Slacking or Studying: Do Undergrads Really Learn in College?

A recent not-so-controversial study confirmed what many students and over-paying parents alike felt to be true: undergrads don’t learn much in the first two years of college. The study asserts that students spend nearly 5x as much of their day sleeping, playing ultimate Frisbee, and updating Facebook pages as they do reading Chaucer for their Intro to Lit courses or studying evolution for Biology 101. Another related study alleged that for nearly half of undergraduates, the freshman and sophomore years result in absolutely no significant gains in skills like critical thinking, writing, and complex reasoning.

As a recent graduate who maintained a very healthy sleeping and Facebook habit through my years of college, I beg to differ. Yes, I spent a lot of time on Facebook. Yes, I sometimes slept until noon on weekdays when I had a 9am class. Yes, I used the university lawn as my personal tanning bed.

But, I also gained a breadth of knowledge until then unknown to me — within my first quarter I’d completed a 10-person seminar on European colonialism, a survey course on African-American literature, and Advanced Calculus. Through my four years I took classes on Middle Eastern politics, sleeping and dreaming, computer science, education reform, and international trade.

Over 80% of my classes had under 20 students, meaning when I did awaken from my sleep coma to attend class I was afforded the opportunity to have debates and discussions with not only some of the brightest students in the country, but with a professor who was the utmost authority on sleep and sleep disorders, foreign policy under the Bush Administration, or mixed-race studies, among other topics. Many students at research universities can attest to the pros and cons of having your professor also being the author of the required readings for class. That means that in many instances my questions were being answered by a policymaker, researcher, or scientist who had decades of direct experience in the field.

In addition, even though the article poked fun at the notion of students' learning outside of class from their peers, I found that very idea to be plausible. Nowhere else but college are you surrounded on a daily basis with people so different from you. A dorm is a gathering space for students with diverse backgrounds in race, political leanings, religious beliefs, and academic interests. Unlike a home where you’re often around people who share the same social and economic characteristics as you, college surrounds you with opportunities for debate with people who are are different, something that undoubtedly has helped hone my own critical thinking.

Then there’s the parade of dignitaries, heads of state, business owners, CEOs, human rights activists, and inventors who visit universities and hold lectures, the 100+ student organizations ranging from book clubs to engineering societies, and the sheer fact that students are often juggling 4-5 classes that each have the potential to assign you 20-page papers or 40-page readings a night. While much of writing has focused on my experience at a large research university, I believe the same to hold true at any four-year college in America. College can be as easy or difficult as you make it - that’s the beauty of non-compulsory education. Yes, you can pay $40,000 a year to lounge on your university’s lawn and tan, but that investment can also go toward four of the most intellectually stimulating years of your life. It’s your choice.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mahlet Seyoum

Mahlet is a graduate of Stanford University where she studied International Relations and Africana Studies. She studied International Human Rights Law and the sociology of immigrant communities while studying abroad at Oxford and currently works at Google in New York.

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