Students Studying Less: Shocking Report

A new campus joke: “Dude, she was all like, ‘What’s that building? It’s, like, so big.’ And I go, ‘That’s the library. There’s like so many books.”

Ha ha ha ha!

Oh, how the tears roll down my face every time I hear that one. It’s the image conjured in the mind, you see. Those wacky kids actually know what the library is!

Of course, knowing where the library was, what was in it, and intuiting the purpose of the objects held there used to be a commonplace. But now, according to Philip Babcock (UC Santa Barbara) and Mindy Marks (UC Riverside), modern students have better things to do than—I love this phrase— engage in “long-form reading“.

You know it’s bad news when academics have to invent a new term to replace an old, perfectly serviceable one. “Reading” used to mean, “reading books.” Now, barely having the patience to scan the 140-characters of a Tweet counts as “short-form reading.” Poor “reading”! It was such a useful word, but it has been massacred by intellectuals.

Babcock and Marks had to rely on self report, and on surveys taken then and now. So all their results should be viewed with caution. For example, how many students, when approached by a campus survey taker, who might well be a professor, will honestly answer “0” when asked how many hours she studies?

A survey from 1961 said kids hit the books about 24 hours a week. That makes sense, since then, as now, the average kid was in class about 15 hours a week. The total is, of course, the standard 40-hour work week.

But current numbers average around 14 hours. In a similar study, “some 32 percent of college freshmen somehow managed to study less than six hours a week.” However, there is a bright spot: there is no political correctness at play:

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.

One theory for the decline is that students are more efficient now than then. The evidence for this is as strong as for the existence of Bigfoot. They sure are more distracted, though. All fellow professors who have had this experience, raise your hands: A roomful of kids crack open their computers or uncase their phones and start clacking away during the lecture.

I say, “We don’t need our computers now. Close them up.” Some complain they take notes—presumably posting them to Facebook—and I say, “Don’t take notes. Listen! Besides, everything I say is said better in the book, which you can read.” But then we’re right back to the starting joke.

Babcock and Marks also speculate—though a better word would be “declare”—that teacher evaluations, the forum where poor students take their revenge, has produced a sort of long-term arms race. Professors, knowing that their tenure and promotions depend in part on good ratings, ease off—ever so slightly!—so that the darlings in their charge bump up the number of stars awarded. Others undoubtedly spend more time primping hoping to earn that elusive hotness mark on RateMyProfessors.com.

Others say, “Of course students concentrate less on classwork! They’re busy being engaged.” A modern term which is the obvious euphemism of “not studying.”

Maybe students are being rational anyway. Under grade inflation, another consequence of the arms-race, employers look less to grades—why bother, when everybody has an A- average—and instead look to external activities.

Marks herself points out that employers don’t generally care about the content of job applicants’ classes; they’re more interested in whether an applicant graduated, was able to meet deadlines, and work within a bureaucracy.

Nowhere did I see mentioned one of the most important reasons why studying has declined. In 1961, only a small fraction of high school graduates attended college. Those that did were intellectually, on average, the best of the crop of kids coming out of school.

But now, the fraction marching from Pomp and Circumstance straight to the ivied walls is much larger, and growing. Many complain the fraction isn’t growing quickly enough! Many would like to see all go to college, this state of grace being declared a new right.

Well, fine. Let all attend; more work for me. But do not expect academic standards to remain high. Just as not everybody can slam dunk a basketball or play the cello in the New York Philharmonic, not all can assimilate the material in a classic (as was) education.

A specific prediction: as the fraction of graduates entering college increases, the number of average hours study will decrease.

12 Comments

  1. A specific prediction: as the fraction of graduates entering college increases, the number of average hours study will decrease. raising the interest possibility there can only be a fixed total of study hours independently of the number of students. I wonder what it is.

  2. This is not a recent phenomenon.

    When getting a degree is merely a stepping stone, the lazy man will figure out how to get it with the least amount of effort. If you looked back a century, you would still see a significant population of students that enrolled for reasons other than the pure joy of knowledge. They were not cracking books on a Friday night.

    Today, more people are in the university merely to get the sheepskin. They will figure out how to do that without finding the library.

  3. When the fresh faced hopefuls walk into their first art class, I give them a taste of the life they have chosen. I am perfectly frank about what they can expect from my class and the path they are on.

    In my classes grades are based on 3 criteria:
    -Meeting the deadline.

    -How well they’ve met the goals of the stated problem; including how much effort they put in (which is easy in a “lab” class like painting or drawing) and on a scale of “seen it a hundred times – to- hmmmm…that’s interesting” creativity within the stated parameters.

