Studying Optional

From Keith O’Brien’s “What happened to studying?” in The Boston Globe:

According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

This probably didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, the question is, Why?  The suggested answer is perhaps more troubling than the data.

The easy culprits — the allure of the Internet (Facebook!), the advent of new technologies (dude, what’s a card catalog?), and the changing demographics of college campuses — don’t appear to be driving the change, Babcock and Marks found. What might be causing it, they suggest, is the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them.

And …

One theory, offered by Babcock and Marks, suggests that the cause, or at least one of them, is a breakdown in the professor-student relationship. Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, they suggest, is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.

“No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class,” Marks said. “To make a tough assignment, you have to write it, grade it. Kids come into office hours and want help on it. If you make it too hard, they complain. Other than the sheer love for knowledge and the desire to pass it on to the next generation, there is no incentive in the system to encourage effort.”

The problem dates back to the 1960s, said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California Berkeley. Sperber, at the time, was a graduate student at Berkeley and was part of an upstart movement pushing for students to rate their professors. The idea, Sperber said, was to give students a chance to express their opinions about their classes — a noble thought, but one that has backfired, according to many professors. Course evaluations have created a sort of “nonaggression pact,” Sperber said, where professors — especially ones seeking tenure — go easy on the homework and students, in turn, give glowing course evaluations.

If there is a bright spot in the story it might be this:  At least students are self-aware of the problem.

In a 2008 survey of more than 160,000 undergraduates enrolled in the University of California system, students were asked to list what interferes most with their academic success. Some blamed family responsibilities, some blamed jobs. The second most common obstacle to success, according to the students, was that they were depressed, stressed, or upset. And then came the number one reason, agreed upon by 33 percent of students, who said they struggled with one particular problem “frequently” or “all the time”: They simply did not know how to sit down and study.

This also suggests that the problem cannot be blamed entirely on the breakdown of the teacher-student relationship cited above, although I suspect that bears a good bit of the responsibility.

3 thoughts on “Studying Optional

  1. I feel like this student-teacher breakdown can be blamed for further developing my hubris. I got an A on my first college test by just looking over the notes ten minutes before the class started. It is tempting to attribute the good grade to my genius. Unfortunately it really is more accurate to say that the good grade came from the professor’s reluctance to challenge the class. For all the conscious students it is a love-hate sort of thing. We get the degree (which is all the world really wants to see) but at the same time discipline and hard work remain foreign to us now and in our future (when we’ll need it most.) Of course none of this is new to me. After all, you know where I went to high school…

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