Caffeine, Learning and the American University

| February 16, 2011

I was delighted to see Pamela announce in her recent post that caffeine and sugar were exactly what student brains need most to learn in a university environment.

Which is why I thought people might be interested in a related, and highly controversial new study which suggests that many undergraduates at US universities aren’t actually ‘learning’ anything at all. Yes, that’s right: people are spending up to $50,000 per year to acquire no new skills, thought strategies or alternatives to the way they already do things.

To be fair, critics point out that the study – entitled ‘Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses’ (University of Chicago Press) – was looking for ‘higher level reasoning and writing skills’, rather than the elementary skills students should have learned at K-12 level. But isn’t learning or improving our critical reasoning and writing precisely the remit we entrust to undergraduate studies in the first place?

If you think this is alarming, you should definitely check out at least this appraisal of the study in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And, of course, it hasn’t gone unnoticed in mainstream academia. So I have, for the purposes of balance, provided links to rejoinders and criticisms of the study by academics with a different view.

Happy reading. And, remember: don’t believe everything you’re told in school 😉

— Your friendly neighbourhood Roderick