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Is Our Students Learning?

One of the more interesting talks at the recent American Sociological Association meetings was given by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, directors of the CLA Longitudinal Study. Arum and Roksa are following approximately 2,300 students attending 24 four-year colleges and universities nationwide in an effort to assess the magnitude and causes of gains in learning. They’re working with the Council for Aid to Education and utilizing the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that while imperfect is among those more highly-regarded new measures of college learning.

Having examined the test scores of students at the start of freshman year and again at the end of sophomore year, Arum and Roksa discovered the following. First, gains don’t look particularly large for anyone. On average, scores went up maybe 50 points (eyeballing their results it looks like from about 1125 to 1160-1175). Of course, it’s hard to determine what exactly constitutes a “large” versus “small” gain here, since we’ve got little if anything to benchmark against. But the gains sure don’t look like much. Second, students who start behind tend to stay behind; put another way those inequalities at the starting gate are consistent. Students whose parents have less education, and those from racial/ethnic minority groups have substantially lower test scores. Third, there’s a decent amount of variation among colleges and universities in learning gains– about 30% of differences in gains appear attributable to college-level rather than student-level factors. That should make those great believers in “school effects” pretty psyched, I’d think.

On the whole, however, so far this study raises more questions than it answers. Are gains in test scores reflecting in-school learning, or might they simply reflect the maturation process? In other words, when one progresses from age 18 to 19, what gains in skills might we “naturally” expect to occur? Another, pretty obvious question– is the CLA capturing the kind of learning we’d expect colleges to be teaching? This one, I’m figuring, we could debate ad nauseum.

In any case, the punchline here is a simple one. “Cool study”– one to keep an eye on.

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