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Less time studying

New research shows that over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping.  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.  The decline apparently 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. 

While the whole of it is worth contemplating, even though some of the facts may be disputed (did I really study about four hours a day as a freshman in 1965?), my eyes hit upon these three points: 1) "What might be causing it, they suggest, is the growing power of students and professors' unwillingness to challenge them."  2) about a third of students said that what interferes most with their academic success is that "they simply did not know how to sit down and study."  3) "Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.  No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class."
Categories > Education

Discussions - 18 Comments

Nothing like "hard data" to nail down the experience of decades. Teachers can observe the effects of not studying, but unless they are in a highly unusual situation, they cannot speak with authority about their students' study habits, that is, whether they are teaching actual students. This does not surprise me, but the lack of reference to what accounts for the big drop in weekly study hours points to the (perfectly legitimate) limitations of the survey. We are obsessed with electronic stimulation. I spend considerable time on the computer myself; granted I do lots of good reading, but also play games. Is this the time to make the case for the much-maligned "ivory tower"? As so much of formal education is hostile to the idea, much less the practice, of serious study or contemplation, we should not be surprised at this consequence.

That "student power" thing has taken its ultimate toll, as professors and teachers pander to their students. Socrates' criticisms of Athenian democracy still resonate. As long students enroll, complete their courses and get good grades, little else seems to matter. All hail to the institutions which provide islands of sanity in a crazy sea!

Spot on, as usual, Prof. Reeb! And, I wonder how many students devote themselves to reading serious fiction or non-fiction during those hours, though I would imagine that they fritter away endless hours on video games and various forms of electronic stimulation. Sadly, this is not much different from their parents. I stopped playing video games when I was about thirteen years old because it got boring and seemed a waste of time, but I don't think I was necessarily very mature. I did put away childish things, though. I've still resisted video games with my six and eight year olds who are very unusual for not having some kind of Xbox or Wii or whatevers out there. They read books, pick up some sporting equipment and play, or just look for bugs. I hope my children can help buck this emerging trend.

A thought or two about video games: They have always bored me, but my two grandsons love them (15 and soon 14). I have watched them play at times and have tried to figure out what the fascination is. The dull repetition long ago put me off. But then I realize that many things involve constant repetition, such as sports (the younger grandson and I live near each other and play a lot of basketball, as well as tossing a football or a baseball), and then I appreciate your point about the advantages of physical exercise. On the other hand, no less than the late Ronald Reagan was reported to have remarked that those playing video games (less sophiscated in the 1980s) were future pilots! What little I know of that field of endeavor, I understand that following computer simulations (if that's the right word) is now an integral part of it. (Nancy Reagan said her husband always saw the cup as half full, rather than half empty.) My friend Richard Williams's now 17-year-old grandson actually graduated from video games to golf, which he is very good at. Just as human nature can disappoint us, it can surprise us too. As Reagan said in his first Inaugural Address of military heroes, "Where do we get such men?" But then, if we are talking about study, which absolutely demands calming of the passions and free use of the intellect, I've yet to see how video games contribute anything but a waste of valuable time.

A college degree definitely doesn't have the financial return on investment today that it had, say, 35 years ago. Why spend as much time working on something that won't give you a whole lot back?

Andrew's on to something here. The value of a typical college education--although perhaps not of a college degree--has become so debased over the past fifty years that one has to wonder why so many students DO continue to take it seriously.

The son of a friend of mine never went to college, but he is making good money in Las Vegas waiting on tables. He owns a car and a house. But his college-educated friends are still making payments on very big loans and cannot afford what he can, certainly not a home of their own. What a curse on these unfortunates! Before the federal government began to subsidize higher education, it was more affordable. San Jose State cost me less then $50 a semester for "fees," and Claremont Graduate School was $750 tuition a semester. The latter seemed steep back in 1968 but I paid off my loans in a few short years. The colleges and universities have been the main beneficiaries of the taxpayers' generosity (?).

