August 15, 2010

Are they lazy or just bored?

Two academics associated with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, recently came out with a report that examined several data sets and found declines in study times over an approximately forty year span of time. The data, which seems to have undergone a rigorous analysis, indicates students are studying less now and devoting more time to leisure. The article and the write-up about it in many ways support the observations and beliefs of many faculty members who deal with students on a day-to-day basis.

The report's power is magnified by the fact that it is well written, short enough to actually finish, and sprinkled with memorable quotes such as:
“A nonaggression pact exists between many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual nonaggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other.”
As such the report, as the authors subtly acknowledge, will join the growing body of literature that directly or indirectly excoriates higher education by presenting evidence of standards declines, over-catering to students, failures of self-regulation and accreditation, and the need to reform higher education along the lines of business ventures. In some ways both we faculty and the students deserve such criticism.

The comfort afforded from this report is the kind found when data backs up one's personal beliefs or observations. Many faculty will see in the report a reflection of their own conviction that students don't work as hard, that they are different and becoming harder to teach. And it is true that students have changed, but everything changes, and changes ceaselessly. What the report tries, but ultimately fails, to answer is why the significant reduction in number of hours studied is occurring.

The authors, who are economists, try some explanatory analysis which reflects their upbringing in the culture, beliefs, and assumptions of economics. A seeming assumption that is made is that students always act in their best economic interests.  A surprising statistic from the report is that study time makes a rather large difference in salary later in life:
"We find that postcollege wages are positively correlated with study time in college. The increase in wages associated with studying is small in the early postcollege years, but it grows over time, becoming large and statistically significant in the later years. By 2004, one standard deviation in hours studied in 1981 is associated with a wage gain of 8.8 percent."
But what if students don't act in their own (and society's) best economic interest, what if instead they act in their best personal interests?

To try to understand this issue a little bit better, and delve into the issue of why economic and personal interests may not be the same, I took the authors up on their offer in the article to provide more data on request. For the most recent data the authors provided the moments of the distribution:
  • Mean:  19.75373
  • Std. Dev.:  14.5910
  • Skewness:  1.334962
  • Kurtosis:  5.697429
If I plug these into Matlab [using the pearsrnd command for the geeks out there] and make a histogram of a random distribution of 10,000 students with these numbers, this is what I get...
The red line is the average hours studied (19.75) while the green line is the hours a student is expected to study if they were taking 15 student credit hours (SCH) and worked 2-3 (average 2.5) hours outside of class for each hour spent in class.  Since I'm an engineer, the visual of the figure really brings home the fact that most students simply don't study as much as we expect.  The question is, why?

There are some interesting quotes from the article [which I acknowledge are taken out of context] that may support the viewpoint that students are not motivated to study...
"By contrast, students in 2006 in the University of California system spent 11.4 hours per week playing on their computers “for fun”—a category of leisure that would not have existed in 1961."
Or this...
"In the past, then, some students may have worked hard to signal they were high-ability types, relative to the other students in their college. But if students within a given college are now of similar ability, grades or rankings may now lack content as a signal."
The latter quote comes from the authors' putting forth an explanation which is based on students using grades to make themselves look good for employers.  Basically the argument goes that since there are fewer ability differences between students within the same college, students no longer need to distinguish themselves from peers by working hard to get good grades. 

All of these are possible explanations...  However, lets go back and look at the quote on wage gains v.s. study time.  The data says--assuming that the standard deviation of 14.6 hours per week is about the same in 1981--that if you study 14 hours more a week, you can expect to make 8.8% more later in life.  I think for many students studying twice as long for more salary 25 years later is not seen as a wise investment.  Perhaps students value personal time more than potential future wage gains?  Perhaps they are different than their parents in that they have less faith that working hard today for unquantifiable future gains is a wise investment of their time?  Perhaps they have lost faith that the economic system will treat them fairly, or perhaps there are simply too many interesting things to do now.

The fact students can create an identity they are valued for by doing activities besides working hard in school (James Gee has documented that playing video games is such an activity) is likely the biggest factor.  Economic arguments are valuable, but don't seem to capture the breadth of human behavior and motivation.  If the structure of universities doesn't change to acknowledge the need to build identity, then expect this worrisome trend to continue...