Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Get thee to a library: downward trends in study time

Do students study less now than in the good old days i.e. when their professors were students? One hears a certain amount about this but I thought it might be nostalgia. But here is some hard evidence that suggests dramatic falls in the amount of time spent studying by American undergrads.

Babcock, Phillip & Marks, Mindy
In 1961, the average full-time student at a 4-year college in the U.S. studied about 24 hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only 14 hours a week. Students now study less than half as much as universities claim to require. This dramatic decline in study times occurred for students from all demographic subgroups, overall and within every major, for students who worked and those who did not, and at 4-year colleges of every type, degree structure and level of selectivity. Most of the decline predates the innovations in technology that would be most relevant to education production, and thus was not driven by such changes. The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at post-secondary institutions in the United States.

The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data
Babcock, Phillip & Marks, Mindy
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.


Martin Ryan said...

"If history is a guide, every generation has a tendency to slander its progeny with allegations of decadence and sloth." So say the authors!

What about the evidence? The findings are as follows:

"We find steep declines in the average weekly study time of full-time college students at four-year colleges over this period, from about 24 hours per week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in the 2000’s. Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within every major, and at 4-year colleges of every type, degree structure and level of selectivity. We conclude that the change in college culture is real."

However, some nuances may be missing here. There is some suggestive evidence that students work harder in recessions (that I recently flagged). Babcock and Marks look at four time periods: 2003-2005, 1987-1989, 1981, and 1961.

61 and 81 are characterised by much higher study time, but scholars of U.S. economic history will also know that these years are characterised by recession. This graph provides confirmation:


Babcock and Marks conclude that:

"...postsecondary institutions in the United States are falling short of their traditional standard for academic time investment, and that the gap between actual effort elicited and the requirements or expectations articulated by these institutions has grown over time."

While the recession-theory cannot be proven, it might be a useful addition to how we understand these findings. Babcock has several papers in related areas that are very interesting:


Mark McG said...

This must add some weight to the discussions on grade inflation