The decline of studying -

The decline of studying

How university students are spending less time hitting the books while earning better grades than ever


In 2006, Philip Babcock, a labour economist at the University of California, was surfing online when he came across a survey on the time use of undergraduate students at his school that shocked him. He noticed students were reporting perplexingly low studying times. Comparing his own university experience to his teaching experience over the past five years, Babcock had a gut feeling students weren’t studying as much, but remembers thinking, “people are always criticizing the generation that comes after them. Maybe they’re working their tails off.” So he decided to test the hypothesis. In the resulting study, to be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics later this year, Babcock and his co-author, Mindy Marks, found that since 1961, the amount of time an average undergraduate student spends studying has declined by 42 per cent, from 24 hours a week to 14. That drop is found within every demographic subgroup, within every faculty and at every type of college in the United States.

The study didn’t look at Canada, but the trend is true across North America. In his upcoming book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, James Côté, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario, analyzed a data set taken from 12,000 students from the U.S. and Canada and found similar results. Study times have gone down and grades have gone up, with the Canadian university average climbing from C to a B+/A- over the past 30 years.

Babcock’s study is one of the largest of its kind. The data of full-time students at four-year undergraduate programs was extracted from national surveys of thousands of people and represented four time periods: 1961, 1981, 1987-1989, and 2003-2005.

“The challenge was to make sure that we were comparing likes to likes,” says Babcock, who said it was complicated to account for demographic changes at the schools—more women, more working students—and to control for differently worded questions. In fact, women in recent cohorts were found to study on average more than men, and some faculties, like engineering, clocked more hours hitting the books than others.

As for the cause of the studying drop, he says the study only gives the hard numbers, but speculates the most plausible explanation is that university standards have fallen. He cites another of his studies, one on grade inflation to be released in the Journal Economic Inquiry later this year, to back up that claim. “The basic evidence is that instructors give higher grades, students work less and also students give them higher ratings,” says Babcock. “I don’t think there is much pressure to rein in the generous allocation of grading or to make sure that people make their courses difficult or demanding.”

Babcock is not the first to suggest that lower study times and grade inflation are linked. “When you look at grade inflation it’s a sign that we’re putting in less human capital, the standards have dropped and students are less engaged,” says Côté, who says disengaged students study less. “Most of the excuses for why we should tolerate disengagement don’t pan out,” he adds. “At best, work cuts into study time about two hours a week on average. That’s not an explanation for widespread disengagement.” He says that instead of studying, students have increased their leisure time and enjoy activities like sports, beer drinking, and parties.

But stats don’t tell the whole story, says Dean Giustini, reference librarian at the Biomedical Branch Library at the University of British Columbia. Having worked in the field for 15 years, Guistina says it’s impossible to demarcate what constitutes studying across the years, given that habits are changing all the time. “I remember talking with some of my professors, who said, ‘When we went to school we had to memorize 500 sources, and memorize the entire cataloguing rules from A to Z,’ ” he says. “Now there are so many different ways we can learn a subject. We don’t have to memorize.” Guistini says that in classrooms today you’ll be more likely to find a team-oriented, problem-based approach to learning as opposed to regurgitating facts and statistics. “More social forms of learning have taken the place of that model,” says Guistini. In other words, in the information age, the increasingly blurry line between studying and communicating may muddy the question of whether a student learns the material.

Ross Alger, an engineering student at the University of British Columbia, would say that squares with his own experience. “Every resource is at my fingertips,” says Alger. “If I have a physics problem I go to a website, I don’t have to spend hours going through a textbook trying to figure out something basic.” For the record, says Alger, even with the Internet, on top of his six-hour-a-day, five-days-a-week course load, he studies a minimum of two or three hours a night, and he says his classmates do more.

But Babcock says that if new technological tools have streamlined studying, it’s not by much: between 1988 and 2004, there was only a two-hour decline in study time. The greatest drop occured from 1961 to 1981, which was when professor ratings first came into vogue. That in turn motivated profs to grade easier, leading to falling standards, which Babcock argues led to a grade-inflation epidemic.

