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Got a smartphone and laptop? Start your own campus newspaper – I did.

SBU students, faculty ambivalent about freshmen learning curve

Arum and Roksa’s book stating less than 50 percent of college students show small learning gains may not apply to St. Bonaventure

By Tony Lee, Editor in Chief, @sHecKii

ST. BONAVENTURE — Ryan McDonald wakes up feeling stuck, even suffocated. He will soon get dressed for class and drag his feet across St. Bonaventure University’s snow-covered campus.

This junior said he felt this way since fall of 2008, but it has nothing to do with the weather. He drags his feet, physically and mentally, because he is rarely academically challenged.

“Since day one I’ve thought I made a terrible choice,” said the management science major with a 3.25 grade point average. “In all honesty, with the exception of (one course), I haven’t had a class challenge me to think while I’ve been here.”

McDonald echoes a recent finding from “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” — a book that collected surveys from more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide.

Authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa said 45 percent of students surveyed showed no significant gains in learning in their first two years. After four, 36 percent showed little change.

However, John Watson, the school of business’ dean, said the study’s findings may have more to do with how secondary schools educated incoming freshmen.

“I had many bright students in my office with very high SAT scores, but they were on academic probation,” he said. “What do you do about that?”

Watson said mathematics requirements like Math 121 and Math 122, courses comparable to pre-calculus, discourage some freshmen from majors in the school of business.

He said secondary schools should have prepared incoming freshmen for what he considers not an overly demanding requirement. Watson said, however, the university provides a math lab and tutors to students if needed.

Peggy Burke, the school of education’s dean, however, has witnessed her students thrive in the first two years.

As the head of the university’s only school requiring a 3.0 GPA or higher, she said most education majors adjusted well to college. Burke said she attributed their success to a high level of student-to-faculty interaction.

“We consider ourselves a predominantly a teaching institution,” Burke said of St. Bonaventure. “We tend to attract faculty members who are interested in teaching. If you have a faculty member who wants a straight research assignment, I suspect they wouldn’t have ended up here.”

In a survey of 10 Bona juniors and seniors asked about the quality of their education, seven said they feel smarter since freshmen year.

A spokesman said St. Bonaventure does not track GPA by class.

“I might even say I learned more in my first two years than my latter two,” said senior Cameron DeOrdio, a double major with a 3.85 GPA in journalism and mass communication and English.

Arum and Roksa’s research also used the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a standardized test gauging students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

Fischer said while the university has not participated in the CLA, students would probably score favorably on it because of past results from the National Survey for Student Engagement — a survey St. Bonaventure participates in.

NSSE measures student involvement in practices associated with learning persistence and graduation. 2010’s results for St. Bonaventure rated the university above average in the survey’s five benchmarks.

However, Charles Walker, a psychology professor, said the NSSE results traditionally show the university does not challenge its students academically.

“If you look at the number of hours per week they report studying, it’s kind of low even compared to schools that are like Bonaventure,” he said.

Walker, who studies students’ well being, said students prefer universities that offer modern facilities, which affects fiscal priorities of retention- and enrollment-driven schools like St. Bonaventure.

Walker said while it’s beneficial for students to have access to a new fitness center, the data shows students benefit from an academically demanding curriculum, too.

“They have to snap, crackle and pop a little bit to build themselves and become better people,” he said. “You do have to challenge them in the classroom to the point sometimes that it’s a little painful.”

Arum and Roksa’s book highlights a troubling, overall state of higher education — especially how little students learned in their first two years.

At St. Bonaventure, however, seven of the surveyed disagreed.

“I can spot passive voice from a mile away and shoot it down in the blink of an eye,” said DeOrdio, who has a 4.0 GPA as an English major. “I have attended St. Bonaventure University for four years, and I am a better man for it.”

tony.lee@theintrepid.org

[Photo by Tony Lee]

Link to the USA Today article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-01-18-littlelearning18_ST_N.htm