Monday, June 7, 2010

Today's students are lazy

I find it quite frustrating to teach undergraduates, as they seem to have difficulties grasping simple concepts and often exhibit a disturbing lack of drive to learn. I may say this is due to my teaching, but my sentiment has been echoed by many colleagues, at my place and elsewhere. In addition, this frustration is fueled by the difference I see between undergraduates today and those from my times as a student. That view may very well be biased, as I was a rather good student, thus I am looking forward to some objective measures of student effort and performance.

Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks use time use surveys of students in 1961 and 2003. They notice that the time spent studying has been reduced from 40 hours a week to 27. This is not a small change. And this cannot be explained by any composition effect, as it appears no matter how you slice the data. There is some non-measurable way in which students are different.

One thing is that they rely much more on textbooks, thus they need to do much less note-taking and transcription, or trying to understand what they wrote. This would be positive for outcomes, probably. But universities pamper students much more with social activities that distract them from studying, on top of all the dispersions TV and the internet now offer. And finally, students find much less of an urge to do well, as they have the impression, which is not wrong, that they will be doing fine anyway. They do not need a work ethic to succeed any more.


agentcontinuum said...

Well, grade inflation is one of those coordination problems. You can't deviate unilaterally and give realistic grades because you're just dooming yourself and your students.

Oh, and what's with all the sports and pampering of athletes at US universities?!

Kern said...

I hear you with this one. I was an adjunct for two semesters and it was a nightmare. For better or worse, I failed half the class (calculus I) and then had to quit the job.
Aint no way to sugar coat it.

Martin Ryan said...

Babcock and Marks were right when they opened with the quote: "if history is a guide, every generation has a tendency to slander its progeny with allegations of decadence and sloth."

The findings are as follows:

"We find steep declines in the average weekly study time of full-time college students at four-year colleges over this period, from about 24 hours per week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in the 2000’s. Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within every major, and at 4-year colleges of every type, degree structure and level of selectivity. We conclude that the change in college culture is real."

There is some suggestive evidence that students work harder in recessions ( Babcock and Marks look at four time periods: 2003-2005, 1987-1989, 1981, and 1961.

61 and 81 are characterised by much higher study time, but scholars of U.S. economic history will also know that these years are characterised by recession. This graph provides confirmation:

Babcock and Marks conclude that:

"postsecondary institutions in the United States are falling short of their traditional standard for academic time investment, and that the gap between actual effort elicited and the requirements or expectations articulated by these institutions has grown over time."

While the recession-theory cannot be proven, it be a useful addition to how we understand these findings.