Instead of spending their time studying, Babcock and some of his fellow critics suggest students are finding other ways to produce better grades. Last year, Iris Franz, a visiting economics professor at Houston Baptist University, published a study that found students pester professors—obsessive emails, emotional crying, annoying visits to their offices—with more success than professors realize. “Professors don’t want to deal with students,” says Franz, “so they just inflate their grades so they can just close the door and do their research.” And now, it’s not just students that professors have to deal with. Tim Rahilly, associate VP of students at Simon Fraser University, says today’s students have “unprecedented levels of parental involvement.” Rahilly says that he often fields calls from parents and that increasing numbers of students are filling out privacy forms so parents can access their marks.

This trend dovetails with a system-wide push for universities to show results. Schools are on the hook to demonstrate better averages, as are teachers. Measurable ways to assess teachers have become the focus of a heated national debate about American public schools. This week, the Economic Policy Institute, an American think tank, released a report concluding that public school administrators rely too much on evaluations, and consequently “do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers.”

Calin Valsan, a finance professor at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., says universities face similar problems. In his 2008 study in the Journal of Economic Issues, Valsan says that since student-teacher evaluations were introduced in the 1960s, universities have used them to appear more like corporations with measurable results. Valsan says that the evaluations “were hijacked by university administrators” who were looking for hard numbers to quantify teaching as a marketable statistic to secure funding and as an easy way to assess profs. Valsan says that the evaluations are “central in universities for tenure and promotion” (albeit slightly less so for major research universities). “As a feedback mechanism they are fine, but as an administrative evaluating tool they aren’t,” says Valsan, who says the evaluations are manipulated on both sides.

Babcock says the evaluations create “perverse incentives” for instructors who aren’t rewarded for a rigorous curriculum, but are rewarded for maintaining a high class average. “A very fine communicator that grades very strictly may very well get a lower rating than a poor instructor that grades easy,” says Babcock. “I find it really disturbing.”

“It’s a classic game of prisoners’ dilemma, says Valsan. “Both students and professors make life easier for the other party.”


The decline of studying

  1. What about the fact that students take far fewer classes per semester? Fewer classes = less study time required.

  2. How about that more than half of students report cheating?
    And how about the massive dumbing down that takes place in order to placate students for better course evaluations (thus increasing faculty merit pay)?

  3. The main reason is that professors need good teaching evaluations (for T&P, awards, etc.). Who will risk his/her career? That is why the marks are often higher than they should be. Students understand this situation. Who will study when the passing mark is guaranteed?

  4. Where is the research evidence that high grades are related to high evaluations? In my experience, bad teachers (that give out high grades) tend to do poorly on evaluations. Students are not easily bribed. They are not dumb either. In fact, students are not dumb, they know when a professor is not giving a full effort and will not
    reward that professor with good evaluations. In my experience, many Profs that complain about their evaluations, argue that they recieved bad ones because they are “hard markers”. Yet, my experience in administration, shows that the Profs with great teaching evaluations do not have significantly higher grades in their classes. In fact, good evaluations tend to reflect the instructors ability to engage the class, and their ability to be accessible to the students (on an intellectual level).

    I agree that, some professors may mark easier because they think that it will help evaluations. But students don’t necessarily give them good evaluations.

  5. Experienced Prof–ask yourself why RMP then has a category for easiness? Students want easy profs.
    And students with high marks tend to rate the prof higher in my experience.
    Admins just want to convince themselves otherwise because they don’t want to believe that standards are slipping due to such ridiculous measures.

  6. The easiness score on RateMyProfessors does not actually factor into the overall score. Try it.

    I’d have to agree with ExperiencedProf that there isn’t such a simple correlation between easy profs and high evaluations.

    While it may be true that marking easily sometimes saves a BAD prof from an especially poor rating, I see no evidence to suggest that good or even decent profs suffer for being hard markers. None of the profs I had who were tough markers have particularly low RMP ratings. One of them has 44 ratings and a score of 4.9 (well-deserved, I might add). Some of them have surprisingly high ratings in light of what I considered to be extremely mediocre teaching.

