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Study Time

Study Time

Many will have seen the recent Washington Post article about declining study time at universities, using Mason as a poster child. You can imagine I was not best pleased with our role. It turns out that lots of places feature study time not much different from ours (including Maryland and UVA — both a bit higher but not much) while a number of places no longer offer survey results.

What the article did NOT say was that the survey results are three years old — we’re just re-surveying now — and that, in fact, three years ago Mason’s study time, though at the national average, was actually up over the previous survey. In other words, we were defying the national trajectory, at least at that point.

I do have some hesitations about the survey itself. My assessment folks assure me that the response rate is good, which lends some validity. But are students taking into account peak periods, for example around exams, when they respond about averages? Are they clear, in fact, about how much time they’re putting in? (I am not sure I could have answered accurately when I was in college, since study intermingled with other activities so closely.)

Obviously the data, highlighting averages, does not do justice to many individual students and lots of demanding majors. And I do take issue with some claims, at least at places like Mason, that students are enjoying four to five years of country club life. Our problem is not with lots of lazy, consumerist students, though there surely are some, but with competing demands of paid employment, which is a real issue for us and currently getting worse.

All this said, and hoping that our own trajectory is still actually positive, we probably (at Mason and most other places) do have an issue. We’ve been discussing for several years the possibility that the higher talent level of our current students is not being adequately translated into classroom challenge. Experiments in more active learning and “flipped” classrooms, which I hope will expand, will also help address the study time issue by increasing motivation and standards without imposing new loads of mindless work on our charges (which would NOT be a constructive response to the data). Our commitments to honors classes, student research and other areas ought also to help us address the problem.  Simply clarifying with students what is expected at the outset of a class might help some, as we work with students toward a mutually useful experience.

So without accepting some of the most extreme critiques, let’s continue to work on and discuss means of enhancing student engagement, even if we have to buck some trends in the process. It’s a valid challenge — even as we encourage the Post to discover other playgrounds.