March 20, 2018

Declining Student Study Time Is Our Problem, Too | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Librarians can help make student research more challenging and more rewarding

Steven_Bell(Original Import)

My campus has two recreation facilities. One is designated for the faculty only—for those who want to avoid those pesky student interruptions during a workout session. The other is open to everyone, and that’s the one I prefer. I actually look forward to talking to students. I just might get the chance to convince a student to use the library. An unexpected outcome of mingling with the students beyond formal learning environments is that you hear college students say the darndest things.

There’s a particular category of comments that always shocks but somehow doesn’t surprise me. That’s when students tell each other how easy a particular course is or boast about how well the semester is going despite doing hardly any work to get by. Such posturing doesn’t apply to all students, but a new report suggests that it might just be a trend that’s impacting more and more of them.

Change but not sure why
In their American Enterprise Institute report “Leisure College, USA,” Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, faculty members at the University of California, find that full-time students at four-year colleges are studying a full ten hours less a week than in the past. The authors compared average study times across different disciplines between 1961 and 2003. In fact, they compared three different time periods and the results were always the same—less studying now than before. Given the type of anecdotal evidence we’ve all encountered, are we really surprised by this news?

Where things do get interesting is when the authors conjecture about what’s causing the decline. Is technology the differentiating factor? Was demographic change a factor? With all those students holding part- and full-time jobs to pay their tuition, who has time to study? Perhaps students are majoring in easier subjects? Or is it possible that today’s students are more lazy or less well prepared to succeed—or just don’t care much about learning? There are a number of possibilities, but Babcock and Marks refute all of them. They find only one thing that appears consistent across time.

Higher Ed is to blame
Yes, we have found the enemy and we are it. The authors believe that by loosening its standards for both grading and study rigor, those in control of the curriculum and teaching are responsible for the substantial decline in study time. They believe that over time students have come to expect a more leisurely college experience, with better grades for less effort. With the “country clubization” of higher education brought on by lavish amenity wars, higher education is accommodating that expectation.

It’s an interesting theory, but is it true? That question ignited a firestorm of debate across the Internet with experts of all types and students coming up with their own rationales for why study time has dropped from 40 hours per week to just 27. The New York Times devoted its “Room for Debate” feature to this issue. The student services expert didn’t deny the vast increase in spending for amenities, but offered up research to show that even if rock climbing walls, luxury dorms, and pools surrounded by giant flat screen monitors may distract students these perks definitely contribute to persistence to graduation. So, they may be less scholarly, but they are getting diplomas.

You can always count on Richard Vedder (who coined the phrase “country clubization”) for a colorful remark. In response to this study, not only does Vedder take higher education to task for grade inflation, which he sees as a primary cause for the decline in study time, but he blasts away at students, too, who:

have so much free time and they need to do something else beside drink and have sex. Hence the phenomenon of the climbing wall, the indoor track, the countless health-club like weight facilities, luxurious student union buildings… [these] spoiled students too often are over-sexed booze hounds who are largely clueless about how our civilization evolved, what makes us rich, and what distinguishes right from wrong.

Yes, you, like those who commented, may be angered by a statement like that, because we’ve all helped many a dedicated, hard-working student who is working part-time, taking a full load of courses, and has myriad other issues to deal with in their lives. But what if it really does come down to a real decline in academic rigor that simply requires students to do less?

Here’s what we can do
While there’s uncertainty about why students are studying less, there is perhaps even less certainty about what to do to create change. It would hardly matter if students were learning effectively with one hour of study per week, but that’s not the case. Babcock and Marks cite multiple studies that have shown that increasing study time does result in higher GPAs.

Is there anything we academic librarians can do to increase student rigor and study time? The good news is that while we are major contributors of enhanced time-saving technologies, better technology for study and working is not a factor in changing study time.

We can perhaps help to add more rigor and study time to the average student’s college experience in the assignment assistance we deliver to faculty-in most disciplines. The most recent in a series of reports from Project Information Literacy (PIL) revealed that many research oriented assignments offer few guidelines and even less requirements for research. It’s no wonder college students are getting by without needing much study; many of the research assignments give students carte blanche to take the path of least resistance.

We need to increase our efforts to connect with faculty and encourage them to collaborate with us on creating effective research assignments that will enable students to build their research skills, not simply put in the minimal amount of time satisficing with a few hastily found sources. Working with academic librarians, faculty can develop assignments that will increase student time spent on evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. Not only would that require students to spend more time contemplating their research findings, but it would likely result in more thoughtful and well written research papers.

For once I’d like to hear two students talking about how hard their research assignment was—and how much they learned from the challenge.

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.

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