I really enjoyed the Freakonomics books by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. I received the first one (Freakonomics) for Christmas from my wife and bought the sequel, SuperFreakonomics, soon afterwards. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they keep a blog on the New York Times website, and I began following it in the midst of reading the two books. (The hyperlinks are to reviews I wrote of the two books after reading them.)
A couple months ago the Freakonomics blog linked to an interesting study on the amount of time college students spend in class and studying. This study showed that the amount of time full-time students spend in class or studying has decreased from about 40 hours a week in 1961 to about 27 hours a week in 2003. They found that this decrease was consistent across all factors from employment, to major, to race, to gender, and so on. Also, this decrease happened with a level of consistency, with slightly more of the difference happening in the first half than the second half.
(On a side note, I would be especially interested to see if the numbers have changed at all since 2003, given the expansion of distractions that have emerged since then, including, but not limited to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter.)
One possible explanation for this decrease in time spent studying is the efficiency of technology. I’ve heard stories from family members about writing papers on typewriters in the 1970s. They would first handwrite the paper and polish it as a handwritten version until it was in a final draft. Then they would type it. Any mistakes made would take a lot of time to correct. I can imagine that this would increase the amount of time spent working on homework outside of class.
Another way technology has helped increase efficiency is the electronic replacing of physical card catalogues and having databases from which one can search for relevant articles. I personally remember using the card catalogue in middle school, but by entering junior high, computers had begun to replace card catalogues, and card catalogues quickly became a thing of the past. While the amount of time searching for research has decreased, it is not clear that this change would create a decrease in overall time, as the additional resources available to students would theoretically increase the amount of resources used for work.
It seems that there must be other factors going on that have led to the decrease of time spent in class and on homework in the last 40 years. I don’t know what those factors are, and anything I mention would be pure speculation. Given the wide range of possibilities, it would be presumptuous for me to do more than speculate. However, I will still speculate a bit.
I don’t think that the problem can be isolated to any single group or problem. In fact, I would guess that you can trace some of the problems to each party involved. I will speak particularly about the ways both students and professors may be responsible, as I have some experience in both roles.
For students, college is about a lot more than the time spent in the classroom. In fact, my youth pastor (who is also my uncle) often said “Don’t let your classes get in the way of your college education.” I think there is some wisdom in this statement, as I learned many things outside of the classroom in college from getting my first life experience. There is a danger though if that mentality becomes pervasive among students. While I spent lots of time studying in college, I also made a point to attend basketball games, play frisbee golf on campus, and get the daily dose of Mario Kart 64 with the roommates, among other social outings. In college, you become responsible for your time management, likely for the first time. Also, college likely offers a whole new set of social activities, and those activities always seem to be expanding yearly. It may be a matter of priorities, where the homework and studying does not have the priority that other events do. However, I don’t think it is necessarily fair to place all of the blame on the students.
Having taught many classes at different points in my graduate education has shown me how responsible the professor can be for the work the students put in. Speaking from my own experiences, I know there have been times, especially earlier in my teaching, when a busy or stressful week for me and my work would mean an easy week for my students.
Given my limited experiences at a limited number of different institutions, I’ve noticed that professors at schools with high publication expectations are more likely to let their teaching go than at institutions with lower publication expectations, even if the former institution allows for less classes taught. I can’t say I blame the professors. The quarter I finished writing and defended my master’s thesis at Ohio University was not one of my better teaching quarters. I had lower expectations for the students because my priorities were elsewhere. I can’t help but wonder if the gained expectations (and opportunities) for publishing have played some role in this downward shift in time spent studying by students as well.
I also wonder if the expectations that accompany a college education have decreased over the last 40 years, leading to a decrease in the amount of time spent studying. At that time, a college education was not required for many jobs and many people did not go to college. However, today most everyone is expected to go to college. Now the case could be made that the job expectations and requirements have increased, and that may be the case, but the truth probably includes both an increase on the employment end and a decrease on the education end to some degree.
Like I said earlier, the reasons are wide spread, and all I am giving is some speculation on the issue. However, a bigger question that needs to be considered is if this decline is actually a bad thing? Should we expect students to spend more time studying than they do?
I think the answer to the question depends on the reasons why there has been the decline in time spent. If we can explain the decline in terms of increased efficiency, then I think it is far less troubling than if there are other reasons that explain the decline. The question at that point would be if the expectations for students should increase to utilize that extra time and give them even more of an education.
If the decline in time spent is best explained through other factors such as decreased expectations of the students’ work or increased distractions from the classroom for students and/or professors, this decline seems like it should cause concern for us.
Figuring out what exactly is causing the decline would be incredibly difficult if it is even possible. We should not expect to be able to conclusively explain what is going on. However, this fact should not prevent us from speculating. Instead, we should take the most plausible explanations among our speculations and check them out. If these speculations concern increased efficiency through technology or some other positive means, then we should applaud these advances and only wonder if we should raise the expectations. But if these plausible explanations point toward a lowering of the quality of work done in college, then at the very least, we should explore these theories to see if they are a significant contributor and if shown to be, we should address them. Again, it all comes back to the question of why there has been the decrease in hours spent studying.
What theories do you think are most plausible to explain this decline? If it is increased efficiency, do you think colleges should raise their expectations? If it is other reasons that have lowered the quality of education, what steps should be taken to address these?
(Disclaimer: I’m not looking for nice answers that are not rooted in reality. For instance, I know that colleges need to retain students and professors while raising their appeal and often their prestige to remain competitive in today’s marketplace. This fact makes things far more complex, but I don’t want to shy away from the complexities here to come up with a solution that would never work in today’s colleges and universities.)