Amid the various discussions of higher education and all sorts of innovative strategic planning (including here at Mason), I wonder what has happened to a concern that surfaced a couple of years ago, about the average out-of-class time that college students put into their studies. The data were worrisome, in suggesting a several-hours-per-week reduction over the past decade or so. This was one of the points emphasized in the sometimes-questionable assessment, Academically Adrift, but it surfaces in National Assessment of Student Engagement data and elsewhere.
A number of caveats, before I make a couple of tentative points. First, I’m not seeking to indict a generation. I vowed never to do this once I reached geezer status, and I’m not starting now. Which also brings the clear acknowledgement, many students still put in considerable time; data suggest liberal arts and science students, and engineers, and I would personally add many of the motivated students in the arts, are particularly diligent. And there are real debates about what, in the current environment, actually constitutes study time, given importance of group work, media availability; comparative data across time may be less revealing than superficial impressions suggest. Finally, data over the past several years from research universities imply stabilization of a slight increase in study time.
We must be keenly aware, also, that the burdens of necessary employment on many students, including fulltime undergraduates, are quite real and understandable.
Finally, I’m not addressing any concerns particularly about Mason students, or about students in my classes, with whose work I’m usually fairly pleased. Mason data actually suggest modest gains in study time over recent years, as our programs and student capacities have changed.
Still, some national data did point to a concern, and I think it’s legitimate to ask where the concern stands amid the various higher ed commentaries with which we’re assailed. A few observers continue to refer to the problem of lagging study time, particularly in criticizing college emphases on entertainment, athletics and other sometimes expensive diversions.
This angle aside, however, I wonder if the point has slipped from view. We’re more bent on appealing for innovation than on commenting on something so mundane as study time. Of course more participatory classes might induce greater student investment, but I haven’t seen much assessment from that angle. Far more attention is being given to shortcuts that might save costs or deliver education more conveniently, which may be perfectly worthy goals but not directed at the study time issue (and are quite conceivably contradictory to it). I know that in the strategic planning discussions at Mason this particular issue has not, to my knowledge, explicitly surfaced at all.
But we should not forget about it, even though precise remedies, and even precise problems, are hard to define. The issue suggests a need to talk with students candidly, and with a modest amount of rigor, and not just focus all the attention on the innovations required of faculty and administration. As we try to craft more effective institutions, student responsibility has a role to play, and we should not shy away from mentioning this angle.
After all, if our goal is to improve learning, a bit more study time might do as much as a raft of pedagogical innovations, and sometimes a bit more. And yes, a small amount of geezerism has probably surfaced on my part.