Babcock, P. and Marks, M. (2010) Leisure College USA: The Decline in Student Study Time Washington DC: The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
This paper found that in 1961 ‘the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about 24 hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week. Students now study less than half as much as universities claim to require.’
The authors (both assistant professors at the University of California) analyzed four large data sets that cover the time periods 1961, 1981, 1987–89, and 2003–2005, and restricted the samples to full-time students at four year colleges in the United States.
Authors’ interpretation of results
They examined data on gender differences, parental education, and time spent on paid work, and found no ‘major’ differences that could explain the huge drop in study time.
They also ruled out the effect of educational technologies, because ‘most of the study-time decline took place prior to 1981, well before the relevant technological advances.’
Having eliminated a range of other possible explanations, they conclude: colleges have lowered achievement standards. They hypothesise that students demand more leisure time and faculty have acquiesced because, quoting Murray Sperber “A nonaggression pact exists between many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual nonaggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other.”
This is not a refereed journal paper, although the authors claim that the results will be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics.
Looking at the summary data, especially Figure 2, I suspect they have underestimated the impact of paid work on full-time students’ study time. The smallest difference in study time over the 50 years in Figure 2 is between students working more than 20 hours a week. If many full-time students now are indeed working more than 20 hours a week, this would have a major impact on their study time.
The authors also point out that the major drop in study time occurred between 1961 and 1981. The question is what happened in that period that lead to such a major drop in study time? This is not discussed at all.
Also, their conclusion that information technology was unlikely to have influenced the results is pure speculation. The data sets they examined contained no questions on this.
Lastly, they are measuring input not output. It assumes a correlation between study time and grades, which is not unreasonable, but is not the same as having hard data to show the influence of study time on performance.
Despite these quibbles, the main finding, that students are spending almost half the time studying today than 50 years ago, is interesting and probably correct. Their explanations of this though are quite unsatisfactory and much more qualitative research into the reasons for the drop in study times is needed for a convincing explanation.
Implications for e-learning
The questions regarding the use of e-learning though that this study raises are two-fold:
Do students need more flexibility because they are doing more paid work, or is the demand for online learning mainly driven by the desire for more leisure time?
Does technology reduce the time needed to achieve the same academic results? What evidence (if any) do we have on this question?
Now there’s two topics for Ph.D. students.