Assessment and Stories We Tell Students

Do new, first-year college students need to study 2-3 hours per credit hour in a week to be successful? The short answer is: no. Research tells us that most first-year students spend about one hour or less per credit hour studying and preparing for class and do just fine, depending on your definition of “fine,” of course.

This is the central premise of Academically Adrift. The idea is that most students see college as a pathway towards economic security or a rite of passage into adulthood. Thus, college students invest their time in activities that have little to do with learning.


Assuming the premise of Academically Adrift is accurate, then traditional assessments, like grades, standardized tests, or degrees, are not assessing learning, but probably other things, like managing the college experience or skills related to persistence.

Data from a variety of sources, including NSSE , the CLA,  and grade inflation show that students are still getting good grades and graduating with less effort, at least measured by hours spent studying and preparing for class.

Telling most first-year students they need to study 2-3 hours per credit hour to be successful in college isn’t accurate and probably harmful. There are two problems with this kind of messaging:

  1. It exaggerates how much time academically competent and even a few successful students actually spend studying. Communicating an unrealistic standard reinforces the legitimacy of peers and other sources for information over more legitimate ones (like advisors and faculty).
  2. It sets up time as the constant and learning as variable. According to the flipped teaching model, time should be variable and learning is constant. A better strategy would be to communicate what students will do and/or outcomes of their college experience.

How does assessment inform what we should tell new first-year students? First-year students should receive two types of messages, one that legitimizes the expertise of faculty and student advising staff and anaother that de-emphasizes a fixed-intelligence mind set. They should receive messages like this:

Message 1: “You get out of college what you put into it. If you want to study 15 hours a week, and you’re fine with a 2.5-3.0 GPA, then go for it. Keep in mind, though, that your effort will need to increase as you progress through college, and in particular your major.”

Message 2: “You may be disappointed, in spite of all your hard work. Keep in mind, though, that intelligence is not fixed. Frustration with learning something new and learning from set-backs are all natural parts of the learning process. Utilizing the services we provide and listening to your professors can help you grow and be a more competent and efficient learner.”

If I remember anything, I remember two messages from my first-year orientation. You will need to study 2-3 hours per credit to be successful, and, look to your left and look to your right. These weren’t very helpful. A better message might have been: if you work hard and listen to your instructors and university staff, you will likely be fine. And if you’re not here next year for whatever reason, you’ll be doing something else.

About rlsmith205

Bloomington-Normal, IL
This entry was posted in Illinois. Bookmark the permalink.

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