for many students four years of undergraduate classes make little difference in their ability to synthesize knowledge and put complex ideas on paper. Making a difference is at the heart of what a college education is all about. Even more than learning to think critically, four years of higher education should truly transform an individual on multiple levels. But according to one of Academically Adrift ‘s authors, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “we’re very concerned about American higher education and the extent to which undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected.” Just reading a statement like that is alarming, but how is it that the research could lead to such a conclusion?

More about the study

According to Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage, 2300 students were included in the study. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) before and at several points during their college years. The authors also examined student surveys and transcripts. The most significant finding, highlighted in just about every news account, was that 45 percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. As Kevin Carey quotes about those 36 percent in his essay about the book, “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”

Other findings pointed to the lack of academic rigor, the not-so-surprising small amount of time spent studying, and the failure of students to develop critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills. Richard Vedder, in his analysis of the book, raised a question to which many taxpayers would like an answer, which is why the financially strapped federal government provides billions of dollars to subsidize students participating in the increasingly expensive and hedonistic experience we call “higher education?” While conservative reform hawks like Vedder used Academically Adrift as an “I told you so” chip to bolster their claims for radical change, equal numbers of experts and faculty refuted the book’s data, methods, and findings.

What next?

What I found interesting was some of the finger pointing going on in the aftermath of these various reports about and reactions to the book. Many faculty, in their comments, aimed their fingers at the students themselves, for being underprepared for college and too lazy to apply themselves to their studies, and the perennial boogeyman of higher education, the academic administrator, for creating an environment that is poorly conducive to learning. Hardly anyone was accepting blame for the mess.

Truthfully, everyone associated with higher education must share the blame. As one expert said at a gathering of higher education think tanks, “students aren’t studying enough; faculty members aren’t demanding enough of students; administrators aren’t paying attention to student learning outcomes; and the federal government isn’t awarding grant money to figure out why students aren’t learning.” As far as answers to the “What next?” question, no one seems to know the answer. There is no dearth of initiatives to improve the quality of higher education. Now we know these folks really have their work cut out for them.

Can academic librarians help?

How should a study like this inform the work of academic librarians? It’s not as if I expected to see much discussion about the news on any of the usual discussion channels in academic librarianship. That students are failing to learn much at all hardly seems like our issue, and no one is blaming our community. I think we should be expressing some concern, or at least raising questions that could lead to a discussion about potential responses to the findings.

After all, if all the work faculty are doing to transform students into critical thinkers is failing to have any impact on almost half of our college students by the end of two years, how is it that we academic librarians can expect to turn these same students into critical thinkers about and savvy evaluators of information content when we see most of them no more than a few hours within those first two years, if we’re lucky enough to see them at all?

A potential turning point

I am not sure what the answer is, but I believe we are in no position to give up on our efforts to help students succeed academically, even if it appears that many are making so little progress. What we probably do need to do is take a more in depth approach to researching our role in the transformation, or lack thereof, of the college student, and working together with faculty to collaboratively fix what ails higher education. The ACRL Value of Academic Libraries study is a good start for promoting the ways in which academic librarians improve the quality of higher education. Perhaps Academically Adrift can best serve our profession as a stimulus to generate follow-up research to the ACRL study.

Providing concrete evidence of how the work of academic librarians makes a difference for the students who are learning something would go a long way to supporting claims about the value of our libraries. Figuring out what our profession can do to help our institutions improve their performance with all the students who are hardly learning at all is a more serious challenge that will require our best ideas and innovative spirit.


Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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