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Study: College Students Aren’t Learning Basic Skills

This article was written by in Education, Featured. 19 comments.

A new study following thousands of college students from 2005 through 2009 concludes that students are not learning the basic cognitive skills required for functioning properly in life, namely critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills. The primary assumption that the goal of earning a college degree is obtaining these particular skills is where this study went wrong.

Not everyone agrees that this is the purpose of a college education. While these core cognitive skills are imperative for life outside of college, the trend has been to downplay these qualities. Because of the long-term trend of increasing availability and affordability of a college degree, this level of education is often required, even for jobs that in the past did not require it. The country has moved away from a manufacturing economy to an information economy, and a college degree is what gets you in the door for a typical middle-class career. Even though tuition costs have been exceeding inflation, there are more people attending college now than any time in the history of Western civilization.

When college degrees were for the privileged, the curriculum could focus exclusively on these skills and the liberal arts, but a college education has recently become more focused on practical applications and learning specific, job-related skills — the function of apprenticeship in the past. It’s no surprise that when separated by degree type such as, engineering vs. liberal arts, the engineering students did not gain critical thinking skills but did gain specific skills that would help them in a specific industry, while the liberal arts students did increase their level of cognitive skills.

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Much of the blame for the overall cognitive failure of these sampled college students will go to the students themselves. Perhaps they should have applied themselves more or studied more efficiently. The study showed that students who study alone were more likely to gain needed skills than those who study in groups. Much of the blame will also go to the colleges and universities, whose professors often focus on their research rather than instructing and don’t challenge the students enough.

Looking at the bigger picture, we’re doing fine. Today, students learn in elementary school facts about the world that were discovered by people considered the geniuses of their day many centuries ago. In high school, students learn science that was not general knowledge only a few hundred years ago. College students have the opportunity to learn more about the world than the best scientists and philosophers understood only decades ago.

Yet, the college degree is so commonplace now that in the same breath we can both question whether the increasing cost of a college education renders a degree no longer financially worthwhile and state that since the job market for middle-class careers sees the college degree as an entrance barrier, it is more like a high school degree less than once century ago.

The college degree is having an identity crisis. I’m not surprised a study finds that students aren’t learning cognitive skills in the four years they are enrolled.

Study: Many college students not learning to think critically
Photo: ralph and jenny

Published or updated January 18, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I’m not surprised by these “findings” at all. Being a nontraditional, adult student, I am always appalled at how much younger students do not apply themselves and how easy the professors and instructors make it. It is infuriating for me to sit in a classroom listening to the instructor giving students every available “out” for failure to study, show up for an exam, or even be prepared to take an exam (e.g., not bringing a pen or pencil, for Heaven’s sakes!). Students are treated like children who might throw a tantrum if they are held responsible for any action or information. In turn, students complain and moan and gripe about pop quizzes, reading assignments, papers, and even attendance policies. I cannot get financial aid to attend school as an adult holding down a full-time job and family but these students receive MY tax dollars and then do such a poor job of being a student. College is for adults who WANT to learn. Trust me, the few individuals who are serious about their education are PLEADING for intellectual challenge, academic responsibility and developing their thinking processes to apply and use information.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

The whole idea of college is a mess. Nothing mentioned here surprises me. I’ll take a technical major over a liberal arts any day! News flash to the $200k debt sociology major. You go to college to ensure a ROI, not to party. Otherwise you can party and skip the tuition.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I think you missed the point of the article…the sociologist major showed more gains in critical thinking than did the engineering major. The engineer gained job skills while the liberal arts major learned how to think.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

“It’s no surprise that when separated by degree type such as, engineering vs. liberal arts, the engineering students did not gain critical thinking skills but did gain specific skills that would help them in a specific industry, while the liberal arts students did increase their level of cognitive skills.”

Did the study really say this specifically about engineering vs liberal arts??

I would have to question the conclusion that engineering curriculum doesn’t teach critical thinking skills. I don’t see any mention of engineering in the article referenced. In my experience engineering school taught quite a bit of critical thinking. Maybe I just went to a very good school.

I don’t disagree in general that a lot of students study little and party too much and that many college programs aren’t very hard.

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avatar 5 Luke Landes

I’m still looking for the full study rather than news articles about it — the first article I read didn’t mentioning engineering specifically; I was just using it as an example of a major that doesn’t fall under liberal arts. The article does mention education, business, social work, and communications — majors whose students didn’t fare well in this analysis. Engineering may not have been a fair example of a non-liberal-arts major since it’s not mentioned in this article specifically.

