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Assessing What College Students are Really Learning  

What are college students really learning? Are students provided the necessary skills to be competitive in the labor market? How can this be measured? These questions and more were answered in the March 17 lecture, "What are College Students Really Learning: How Available Evidence and New Approaches to Assessment Can Help," by Richard Arum, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education at University of California, Irvine. Arum discussed how the U.S. higher education system is failing in three critical assessment areas – student completion, learning outcomes and post-college transitions.

Student study time – a metric in which U.S. students scored poorly – and student motivation – shown to decrease after a student's first year – were among his findings.

"I liked the international comparisons on student study time. The U.S. was one of the lowest performing countries. However, I'm certain there are things we do here in the U.S. that are unparalleled," said Anisha Saini, Higher Education master's degree student.

Forty-five percent of students, according to available data, take no classes that require writing more than twenty pages per semester. Additionally, most courses were found to carry a reading requirement of fewer than 40 pages per week.

"The first step in addressing the problem is getting the data on how we are doing – and this is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's [co-author] important contribution. Both faculty and administrators at our colleges, but also students and their parents are now in a position to begin demanding – and expecting – real academic rigor --- from the college experience and worrying less about the amenities in the dorms and the athletic facilities!," said Martin Finkelstein, professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy and an organizer of the event.

Richard Arum

Richard Arum signs his book for an attendee.

Student performance on the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment) – a measure of reasoning, writing and critical thinking – can be a key predictor in job performance. Findings show those who scored poorly were more likely to lose a job, indicating technical and skills training is only one component of producing market ready graduates.

"In a moment when serious concerns are being voiced about the cost and value of a college education, Arum and Roksa provide us with empirical answers to very important questions: How much are students in four-year, residential colleges actually learning? That is, to what extent is the college experience improving those critical thinking, problem solving skills that employers say they want? Their answer must give all of us in higher education pause: Apparently not much. Their data shows that today's students study very little and spend much more time taking advantage of the social aspects of the college experience," said Finkelstein.

Arum stressed that in addition to participation in the labor market, a higher education degree is crucial for adults to instill the necessary skills to critically reason and make sense of the world, contributing to productive democratic citizenship.


Higher Education Graduate Students represented at the event.

"It was interesting how we learned that many college graduates do not stay informed with the news and world around them. We should look at larger implications why students are not staying actively engaged," noted Andrea Delpriore, Higher Education Leadership, Management and Policy doctoral student.

Arum and colleagues have made available tools and resources to support postsecondary student learning through the Measuring College Learning Project and Resource Center. The Center is creating learning and assessment goals and encouraging fruitful dialogue between faculty and employers to prepare students for the labor market.

"It was great to share Dr. Arum's insights on how to define and measure learning. It is now obvious that higher education institutions need to focus more on educational outcomes," said Olga Komissarova, doctoral student in the Higher Education Leadership, Management and Policy program.

The lecture, made possible through the vision and generosity of the College of Education and Human Services, is the second in the Higher Education Program's Distinguished Speaker Series, which brings prominent speakers and experts to the Seton Hall campus to present on vital and current issues facing the higher education community.

Richard Arum recently served as senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from 2013 -2015; and director of the Education Research Program at the Social Science Research Council from 2006 - 2013, where he oversaw the development of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a research consortium designed to conduct ongoing evaluation of the New York City public schools. He is coauthor of Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011); as well as coeditor of Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessment for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2016) and Stratification in Higher Education: A Comparative Study (Stanford University Press, 2007), which examines expansion, differentiation and access to higher education in fifteen countries. He received a Master of Education in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

The lecture is available in its entirety by clicking, here.

For information on the College of Education and Human Services and on upcoming lectures and events visit, here.

Categories: Education

For more information, please contact:

  • Ryan Rhodes
  • (973) 378-9806
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