Are Today's College Students Slackers -- or Just More Efficient?


A new study by two professors from University of California system finds that the amount of time the average student at a four-year college spends studying has declined by 42% since 1961. Back then, the average student spent 24 hours per week studying. Today, the average student spends just 14 hours per week working on schoolwork outside of class.

The Boston Globeopines that there is "plenty of reason for concern over the state of 21st-century study practices. In survey after survey since 2000, college and high school students are alarmingly candid that they are simply not studying very much at all. Some longtime professors have noted the trend, which rarely gets mentioned by college admissions officials when prospective students visit campus."

The most interesting part is that the trend holds true across all four-year colleges -- from third-tier state colleges to the most elite institutions in the country. Tell that to the next person who insists without a shred of evidence that you'll get a better education at a liberal arts college.

Doing the Homework

But do the statistics really tell the story? As an art history major who will be a senior in the fall -- and whose study habits probably fall in line with the national averages -- I can tell you this: Every time I work on a research paper for school, I marvel at how much harder (and more time-consuming!) the task would have been before the advent of modern technology.

With Microsoft Word, I can type one draft and then edit it as I go -- sparing myself the chore of writing by hand and then typing on a typewriter and then retyping again after several more rounds of revisions. That alone saves a few hours of work per week. Then there's the research: I can use databases like JSTOR to search for academic articles going back decades that are relevant to the topic I'm writing about. Compare that to the slow and frustrating task of tracking down physical documents in a library, and again, the net result is lots of saved time.

Math and science majors benefit from high-powered calculators and auto CAD (computer-aided design) programs that save them tons of time. Many classes now use textbooks that have searchable online editions. Critics of technological innovation note that the decline in study-time happened gradually over the decades. But so has technological innovation, and it may not be a coincidence that the two trends track each so closely.

The Modern Way to Study

Computerized card catalogs began as early as the 1960s, and word processors started to replace typewriters in the 1970s, and personal computers rose to prominence in the 1980s. JSTOR was founded in 1995. It's certainly true that there's been a period of punctuated equilibrium in the evolution of technology over the past 15 years, but the technological trends that drove increased productivity for college students pre-date the Internet and the much-maligned Wikipedia.

If there's one good thing that can come out of this research it's this: The notion that students are too busy with classes to hold down jobs to pay for college is probably bunk.