Study finds undergrads hitting the books less often
December 12, 2010 5:00 AM
Elise Ramirez studies in the Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With final exams approaching on many college campuses, it won't be hard to spot stressed-out students hunched over laptops, hunkered down in library stacks or fending off fatigue with Red Bull.
Sure, they're dedicated and hard-working.
Or maybe not.
Undergraduates these days aren't studying much -- at least compared to their predecessors.
That is the conclusion of two University of California economics professors who analyzed student survey data spanning five decades. They say the average study time for full-time undergraduates nationally at four-year colleges has fallen dramatically, from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 now.
Their findings have resonated with some faculty who say the drop validates what they see in class: A less-than-hungry attitude from students who clearly are bright, yet aren't hitting the books any more than they have to.
One professor calls it "the good-enough generation."
Others, though, aren't buying it -- at least not entirely.
They say technology has shortened study times, students are more likely today to juggle a job with classes and -- let's be honest here -- every generation bemoans the next.
The authors, whose study is due to be published in The Review of Economics and Statistics next year, are familiar with the reaction.
"Every generation has a tendency to slander its progeny with allegations of decadence and sloth," the two authors wrote in a synopsis for the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.
Even so, those arguments don't square with the data.
For one thing, the sharpest drop in study time -- from 24 hours to 17 hours -- occurred between 1961 and 1981, long before Google made dorm room research lightning fast, said Philip Babcock, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California Santa Barbara who co-authored the study with Mindy Marks of the University of California Riverside.
And the decline occurred regardless of whether students had a job.
It didn't matter if they attended a small private college or a sprawling research university, a highly selective institution or a less selective one. The trend in study hours also transcended gender lines and race, with white, black and Asian students all experiencing declines.
The slackening off occurred in every discipline from engineering to the social sciences, and was evident in first-generation college students and those with a college graduate parent.
The findings are especially puzzling given that many students these days seemingly are so driven they arrive on top campuses with high school grades that are sky high and college credits already earned. Are they naturally smarter? Is it grade inflation?
The researchers aren't sure why study times have fallen but have their suspicions.
They assert that colleges enabled the erosion of what once was a bedrock standard: That students would study at least two hours a week for every hour in class, or in other words, 24 hours for students taking 12 credits and 30 for those taking 15 credits.
Dr. Babcock points to a "student-as-consumer" mentality on campuses and the rise of student course evaluations that have made some faculty think twice about how much homework to pile on.
It is a particular concern among part-time faculty without tenure, said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors.
"They're concerned that if they are tough on their students they are simply going to be out of a job," he said.
What's more, competition to recruit has placed colleges in the position of selling not only their academic rigor but a lifestyle.
"You have kids who have grown up in high comfort levels, probably driving their own car to high school and coming to college and expecting some equivalent living standard," said Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Pell Institute. That's obvious when one steps onto a campus and "the newest, largest building is the recreation center."
"I used to call some of these universities gated communities, but now I've taken to calling them country clubs," he said.
Mr. Mortenson said some students seem less interested in pure scholarly pursuit than in assembling credentials for their desired job, and thus miss some of what universities offer.
He recounted what a professor at a Midwestern research university, now retired, told him about students he encountered, including some high school valedictorians.
"He told me, 'They know what to do to get an A. But the idea of immersing themselves in a subject is beyond the level of effort they are willing to put out.' "
Some say the decline in study time could have less to do with student work ethic than with how courses are taught. For one thing, faculty members in large lecture classes are more likely to grade students based on multiple-choice exams, instead of time-consuming out-of-class writing assignments.
At Allegheny College, English professor Lloyd Michaels said he covers less material in some classes than he did 30 years ago, given a shift in his field toward deeper analysis of a smaller number of books. That means less out-of-class reading.
"For instance, in American Literature I used to always teach 'Moby Dick' and 'The Scarlet Letter,' " he said. "Now I teach one or the other."
Dr. Michaels said students probably think less about spelling thanks to spell check, and are more prone to study distractions in an age when YouTube and Facebook are as close as the phone in their pockets.
Still, he doesn't see today's students as less prepared, but rather prepared in different ways, thanks in part to vast information available online.
"People will always say, 'Oh, students don't know grammar. They can't write,' " said Mary Ann Rafoth, dean of education and educational technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "Yet they have acquired a whole bunch of skills that people didn't have -- the ability to research and digest information quickly and problem solve. There's a lot more emphasis on collaboration.
"I get the same breakdown of good writers, average writers and then some poor writers. The curve hasn't changed," she said.
Still, the concern about academic preparation is real.
It surfaced this fall at the University of Pittsburgh, which year after year admits freshmen classes better qualified judging from credentials including SAT scores and high school class rank. Members of Pitt's faculty assembly discussed at a meeting whether some of those students, even if smarter, are not as prepared as they should be.
Michael Pinsky, president of Pitt's University Senate, and a professor of critical care medicine, is of two minds. On the one hand, he works on a campus where he said students would stack up well against those at just about any institution. Yet some of those students seem to expend less effort than previous generations.
"In the past there was more of an across-the-board assumption that hard work paid off," he said. "Today it's less that [and more], 'You do what you have to do to do OK, and after that, that's enough.' "
Dental School associate professor and Faculty Assembly member John Baker said most students in his microbiology classes work hard, but a few are less diligent.
"I've actually had students tell me they don't want to spend the time studying to learn the material to a level that would get them an A in the class if it's not in their area of required study," Dr. Baker said. "They are perfectly happy with a B or a C."
But are students overall learning less?
In their study, Dr. Babcock and Dr. Marks acknowledge there is no uniform exit exam for undergraduates, so it's hard to say conclusively whether students are worse off than their predecessors. But the professors point to data suggesting that students who study more in college earn higher incomes, and they argue that there are implications for worker productivity and the economy.
Sitting one recent night in the William Pitt Union, periodically checking his cell phone, Pitt junior Ryan Gayman said if college students are slacking off, he's not seeing it. He studies 20 to 26 hours a week for his anthropology and urban studies double major, and 30 or more hours as finals approach, a work ethic that landed him on the dean's list with a 3.8 grade-point average.
Mr. Gayman, of Chambersburg, acknowledges he can't stay on a single task as long as his father can. But he said short breaks -- even for social networking -- can help him maintain focus.
Hearing the laments that his generation does not work hard reminds him "of stories from an older person -- someone's grandfather or grandmother -- saying they walked uphill both ways to get to school."
Even so, he catches himself passing judgment on those younger than him -- teens and pre-teens -- who are so engrossed in hand-held video games they don't make eye contact. "When I see them, I'll say things like, 'Man, back in my day,' and I'm only 21."