    That said–and again, judging by RMP–some bad profs do seem to successfully inflate their ratings by marking easily, and that does mean that there are some useless hacks still gainfully employed where they shouldn’t be. I gave these folks crappy evaluations when I had them, but apparently, I’m in the minority.

  7. Each year I teach three sections of the same course (in terms of teaching, everything is absolutely the same for all the sections) and each year I observe the same – the higher the average grade for a section, the higher my teaching evaluation score for this section. The difference in scores is sometimes huge (about 0.6 on the scale from 1 to 5).

  8. Pingback: UBC Library’s Dean Giustini featured in Maclean’s | Library in the News |

  9. I see a lot of students deliberately choose not-so-useful courses in which they can attain a better grade over those where it’s more intellectually challenging but harder to get a good grade. I think this also leads to the grade inflation phenomenon.

    I studied in the UK, and there wasn’t much freedom in choosing whatever courses we wanted like here in North America. Freedom to choose courses is good, but students tend to abuse this system (to their own detriment) by choosing courses to maximize their GPA and minimizing study time.

  10. I recently took a 1 credit course over the summer. It was way out of my comfort zone and I tried my best. The concepts were over my head and I ended up with a 67%. This made me feel sick as it was my first C ever in my over 85% average life.
    What happened when I looked at my final mark that was entered on the transcript was…different. Staring back at me there was a mark of 77%. I emailed the professor to confirm this with him, and he said he bell-curved everyone’s mark up 10% because “the class average was low”. Where the mark of 77% made me feel a little better, I was quickly reminded that I did not earn this mark. This mark did not reflect my efforts in the course, but rather the boost reflected the need of the professor who was after “a higher class average”.
    I put in the work, but in the end I was not cut out for this course that was out of my comfort zone, yet I received a mark that was not “mine”.

  11. I think that when students get higher grades, they feel that they’ve understood the material better, and then feel better about the professor. After all, without a grade, how can you be really sure about how well you know the material? Jenny’s experience is both an example of this, and an example of how some conscientious students are concerned that their grades be “fair” because they rely on these grades to assess their own understanding.

    But if you can give someone a high grade AND convince them that it was fair (maybe the test was easy in the first place, so there was no need to curve later), then it will be really hard for that student to believe that they in fact _don’t_ know the material well: hard both because they’re not experts and don’t know what they don’t know, and also emotionally tough to be self-critical without any external pressure to do so.

    So I guess I’d say that the link from high grades to high evaluations is not just about students being lazy or looking for easy A’s, even if this sometimes happens.

  12. I’m a current senior in the Computer Science department at the University of Washington and I’m of the opinion that perhaps it’s not the universities fault but societies for creating a system where everyone has to get through college in order to be “successful” in life. Though it’s not the cast with me I know many of my friends in non-vocational majors are not in the University to learn, but for a degree because a degree means they’ll get a high paying job. When you look at it that way the higher the GPA the better your first job will be so of course students want to sign up for classes that give them high grades. i forget the exact statistic but I think somewhere around 60% of students get jobs with no relation to their major. If you take it that way getting through college is still incredibly different. Most of us make next to nothing while trying to afford tuition and the cost of living: College is more a testament to your survivability in a harsh environment and your ability to persevere through four years of being sub-human. True, some kids have their parents pay for it and others go into a lot of debt, but the only thing that employers look at when you exit college is that you got a degree and your GPA (not to mention research opportunities, or internships). Is it any wonder we resent teachers who give us low grades in a grade inflated system. They’re basically really hurting our lives: Like if your boss gave you a bad evaluation and put it in your “permanent record” that all employers would see when they were hiring you. I don’t like the current system at all, but I’m doing my best to get through it and for the record I study a lot.

  13. English profs are notorious for giving low grades and perpetuating the myth that students are illiterate. I looked at a C- first-year English paper recently expecting to see spelling errors, sentence fragments, and horrible punctuation. I was shocked to see two misplaced commas and some vague comments about organizational weakness. I don’t know what the deal is with English profs. Perhaps, they feel undervalued and have to make their subject seem “as hard” as Math or Engineering etc. Maybe, they are all angry because they did not have the talent to become writers.