The decline of studying

How university students are spending less time hitting the books while earning better grades than ever

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In 2006, Philip Babcock, a labour economist at the University of California, was surfing online when he came across a survey on the time use of undergraduate students at his school that shocked him. He noticed students were reporting perplexingly low studying times. Comparing his own university experience to his teaching experience over the past five years, Babcock had a gut feeling students weren’t studying as much, but remembers thinking, “people are always criticizing the generation that comes after them. Maybe they’re working their tails off.” So he decided to test the hypothesis. In the resulting study, to be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics later this year, Babcock and his co-author, Mindy Marks, found that since 1961, the amount of time an average undergraduate student spends studying has declined by 42 per cent, from 24 hours a week to 14. That drop is found within every demographic subgroup, within every faculty and at every type of college in the United States.

The study didn’t look at Canada, but the trend is true across North America. In his upcoming book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, James Côté, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario, analyzed a data set taken from 12,000 students from the U.S. and Canada and found similar results. Study times have gone down and grades have gone up, with the Canadian university average climbing from C to a B+/A- over the past 30 years.

Babcock’s study is one of the largest of its kind. The data of full-time students at four-year undergraduate programs was extracted from national surveys of thousands of people and represented four time periods: 1961, 1981, 1987-1989, and 2003-2005.

“The challenge was to make sure that we were comparing likes to likes,” says Babcock, who said it was complicated to account for demographic changes at the schools—more women, more working students—and to control for differently worded questions. In fact, women in recent cohorts were found to study on average more than men, and some faculties, like engineering, clocked more hours hitting the books than others.

As for the cause of the studying drop, he says the study only gives the hard numbers, but speculates the most plausible explanation is that university standards have fallen. He cites another of his studies, one on grade inflation to be released in the Journal Economic Inquiry later this year, to back up that claim. “The basic evidence is that instructors give higher grades, students work less and also students give them higher ratings,” says Babcock. “I don’t think there is much pressure to rein in the generous allocation of grading or to make sure that people make their courses difficult or demanding.”

Babcock is not the first to suggest that lower study times and grade inflation are linked. “When you look at grade inflation it’s a sign that we’re putting in less human capital, the standards have dropped and students are less engaged,” says Côté, who says disengaged students study less. “Most of the excuses for why we should tolerate disengagement don’t pan out,” he adds. “At best, work cuts into study time about two hours a week on average. That’s not an explanation for widespread disengagement.” He says that instead of studying, students have increased their leisure time and enjoy activities like sports, beer drinking, and parties.

But stats don’t tell the whole story, says Dean Giustini, reference librarian at the Biomedical Branch Library at the University of British Columbia. Having worked in the field for 15 years, Giustini says it’s impossible to demarcate what constitutes studying across the years, given that habits are changing all the time. “I remember talking with some of my professors, who said, ‘When we went to school we had to memorize 500 sources, and memorize the entire cataloguing rules from A to Z,’ ” he says. “Now there are so many different ways we can learn a subject. We don’t have to memorize.” Giustini says that in classrooms today you’ll be more likely to find a team-oriented, problem-based approach to learning as opposed to regurgitating facts and statistics. “More social forms of learning have taken the place of that model,” says Giustini. In other words, in the information age, the increasingly blurry line between studying and communicating may muddy the question of whether a student learns the material.

Ross Alger, an engineering student at the University of British Columbia, would say that squares with his own experience. “Every resource is at my fingertips,” says Alger. “If I have a physics problem I go to a website, I don’t have to spend hours going through a textbook trying to figure out something basic.” For the record, says Alger, even with the Internet, on top of his six-hour-a-day, five-days-a-week course load, he studies a minimum of two or three hours a night, and he says his classmates do more.

But Babcock says that if new technological tools have streamlined studying, it’s not by much: between 1988 and 2004, there was only a two-hour decline in study time. The greatest drop occured from 1961 to 1981, which was when professor ratings first came into vogue. That in turn motivated profs to grade easier, leading to falling standards, which Babcock argues led to a grade-inflation epidemic.

Instead of spending their time studying, Babcock and some of his fellow critics suggest students are finding other ways to produce better grades. Last year, Iris Franz, a visiting economics professor at Houston Baptist University, published a study that found students pester professors—obsessive emails, emotional crying, annoying visits to their offices—with more success than professors realize. “Professors don’t want to deal with students,” says Franz, “so they just inflate their grades so they can just close the door and do their research.” And now, it’s not just students that professors have to deal with. Tim Rahilly, associate VP of students at Simon Fraser University, says today’s students have “unprecedented levels of parental involvement.” Rahilly says that he often fields calls from parents and that increasing numbers of students are filling out privacy forms so parents can access their marks.

This trend dovetails with a system-wide push for universities to show results. Schools are on the hook to demonstrate better averages, as are teachers. Measurable ways to assess teachers have become the focus of a heated national debate about American public schools. This week, the Economic Policy Institute, an American think tank, released a report concluding that public school administrators rely too much on evaluations, and consequently “do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers.”

Calin Valsan, a finance professor at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., says universities face similar problems. In his 2008 study in the Journal of Economic Issues, Valsan says that since student-teacher evaluations were introduced in the 1960s, universities have used them to appear more like corporations with measurable results. Valsan says that the evaluations “were hijacked by university administrators” who were looking for hard numbers to quantify teaching as a marketable statistic to secure funding and as an easy way to assess profs. Valsan says that the evaluations are “central in universities for tenure and promotion” (albeit slightly less so for major research universities). “As a feedback mechanism they are fine, but as an administrative evaluating tool they aren’t,” says Valsan, who says the evaluations are manipulated on both sides.

Babcock says the evaluations create “perverse incentives” for instructors who aren’t rewarded for a rigorous curriculum, but are rewarded for maintaining a high class average. “A very fine communicator that grades very strictly may very well get a lower rating than a poor instructor that grades easy,” says Babcock. “I find it really disturbing.”

“It’s a classic game of prisoners’ dilemma, says Valsan. “Both students and professors make life easier for the other party.”

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