Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are Students Smarter Now than Before?

The following chart is from a NYTimes article from last year that a colleague pointed me at. It is based on data from the paper Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, "The Falling Time of Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data," Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2011, Vol. 93, No. 2, Pages 468-478.

Source: NYTimes 

First, it shows that Engineering students study more on average now (well, as of 10 years ago, but one presumes it's about the same now) than other majors, though it used to be Health students that studied the most. Second, it shows that students now (again, as of 10 years ago), like all majors study much less than 40 years before. In particular, it shows that engineering students study on average about 18 hours a week outside of classes, where before they studied about 26 hours a week.

In the author's own words:
Using multiple datasets from different time periods, we document declines in academic time investment by full-time college students in the United States between 1961 and 2003. Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by framing effects, work or major choices, or compositional changes in students or schools. We conclude that there have been substantial changes over time in the quantity or manner of human capital production on college campuses.

This is really a quite stunning and fascinating finding. Whatever accounts for this difference? Are students simply smarter than before? Do the reduced numbers of hours they study indicate greater learning efficiency (because of better textbooks, better teaching, new instructional media)? Are there simply more distractions that prey on students' time (such as video games and the world wide web, which was just starting to take off then; I'm very curious to see what the numbers look like today, with the added distractions of facebook, twitter, mobile devices)? Is it that more students are working part-time to pay for increasing tuition costs?  Is it because there are more older students that are working full-time taking continuing education classes ?  Is the average reflective of an increase in overall numbers of departments where the study expectations are lower?

Whatever the cause, I've certainly heard several colleagues who have been teaching engineering for two or more decades complain that students these days don't study as hard and with as much discipline as they used to, whine more about grades than they used to, and in particular, are not as strong mathematically as they used to be. These data seem to suggest that they're not just being cranky.

And what are the implications of this study? Are we being forced to lower our expectations of what college students should be able to do, or handle? Instead of being smarter, do our graduates today actually have fewer skills and abilities than those of yesteryears?  How has this affected the economy?

What do you think? 


Marc said...

I think "grading on a curve" contributes to the decreases in study time and depth of knowledge.

A technically hard class requires as much effort as an easy class, when grading becomes relative. Hours that would have been spent studying those harder subjects in the past can now be spent working to pay down tuition. Or playing "Call of Duty".

Anonymous said...

Here is an experiment that might shed some light: take a 60s exam for a course that hasn't changed much over the years (e.g. an introductory course), and give it to today's students. Can they score as well as their parents did?

emily said...

I think it might have to do with the fact that attending college has become a "necessary evil," as some of my peers have coined, to succeeding in life -- I personally don't believe in the necessary evil part, I like learning and always try to tell people to do what they are passionate about. So these students are doing the bare minimum to pass a course.

Also I think my generation, Generation Y, was raised with a false sense of entitlement. Children are rewarded for minimal effort in grade school, in the US at least, I can't speak for the international domain. So overtime, that sense of reward for minimal effort becomes ingrained and we expect good grades for less effort and the grade inflation and curves accommodate that. I think this is a serious problem in the US that needs to be remedied. It's poisonous to our society, our education, and our workforce. It's definitely a concern of mine.

I do not think we are not as smart as previous generations, but we are definitely trying less.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Thanks for the comments, Emily. Though I confess I'm puzzled about why the current generation should have a greater sense of entitlement than the ones before and the related issue of why exactly grade inflation exists, it does appear to be a real phenomenon. This website provides statistics to back this up:

emily said...

Yes, I do wonder why these all exist too. It could be a political phenomenon where one school decided it was okay and it all sort of just bubbled and cascaded from there. But the root cause seems to be the fear of failure. But why does that fear exist so prominently nowadays?

Thank you for the thoughts and response! (I'm just a USC grad hopeful that stumbled upon your blog! I'm really impressed at your commitment to academia, the way you define it in your blog header.)

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