Kids These Days: College Study Habits 50 Years to Today

by Vault Education Editors | July 12, 2010

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The scenario is a common one. Student A (the complainer) lounges on a futon, a book, open and unread, mere inches from his eyes. Student B (most likely, the unsuspecting roommate) sits on a wooden desk chair while Student A gripes about how much work he has, how long it's going to take him, how much else he has to do, etc. Student B makes comforting noises, and occasionally utters a few stock phrases. Little is resolved, but Student B invariably has the same thought: "If Bob spent this time actually studying instead of just thinking about studying, both of us would be so much happier." Yet, even if all the Bob's in the country spend, on average, five hours a week thinking about studying, planning to study, pretending to study and complaining about studying, they would still have five hours to spare compared to their counterparts of 50 years ago.

Undergraduate student studying hard?The Boston Globe recently reported on a study by two California economics professors, who found that the average undergraduate today studies for approximately 14 hours a week. Five decades ago, in 1961, they studied--get this--24 hours a week. An entire day, from sunrise to sunrise, and that's just the average. The funny thing is, students today are getting better grades than those students of 24-hours-a-week yore. One of two questions arise, depending on who you are. Current or recent undergraduates say to themselves, "Score! How did we pull that one off?," while embittered septuagenarians will wonder, "What is wrong with higher education these days?" Luckily, both questions have the same set of possible answers.

Hypothesis #1: Course evaluations.

Over the past 50 years, as higher education has become both more accessible and more expensive, students have been increasingly viewed as customers. As a result, course evaluations came into existence and quickly started holding sway over a professor's success, especially when it came to getting tenure. The Boston Globe quotes Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. "Course evaluations have created a sort of 'nonaggression pact,' Sperber said, where professors--especially ones seeking tenure--go easy on the homework and students, in turn, give glowing course evaluations."

Hypothesis #2: A greater emphasis on "recreation."

The New York Times ran an article last Thursday about how the share of university spending on recreation has risen twice as fast as the share of spending on instruction, or, as Ohio University professor Richard K. Vedder put it, "the country-clubization of the American university." Similarly, the Globe article references John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University:

What he worries about these days is not that students are lazy, but that they are too busy--busier than previous generations of Stanford students…. "I was a student here from ’75 to ’79. I was reasonably engaged in things. But I had so much free time compared to students today. They do so many things--it’s amazing."

Hypothesis #3: More efficient study tools.

This one struck me as the most likely cause, but apparently undergrads of the last 40 years won't be getting off so easily. Though it is true that students today spend less time looking through card catalogs for secondary sources, writing notes out long-hand and retyping papers, it turns out that, "according to their research, the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14)." On the other hand, maybe it's just that those students don't have an excuse, and today's students do. Again, score!

-- Written by Madison Priest

Filed Under: Education

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