Richard Arum


On his (and Josipa Roksa's) book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Cover Interview of February 23, 2011

A close-up

In recent years, many colleges and universities have been encouraging students to work in groups as a way to accomplish simultaneously two goals that were seen to be complementary.  College and universities hoped that group work would promote active, engaged learning and would also facilitate student’s social engagement to promote student retention.

It is clearly possible, in theory, to design learning activities that would indeed accomplish such worthy aims.  Our research shows that, in practice, when today’s students study in groups outside of the classroom, their performance (on the assessment of general skills we used) actually declines.

When we looked at the association between students’ self-reported time use and how their performance on the CLA changed over time, we found that hours students reported studying in groups had a similar effect as did hours spent in sororities and fraternities.  The more time spent in any of these activities, the greater the decrease in student CLA performance.

On the other hand, when students reported on measures associated with traditional academic rigor, we found improved CLA performance over time.

For example, students who reported spending more time studying alone demonstrated significant improvement on the test; as did students who reported taking courses that had higher levels of reading and writing requirements.  Students who had taken a class with more than 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester, and also taken one that had at least 40 pages of reading per week, showed greater gains on the test.

In addition, we found that students in traditional majors found in the arts and sciences (e.g., math, science, social science and humanities) improved at greater rates.

Unfortunately, many of the students we followed did not experience a great deal of academic rigor when moving through U.S. colleges.  Although they did well in terms of their grade point averages, they were not asked by their instructors to read or write much, nor were they required to put in long hours of studying to achieve these grades.