    -Participating in the critique process. Because learning to verbalize process and intent develops critical thinking skills.

    In other words, Picasso could walk into my class and if he didn’t work his fanny off, make deadlines and participate, he would fail the class.

    I am also frank about the Lake Woebegone Effect. I believe everyone can make art. I do not believe everyone can make good art. In much the same way that I can pitch a pretty mean baseball. And by that I mean: in comparison to the other stiff, middle aged, non-athletic players on the field. Sadly, and statistically, not everyone can be “above average”.

    So, they are stunned to find that the bulk of them will make C’s, a few will make B’s and even fewer, if any, will make A’s. And on the bright side, few will make D’s and even fewer will fail completely.

    For many, many years, I have lamented the crushing of our system of trade schools in this country. Not everyone is cut out for sitting in desks learning verbally oriented material. Not everybody is cut out for making art, not everybody is cut out for being basketball superstars.

    As a people, our problem is, we identify with the underdog. Like Muggsey Bogues, who stands at 5’3″ and played guard. I’m not a basketball fan, but at 5’1″, I would watch any game with Muggsey in it, just to see the little guy take the big guys to task.

    Or like Michael Jordan, who was kicked off the high school basketball team. Instead of directing his energies elsewhere, he made the sacrifice of spending hours and hours practicing and eventually, years later, he became good enough.

    While most people want to be at the top (because if you aren’t the winner, by default you are the loser) they aren’t willing to put in that almost superhuman effort to get there. They are not constitutionally geared for years of effort with no pay off.

    Which brings me back to making art. After my first day speech, a few will take the hint and drop the class. The rest work for their grades.

    My specific prediction: the system will degenerate to the point that someone will develop “the new academy” with stricter standards and more rigorous work in response.

    You and I may not live to see it, but it is as inevitable as the tide.

  4. I remember when I did my work for a BS Physics I had to study more like 6 hours or more each day. But then maybe I was stupid. One professor always taught the Advanced Mechanics class. He had only 1 scheduled quiz per year, the final. All other quizzes were pop or unannounced. Usually on problem in equations of motion, forces etc. No books, no notes, just paper, pencil, slide rule and your brain. When the grades were posted there was one A, not me, and 1 B, me. That is still the grade I am proudest of from my university time.

  5. Karen,

    I took my share of studio art classes. It really is only subject that you cannot skip putting in the hours. I never pulled an all nighter for any classes other than art.

  6. Cannot really tell college kids/young adults to study more. I can only set my expectations in the syllabus and on the first day and follow through with them. I have to admit that technology has allowed me to be more efficient in the delivery and organization of my teaching. Perhaps, in turn, my students spend less time studying. Not sure, just a guess.

    I haven’t noticed any decline in the number of good students, but the number of ill-prepared students is increasing. Colleges are admitting more students…I am not sure if this is good or bad.

    Students do know that they’ll reap what they saw! But… knowing what to do, and actually doing it are two different things. Many of them are actually happy to receive a C in math-related classes.

  7. Karen: I am retired, and taking some programming courses at a local tech college in the Atlanta area. From what I see, the trade school/vocational school is gone. The whole Georgia Technical College system has morphed into another junior college system, which is interesting because we already have a junior college system.

    They still have some standard vocational type courses, like truck driving that do not require a standard college curriculum. There is so much competition for students to fill the seats in our colleges that they are taking almost anyone.

    Mr Briggs has something, there, about study hours since 1961. Since I matriculated after that date, I am guilty of studying less than other students. As a matter of fact, I saw students who did their homework as wimps because they could not intuit the problems in class without foreknowledge from the book.

    After my sophomore rude awakening, I did work a bit harder.

  8. Kids want everything on a plate these days. I used to teach engineering students and they almost expected to know what was coming up on exam papers etc. When I was a student, one of our lecturers told us to “bang our heads against the wall until the answer comes to you” !! i.e. don’t come bothering him until you had a decent stab at the problem yourself.

  9. Bob,

    I wonder if there’s some sort of academic ‘social climbing’ at work in what you observe. Just as say (e.g.) Southern Tech is now ‘Southern Polytechnic State University’, Georgia Tech seems dissatisfied with being a top-rank specialized ‘Institute of Technology’, and now wants to become a university.

  10. Karen,

    Your prediction is a good one. And I believe we are already seeing the beginnings of it. Several small schools have popped up that stress classical educations; to include requiring real work on the part of students. These are not “research universities”, but sedate sanctuaries with small censuses (censii?).

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