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avatar 6 faithfueledbennetts

I believe that you get out of it what you put into it. I also believe that the skills mentioned in this article should be taught in high school before kids get to college. But, since a 4 year degree is common place now, I suppose one would expect less out of it unfortunately.

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avatar 7 tigernicole86

Non of this surprises me. However, with the wide variety of friends that I had in college(engineering to education to geology to music to criminal justice with a whole lot in between), a lot of these were skills that we were expected to already have. I’m pretty sure at 17 or 18 most people’s critical thinking skills aren’t exactly honed to a fine sheen.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I’m not surprised at the conclusions but would like to read the entire study. I too was a non-traditional student going to school at night at several different schools while in the USAF. Traditional students weren’t really challenged on a cognitive level and even I was told by our business law instructor to let her know if I couldn’t find time to get an assignment done – “We’ll work it out” she said. Just recently though, I read an article about our school systems that reported nearly 85% of high school graduates, accepted to college, required remedial courses in English and basic math skills before starting their college work. Challenging students too much might cull the herd to unacceptable low levels – and that would be bad for “business”. Colleges are a business!

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Steve, That 85% number sounds too high. NCES study from 2004 says its 20% at traditional 4 year schools and 42% at community colleges. The 85% figure might be for a certain school or maybe for a state.

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avatar 10 Sarah

This doesn’t really surprise me. I feel like too much emphasis is put on memorizing facts than about critical thinking, since it’s much easier to test that.

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avatar 11 gotr31

None of this surprises me either. As a parent of younger children I see the failure in teaching cognitive skills starting in the elementary schools. All they do is memorize and regurgitate on command. And I agree about teachers giving kids too many “outs” and not enough real challenges. It is a challenge for the teacher to really teach and some are not up to the challenge!

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avatar 12 Donna Freedman

The “memorizing facts” kind of instruction starts in kindergarten. Paulo Freire referred to this as the “banking method” of pedagogy, i.e., deposit facts for withdrawal at test time. We’re told to memorize something but we may not be given any context for it.
I was a non-traditional student too, earning my degree in December 2009 at age 52. While some of the students drove me batty with their casual attitude toward education (I heard a young man say “As long as I get at least a C in the class, I’m good”) others were very passionate about learning. I agree, however, that a lot of people didn’t seem to know WHY they were there — they’d been inculcated since birth that college is what you do. They’d never actually been told WHY you go, only THAT you go.
My own major was something called the Comparative History of Ideas, a design-it-yourself major based in the humanities but which could include just about any class you want. Critical thinking was essential. You couldn’t get away with just re-stating what the professor said in lecture. If you simply parroted facts from research or professional journals, your papers would come back marked up with things like, “How do you know? What does this mean? Where is the historical context? Develop this idea further,” etc. etc.
I do think that a gap year is a good idea for some people. You’re taking people who’ve done nothing except go to school for 12 years and throwing them into a system that says “Decide, right now, what you want to do with your life — and the cash clock is ticking.” Some people are blessed enough to know they want to be architects, doctors, teachers, whatever. Some people don’t even know who they are, let alone what they might be good at doing for the next 40 years.

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avatar 13 skylog

i could write volumes on this topic, but i will simply agree with what is being said. dozens, if not many more, of my friends were basically “punching the clock” with regards to college and the path to their degree. to be honest, that is what the system seems to be at this point. obviously, there are exceptions, but at my university (45,000+ students at the main campus) there almost seems to be a factory mindset.

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avatar 14 eric

Sometimes I did feel like my college was a factory churning out degrees to the highest bidders. I still place value in education but going to college right after high school is not the foregone conclusion like yesteryear.

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avatar 15 shellye

If a college isn’t turning out critically-thinking graduates, yet one of the first things you read in a job posting is “must be a college graduate”, then you have to ask yourself if a college education is even a good ROI anymore. That question could apply to both the person considering college and the person considering hiring a college graduate.


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avatar 16 Anonymous

Many people hear have said that this does not surprise them. I am surprised, I am shocked even, at your sentence, “Looking at the bigger picture, we are doing fine.”


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avatar 17 Anonymous

I meant to say, “Many people HERE have said,” not “hear”

Ironic I would make that mistake in this particular case.

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avatar 18 wylerassociate

how much is it that college students don’t read outside the classroom and aren’t serious about being educated well round people? I think that has a lot to do with it.

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avatar 19 4hendricks

I did not rec my college degree, I dropped out to get married, a decision I do not regret. I don’t think that it as hurt me. I have always landed management positions, and earned a great salary.

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