Student Workload - They're still not lazy...

11 July 2010

Student Workload

The problem with modern media, I've come to realise, is that they are driven by a strong sense of narrative, rather than analysis. Once a particular narrative is established, its hard to get a shift in the commentary. Blogs are clearly also driven by the same perceptions. Sadly, two new articles reveal that the student workload decline story is just not going away.

Back in May I touched on my scepticism regarding the workload analysis of Babcock and Marks - two Californian economists who have taken the economist's normal approach of collating data and drawing conclusions. This is fine when the numbers are either directly and empirically determined (sale price of a stock for example) or when the likely errors in the numbers are fully considered in the analysis. Babcock and Marks have used self reported workload data from multiple surveys, just about the least reliable data you could imagine, particularly when the population being studied has changed significantly over the time period used.

The standard in the literature for this type of work is individual student time diaries completed every hour or so, or direct observation by independent timekeepers (people or software). Survey responses are notoriously unrealiable, particularly for activities with a moral or value dimension. Surveys are fine for attitudes but memories are just too fallible to keep accurate estimations of time - just think yourself about how slowly time passes when you're bored or disengaged, vs how quickly it can pass when you get drawn into a task.

Despite these issues, most folk seem quite happy to believe that students are in fact not putting the time into their studies and are coming up with all sorts of explanations:

  • Professor Apathy
  • Grades Becoming Less Important Than Activities
  • Increase in 'Temporary, Adjunct' Faculty
  • Advent of Pass-Fail Classes, Fewer Language Requirements
  • Studying Methods Became More Efficient
  • Rise in Publishing Requirements Means Professors Assign Less Work
  • More Working Part-Time as Scholarships Decline
  • Students Less Comfortable With Long-Form Reading

Frankly, while I'm sure all of these have some truth in them, without any actual evidence of impact on study practices they're all guesses. You may as well say that the decline reflects the growing IQ of the population, or the presence of more women who can multi-task more efficiently (not that I believe anyone can).

The work I'm doing on student workloads strongly suggests that, on average, they're putting in full-time hours consistent with our expectations. Frankly, I hope someone peer-reviewing the California study (which has not yet happened as far as I can tell, despite the self-promotion) makes them examine in some detail whether the evidence really is reliable enough to support their conclusions - rather than accepting a conclusion that supports a popular meme.