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity "is dedicated to research on the issues of rising costs and stagnant efficiency in higher education, with special emphasis on the United States."

Especially pertinent to this discussion, Richard Vedder's work: "Over Invested and Over Priced: American Higher Education Today" which is in pdf form here:

I was at a dinner with Vedder and a bunch of economists a couple of years back where he was discussing this study of his. I mentioned working at a community college and he said that was probably a good deal for the students. I agreed at the time.

However, in the last couple of years I have been asked to substitute for a few of the full-time faculty and adjunct PhD's. Not only do they ask little of their students, but even worse, they demand almost nothing of themselves. If I had known what low quality I could get away with -- I still couldn't do it. Conscience forbids. I run my class based on what I think students need to know as well as the work loads of my early college days (1970s) and (a moment of gratitude) those of the brief but intense summer courses of the Ashbrook Center MAHG program. Asking students to work hard seems to necessitate the instructor working even harder; in my recent experience professionals at my community college do neither. Yes, "both sides hope to do as little as possible".

All the more reason to be an autodidact.

But, yes, Richard Reeb, federal subsidy for higher education in the mode of low cost loans has inflated the price of college educations, though as mentioned by Joe Knippenberg (I think) in a previous thread on this topic, students rarely pay the full price for their educations.

I guess those who see college education as simply a stepping stone to a high-paying job would spend the least time studying to get the job done and get a diploma so that they can earn their wads of cash. Hopefully, our colleges mean something more than that! Hopefully, life means something more than that! It seems that places like Ashbrook, Hillsdale, Christendom, Claremont, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al. do offer something more.

Richard, interesting thoughts about video games, but let me offer this. In World War II, Americans who had worked on cars and tinkered with tractors, joined the Boy Scouts and made Eagle Scout, played sports, read books like Huck Finn in school, etc., got the job done through American grittiness and ingenuity. I hope we're not just offering video games to kids in the hope that that will turn them into a greatest generation (and surely I know you don't think so). Sometimes I think we are. Hopefully, we won't draft millions of these video-game playing, Dorito chomping, frappachino drinking, obese kids into a war someday. Of course, this is a generalization, but one that is becoming truer all the time.

I think it comes down to student evaluations and professorial fear/laziness. Most students will rise to one's expectations, but the price is bitching and low evaluations (unless the prof. is good at stand-up, which takes away part of the sting). This is doubly true at the big research universities, where graduate students are forced into the classroom in very large numbers. For them, popularity is job #1 because high standards have no immediate payoff, whereas high teaching evaluations help them 1) keep their current post, and 2) gain a higher paying job upon graduation. They play a game with the undergraduates -- like me and I won't make you work hard for the grade.

By the time the academic reaches the rank of full professor (and therefore less vulnerable to student evaluations of his/her teaching), the habit of conspiring with the students in too ingrained. A sad cycle, and the real explanation for less studying and lower levels of American achievement.

The solution is to ditch student evaluations and make rigorous teaching a must in promotion and pay decisions.

A department head told me that good student evaluations fall into two categories: praise for the easy teacher and praise for the rigorous teacher who makes the rigor worthwhile. Student comments make the distinction clear.

For years, the lax standards discussed here were vehemently denied, despite the grade inflation and the student-centered curriculum that are both the causes and effects of these trends. There are students who appreciate good teachers and there are certainly teachers who appreciate good (as distinguished from obsequious) students. But the general trend is unmistakeably downward. I check in with my former colleagues (at a community college) at least twice a year and they tell me that the students are worse than ever. Where is Strepsiades (Aristophanes' "Clouds") now that we need him?

Federal subsidies have encouraged many who might well have profited from different educations elsewhere and fostered the unrealistic notion that everybody belongs in college. Now Obama wants to guarantee everyone the first year of college, which won't stop there, of course, as colleges continue to turn into what high schools have long since become. If we are fortunate, the example of the colleges with the most integrity will draw the more serious faculty and students. That would make my gloomy outlook irrelevant.

