Is Augustana academically adrift?

March  15, 2011

Dr. Ellen Hay

The release of the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses has received considerable media attention. It reports the results of a study conducted by two sociologists, Dr. Richard Arum and Dr. Josipa Roksa, who investigated student learning in college using one portion (the performance task) of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). The CLA is a nationally normed measure that evaluates students' performances on tasks that require them to think critically, reason analytically, solve realistic problems and write clearly. 

Among the 2,300 college students surveyed at 24 American public and private institutions, Arum and Roksa report that 45 percent demonstrated no gain in these essential skills during the first two years of college. Further findings from the Social Science Research Council suggest that only 64 percent of college students showed improvement from their first to senior year. The researchers conclude that American higher education has not realized its promise. Students are spending time and money on an enterprise that does not produce acceptable results. (Glenn, 2011)

A follow-up column in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that the results from this study do not apply to all institutions' performances (Kahlenberg, 2011). Further analysis found that selective liberal arts colleges produce more learning. In a short report accompanying Academically Adrift, reseachers Arum, Roksa and co-author Esther Cho of the Social Science Research Council noted that in such colleges three factors contributed to student learning. At liberal arts colleges, students expect more of each other. They read and write more, and they interact more with faculty. They show much higher levels of improvement.

So is Augustana academically adrift?

The answer is no. We administered the same CLA performance task to our students in 2005-06, and then again in 2009. Our results were well above the average. 

Arum and Roksa report that on the national level, students placed in the 51st percentile in their first year and in the 67th percentile as college seniors. Augustana students who participated in the CLA scored in the 63rd percentile during their first year on campus and in the 91st during their fourth year. This means Augustana's students scored better than 63 percent of all others who took the CLA during their first year and better than 91 percent of all others in their senior year. 

Augustana students not only scored in a higher percentile at the start of the study, but also experienced nearly double the growth during their four years at Augustana than the national average. 

Administering the CLA is just one means that we use to monitor the impact of an Augustana education. Over the last 10 years, we consistently have gathered data from a number of direct and indirect sources that assess the impact of an Augustana education. Some of the indirect measures are perceptions of various constituents; alumni, faculty and parents have been surveyed every three to five years on their satisfaction, and first-year and senior students are surveyed every year. 

Other instruments are more direct indicators of the knowledge and abilities our students are developing. In addition to the CLA, we have evaluated the writing and critical thinking abilities of our first-year and senior students. Augustana is one of four colleges in a consortium to study the impact of our senior capstone. We regularly administer the National Survey of Student Engagement, which asks students to report on experiences that have been correlated with learning. We also are participating in the Wabash Study, a nationally recognized, comprehensive study of institutional impact. Those results will be available in 2012. 

We regularly use the information we acquire to assist in modifying the curriculum and enhancing the quality of our teaching. The National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment has formally recognized our active assessment agenda. While there is work that remains to be done, our focus on learning outcomes provides a road map for improvements, and we are dedicated to monitoring our outcomes. 

Recently, Augustana President Steve Bahls signed the presidents' commitment for the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a national organization designed to strengthen evidence-based decision-making and promote communication about student learning. 

We realize that future improvements depend upon careful understanding of past results. Comparison studies on the academic quality of the nation's colleges and universities--and their publication through works such as Academically Adrift--promote a national conversation on standards in education. Augustana College welcomes the opportunity to be part of that conversation.




Glenn, D. (January 18, 2011) New book lays failure to learn on colleges' doorsteps. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Kahlenberg, R. (January 18, 2011) Learning more at selective colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education.




Contact Augustana Magazine editor Debbie Blaylock by email; by phone at (309) 794-8979; or by mail at Augustana College, 639 38th St., Rock Island, Ill., 61201.