College Students Not Learning Much


This is the headline on, describing a study published in a new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Given that students are going to courses and acquiring lots of new information, how can it be claimed that they are “not learning much?” Because, says the study, they are not learning to think.

A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

The study determined that the subject area is less important than methodology when it comes to learning to think critically. “Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.”

I have pointed out a few times that while yeshiva studies are devoted to what might be called classic literature, without immediate relevance to the modern day workforce, they excel in teaching students to think. This has been borne out by various studies in Israel, and now a contrasting study emphasizes that this is an area where today’s colleges are finding limited success.

The study also says that “social engagement generally does not help student performance,” and that those who studied with their friends actually hampered their own intellectual growth. The study did not address one-on-one studies, in which each partner is forced to defend his or her position against the partner’s critique — because this is a form of study essentially absent from modern academia. In that respect, it’s possible that I learned more on the debate panel than I ever did in my coursework…

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4 years 8 months ago

But aren’t the women expected to do exactly that?

Well Ori, that was kind of my point – that while everyone is so worried for the men, that they won’t get any “real” learning done, or they’ll be subjected to the treifos of modern secular society, in one way or another the women are put at risk. Which might explain the appeal of (wild tangent here….) tznius as getting center stage as the woman’s core mitzvah, something to uphold without requiring any actual investment of energy.

Traditionally a woman’s role is to raise children – if she’s spread too thin tending to the physical matters of the home, including full-time work, what’s left for the kids? It goes against every woman’s ketuba for her to assume the role of primary breadwinner – and that’s because most of us can’t play superwoman indefinitely.

But it’s tempting – my husband, who B”H does the balancing act quite well, tells me the Torah knowledge these initially-ordinary guys have amassed by shunning any livelihood for 15-20 adult years is quite impressive. And if Torah learning is the man’s core mitzvah, why shouldn’t he?

4 years 8 months ago

Regarding that 10-line Princeton thesis. Nice anecdote but I wonder what happened to his career. If in academia, where “publish or perish” is the rule, I doubt he has a series of 10-line publications. The ability to write longer coherent prose will inevitably arise.

Al Weis may have been the trivia answer to the question “who was the Mets’ most valuable player in the 1969 World Series”, but he was hardly a Hall of Fame player. He had 86 games, roughly half a season, remaining in his career. Red Sox fans have a special middle name for the Yankee’s Bucky Dent, who hit an uncharacteristic home run during a one-game playoff. Was the aforementioned Princeton student a one hit wonder? My strong suspicion is that his prose, while far from his mathematical prowess, is probably WAY above average.

Bill Gates is hardly one upon whom to extrapolate. The argument is a non sequitur. Let’s look at the FULL statistical sample of college drop-outs and their career paths.

dr. bill
4 years 8 months ago

Discussing the benefits of a college education seems a tad abstract and perhaps distracting given elementary school trends in Israel.

4 years 8 months ago

Miriam: (1) In today’s world no one can survive balancing work with a serious Torah lifestyle

Ori: But aren’t the women expected to do exactly that?

4 years 8 months ago

Hi Dov. Personally, I wouldn’t call a Torah-only approach to general youth education an agenda. And since Charedi Gedolim are quoted as advocating only the exclusive-Torah schools, one has to admit that Rabbi Menken’s approach of devaluing any secular studies must have merit according to some greater plan.

Inside the Charedi circles I hear 3 general arguments for it. (1) In today’s world no one can survive balancing work with a serious Torah lifestyle, so they have no choice but to neglect the working as much as possible so at least the core values of their life can be maintained – even if they suffer physically (and these communities are sincerely prepared to suffer, G-d forbid). (2) This path is 100% valid: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said one can skip the umnus (profession) and learn only Torah, and the Rambam says anyone can choose to be a Levi, to be the chosen tribe within Israel that learns in lieu of working, and serves as a Torah example. (3) Why would any parents sell their son’s potential short and help him plan for an ordinary livelihood, when instead helping him stay in the olam halimud for as long as possible can indeed give him the chance to rise up as the next Gadol HaDor. (I am not being facetious #3 is a major component of charedi parenting workshops.)

But regarding #1 and Ori your point – that marriage and children is distracting – indeed a kollel couple cannot avoid juggling and generally struggling for it. As much as possible the burden is shifted to the women, which calls into question whether a Gadol can really come out of an early childhood when there is so much stress and so little attention (here in Israel the neighborhoods often do raise children, but as Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the past – apologies to Hillary – Gedolim don’t see that as an ideal). And in other cases the men pick up the slack – cutting into their learning schedules to take care of sick children, do the shopping, tend to the children when they come home in the afternoons – which means they aren’t really learning all day after all.

I imagine it would be possible to develop a small, Charedi-friendly general studies curriculum that supports Torah topics, similar to what Yosh says above about writing essays on Torah content. And to develop it in a way that it gets support from Gedolim. But then the practical problem will kill it anyway: where to find the educated baalei teshuva (men only) who will take the dismal teachers’ salaries to teach those the late-afternoon, second-class subjects to hormonal teenage boys.