In a paper entitled, “Leisure College, USA” Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have documented dramatic declines in study effort since 1961, from 24 down to 14 hours per week. This decline occurred at all different sorts of colleges and is not a result of students working for pay.
At the same time, colleges are handing out better grades. In other work, Babcock presents strongly suggestive evidence that the two phenomena are related. That is, lower grading standards lead to less studying. They also lead students to give better course evaluations.
To me this looks like evidence of big problems in higher education, though I’d love someone to convince me otherwise.
Andrew Perrin has been a leader in developing an institutional response to concerns about grading. See his original scatterplot post on the topic, “grades: inflation, compression, and systematic inequalities.” as well as the more recent scatterplot discussion.
Fabio at Orgtheory considers four possible explanations. I’ll quote him:
- Student body composition – there are more colleges than before and even the most elite ones have larger class sizes.
- Technology – the Internet + word processing makes assignments much easier to do.
- Vocationalism – If the only reason you are in college is for a job, and this has been true for the modal freshman for decades now, you do the minimum.
- Grade inflation – ’nuff said.
To address them in reverse order. Fabio thinks he can rule out grade inflation because even students in hard majors report studying less… I gather he’s arguing that have really tough (uninflated?) grading are studying less, then it seems arbitrary to posit one unnamed cause in those disciplines, and a separate cause (grade inflation) in the other discplines. I’m not sure if that argument with that data are strong enough to convince me. I’m not saying that grade inflation explains 100% of the change. My guess is that it explains some of it, but that both phenomena have common and distinct causes.
Fabio’s favored explanations are vocationalism and technology. I don’t really like either of them. First, I don’t know that it’s true that those seeking more career oriented education do the minimum. Second, as Fabio mentioned, they claim the dropoff is similar across courses of study (though I’m not sure how fine grained that data is). As for the idea that technology makes studying more efficient, most of the decline in studying had already occurred by the mid-eighties, before email and the web.
A priori I would have predicted the effect was mostly explained by change in the composition of colleges and college students, but the authors claim that the trend was similar among highly competitive colleges.
Any other theories?
I should have mentioned this before. The authors are analyzing different surveys with somewhat different methodologies and then attempting to make them comparable. They lean pretty heavily on the 1961 Project Talent survey. If that is, for whatever reason, an overestimate, the decline might be far less dramatic. Ungated version of the paper here.
After a closer look at the paper, I don’t think the data is fine grained enough to show that today’s students that are similar to those who attended in 1961 (ie. privileged students at top schools) are studying less, or at least not much less. Therefore one cannot rule out the theory that much/most of the decline is due to compositional change. I wish the authors had made their agreement/disagreement with my assessment more clear because I think it is of fundamental importance in interpreting the trend.
&rfrPhillip Babcock & Mindy Marks (2010). The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data NBER Working Paper (April) Other: 15954