Ohio has a Post Secondary Option, which means the high school juniors and seniors can come to college at tax-payer expense. Many of our best students come from those ranks. Many of the worst are of that crowd, too. I don't really mind the latter and fail them with smiles and kind words or let them scrape to barest passing with hard work, so their parents won't have to pay. They are finding out if they will like college and I am happy to talk to them about their alternatives when they find they don't.

Vedder says that since employers can be cited for discrimination if they give aptitude or ability tests, colleges are the substitute for employments exams. I tell my students that, hoping to encourage them to be more serious. Sometimes it works.

"The cost of learning whether job applicants would make good employees has always been fairly high, but the Griggs v. Duke Power Supreme Court decision of thirty-five years ago raised it enormously. For all practical purposes, the Court outlawed most forms of employer testingof potential employees, vital sources of information on their capacity to perform needed skills. That increased the importance of colleges as a
screening device. I think it is no accident that shortly after Griggs, the high school/college earnings differential grew substantially, enabling colleges to raise their prices aggressively."

Now that high schools pass students through so that they can graduate without even basic skills, a high school diploma doesn't mean much to an employer.
There, too, is part of the blame, that public schools don't really teach adequately. Point #2 in the post is spot on; incoming college students don't know how to read anything, much less study what they are reading.

Have faith, Richard. I am re-entering high school teaching after a few years off to write books, and have already chosen Tocqueville, Basler's Lincoln, and the Federalist for Government class, and a ton of classic primary sources for the students to grapple with in AP European history and U.S. history. I'll be fighting the good fight, leading them into battle for their souls.

In terms of grade inflation, and a studying deficit it seems to me that the answer is simply a university wide curve, take discretion away from the proffesors and make them all grade to a 3.0 or even a 2.5. In terms of a grade then it really wouldn't matter if you took the easy proffesor or the demanding one. If you really hate studying you find a bunch of lazy 2.0ers and befriend them so you know what classes to take...

Kate it wasn't the Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power that made up "disperate treatment" standard, that would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also the Supreme Court has never said that employers can't test aptitudes for the basis of hiring, only that such tests must be reasonably related to the job. Duke Power discriminated on the basis of race, and had no employment "tests" previous to the Civil Rights Act, but they basically decided to keep blacks in their place by requiring a high school diploma and an IQ test, which had a disperate impact on the availability of non-labor jobs for minorities.

If we established that Rand Paul made a gaffe in dredging up the Civil Rights Act we can't exactly relitigate it now, God forbid that sounds a bit like studying in the first place, american politicians shouldn't stir up debate on established law and precendent!

In any case maybe the Civil Rights Act was a good thing, and maybe Sotomayor was right about Ricci.

The "evil" Supreme Court even recognized the argument made by Vedder and Rand Paul on economic grounds, and embraced a reading of the Civil Rights act that would make it easier for employers to give aptitude tests as long as they could show evidence of sound business sense/justification. This is Cove v. Antonio, but the "good' elected representatives of the people overturned that court decision by changing the wording in the 1991 Civil Rights Act(really seems to be disparate impact)

In light of this I am actually not sure that Sotomayor and Ginsburg weren't right in Ricci given congressional intent. But we have an activist court that gives weight to the law and economics movement?, so the Supreme Court in Ricci shot down any case if you read the majority in Ricci it is clear in a roundabout way that Griggs v. Duke is not good law(actually explicit in the dissent/complaint by Ginsburg.)

