Academically Adrift Summary

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roska ask us to consider the effectiveness of colleges in ''Academically Adrift.'' They suggest that some colleges are seriously failing our students in areas of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other high level thinking skills.

Consider This

It is difficult to get by in the job market today without a college degree. Most people cannot survive on minimum wage jobs, but the cost of tuition keeps many people from taking the plunge. The idea of leaving a four-year college with staggering debt is something some students are choosing not to do. The question is, are they making the correct choice?

In Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, they ask the question, are students learning anything at all in these institutions of higher learning? The answer will surprise you. Arum and Roska looked at data from survey responses, transcripts, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is administered in the first semester and again at the end of the second year. The data is shocking.

The Facts

The information gathered through surveys and transcripts shows that many college students have minimal expectations as far as classwork is concerned. We learned that 2,300 students were tracked from a number of different colleges, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, to find that we are investing our money unwisely. The data show:

  • Almost half of the students showed almost no significant improvement in learning in the first two years.
  • More than one-third of the students showed almost no significant improvement in learning in the four year period.

The study also showed that those students who demonstrated learning only showed a very small increase in their learning over the four year period. It seems that there is not much learning going on in colleges these days, according to the authors. They state that students seem to be drifting through the four years with little or no purpose.

What is at the Core?

It appears that the culprit for this lack of progress is a lack of rigor. There isn't much reading going on in colleges these days. Almost one-third of the students reported that they don't take take courses where there are more than forty pages of assigned reading a week, and when it comes to writing, almost half the students said they don't take a course that has more than twenty pages of writing. The study also points to the fact that students only spend between twelve and fourteen hours studying and that most of that time is spent studying in groups.

Arum and Roska remind us that it is important to have consistency in terms of rigor from one discipline to the next. Students showing an interest in the subject, or Academic engagement, should become the focus and to do so, colleges need to focus on building a culture of learning.

Other Results

There is a relationship between rigor and the gains achieved or lost in students, according to the research gathered by Arum and Roska. It is particularly visible in these areas:

  • Students who study alone gain more than students who study in groups.
  • Classes with more reading and writing assigned offer students greater gains.
  • Time spent at Sororities and Fraternities gets in the way of learning.
  • Majoring in liberal arts gave students significantly higher gains. This major is heavy in critical thinking, writing, and complex thinking.


There is definitely more learning taking place when professors have higher expectations, and we see this in courses when more writing is assigned. The book also suggests that the academics are only the peripheral concern of colleges today, and there doesn't seem to be much accountability on either side. The students are allowed to get by doing as little as possible, and the faculty seem to be given the same latitude.

We know that students from varying backgrounds enter college at different levels in critical thinking, writing skills, and complex reasoning, but what is really shocking is that they remain unequal in spite of a college education. This is true for all ethnicities, especially for African Americans, where the inequality increases during the four year period.

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