From a Law and Economics view point I do agree with Rand Paul, but it might be a moot point, employers can do all sorts of testing(to include drug testing, which given how long marijuana stays in the system I don't think is a reasonable measure of job performance.) provided they can show that it is a reasonable measure of job performance. Certainly fear of litigation can have a chilling effect upon measures that would otherwise be reasonable but with stare decisis having already traced the main outlines this is only a burden upon smaller businesses that don't have an attorney on retainer, or policies that have already passed muster. Even then some courts require less from small business than large, and attorney's target deep pockets first, which is why Wal-Mart gets sued for this type of stuff on a daily basis.

If the kids stopped playing games where would the country find pilots for its growing fleet of predator drones?
I did not read all the comments so sorry if this has been stated: a lot of the people enrolled in college classes now are working a lot of hours at jobs to help pay for it. The colleges seem more and more a business. I had a prof once scoff at the technical "degree mills" across the road from our campus, but how was his class any different. I know people who spend less than an hour a week preparing for class and were given B's or better. You can't kick the kids out or the school can't pay your salary, or the salary of the army of adminstrators. Its not the same as having just to deal with the more aristocratic side of of society where one would fear disapointing their parents who were paying for the education by failing.
The colleges positioned themselves as gate keepers to the professional careers, at least it seemed that way when I was growning up. That is true today, but it comes at a cost where the student is viewing school as bridge to pass rather than a privilage to enjoy. Because of that they are going to be interested in doing the minumin to get by, the university will have to now cater to that and even make things easier if they wish to attract and keep a large student body with variable intrest student loan checks in hand.

As a college student, I can definitely see this being true. A lot of my peers (and myself sometimes I will admit), spend less and less time studying, but I have an idea. I really think part of it is the access to information that is now available with the internet other technologies. I can jump on the web and look up a question and find the answer quickly without the real work of trying to figure out a problem. Now, I'm not saying the internet is a bad thing, quite the opposite (in fact, I'm also majoring in CS), but I think there are a lot of things that are destroying our humanity and our understanding of education. I see more people with their laptop with Facebook up than I do with a book when I go into the commons. Students only need to get online, get their answer, and be done with it, instead of contemplating the answer and thinking about more than what the question asks (even some Ashbrooks have this problem). What is being taught in college does not seem to be the love of knowledge anymore, but the wanting a degree and the love of one's own view of the world.
My first semester, Dr. Schramm started asking us the fabled "what is justice" and he would not tell us the answer, no matter how much we asked him about it. I thought that finding the answer would be a piece of cake. I jumped online and started looking it up. To my surprise, there was no happy little answer than what I was used to. It is not until a couple of semesters later than I realized why the question is so important. The answer isn't easy and one needs to be able to think through the question and the answer. The problem is, a lot of places (even parts of AU) do not make a student think, only gather certain kinds of information, which can be looked up and recited. Why spend 24 hours looking through books and needing to contemplate the answer when one can spend 14 getting the answers online?

Also, I am a video game player. There can be good things about video games (I became interested in computers because of video games), but there is also the problem that students will rush through work, or not even do their work, so they can play games with their friends. So, they can be a good and fun thing, but they must be understood correctly and played in moderation (just like everything else). [And yes, there are good games and bad games... some support virtue, some support vice.]

In W. A. Swanberg's biography of Josephy Pulitzer, he relates an episode in which Pulitizer's aide expresses the opinion that it will not be necessary to read very much anymore to learn anything, for all that one needs to know is available in encylopedias. Swanberg has him saying that one can always "look it up" and quickly find answers. I relate this incident not to encourage complacency about the very real problem of electronic stimulation crowding out reading and thinking, but to indicate that the problem of study is doubtless coterminus with the human condition. Just as there is in democratic society always something new to interesting or divert us, so there are always new opportunities to avoid what is hard. The computer is a wonderful tool for those who know how to use it, a mere diversion for those who don't. The invention of printing facilitated the dissemination of knowledge but also enabled erroneous information to spread faster. I do think that the educators' early passion for computers was questionable, if not unseemly, as it showed more that they were trendy than all that serious about learning. But these new tools are with us now and must be used by the wise and prudent to best effect.

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