Are University Students Getting Lazier or More Productive?

10 05 2010

Students at Michigan State University, 1950s

A study has found that full-time university students devote less time to academic work than they did in 1961.

The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data

Philip S. Babcock, Mindy Marks

“Using multiple datasets from different time periods, we document declines in academic time investment by full-time college students in the United States between 1961 and 2003. Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by framing effects, work or major choices, or compositional changes in students or schools. We conclude that there have been substantial changes over time in the quantity or manner of human capital production on college campuses. ”

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. One, students are less serious than they once were. Two, they can get the same amount of work done in less time thanks to modern technology. Ever try writing an essay on a typewriter? How about looking up a book in a non-compterized library catalogue? I’m just old enough to have done the card catalogue thing (in Grade 9 in 1990) but I can tell you it’s more work than an online OPAC. Let’s not forget about Jstor either.

Engineering Students at the University of Iowa, Present Day

Library Card Catalogue in Use in a Monastery in California, Present Day

Update (7:42pm, 10 May):

Here is a link to an ungated version of the paper. Let me quote from it:

“It is possible that information technologies have reduced time required for some study tasks. Term papers may have become less time-consuming to write with the advent of word processors, and the search for texts in libraries may have become faster with help from the internet. We doubt that this tells the whole story because the largest portion of the decline took place prior to 1981 (before the obvious technological advances would have been a factor) and because the study time decline is visible across disciplines, despite the fact that some disciplines feature little or no writing of papers or library research (e.g., mathematics). We do not, however, rule out these factors.”

Here is a key sentence:

“While it is not clear why study times have plummeted, we argue that the observed 10 hour-per-week decline could not have occurred without the cooperation of post-secondary institutions.”

One limitation of this paper is that it is largely based on US data. It would be intructive to see whether there has been a decline in work input in university systems where second-marking is the norm (e.g., the UK). Given that the technology available to students in basically the same world wide, this would seem to be a good  way of testing the authors’ suggestion that the decline in study time is  the result of “a non-aggression pact” between “many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual non-aggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other.”

I like the authors’ term non-aggression pact. I know that it is a common one in game theory, but whenever I hear it I think of the 1939 Molotov-Ribentropp Non-Aggression Pact.

Stalin and Ribentropp, 1939



5 responses

10 05 2010

Short of purchasing the article I don’t know how they reached the conclusion that “there have been substantial changes over time in the quantity or manner of human capital production on college campuses.” Your point actually addresses the conclusion were the abstract leaves out evidence. Andrew you are forcing me (obsessive me) to purchase the article to find out how they came to that conclusion. It would be nice if people’s abstracts (not your fault I know) would include more than a germ of info to support the conclusion. I understand it is supposed to make you interested to know more, but I would also prefer it to allow me to disregard the article if I don’t believe the major evidence.

10 05 2010

PS. I like the card shown in your last photo. It is very appropriate for a monastic library and the topic of this Blog article. (also there is no danger intellectual property issues) Did you chose this card on purpose?

10 05 2010

Hey folks. Here is an ungated version of the paper.

Click to access LeisureCollege2.pdf

10 05 2010
Rich Becker

Hey Andrew,

I think the only way to be certain would be to compare performance records. If student performance is lower, then they may be getting lazier. If student performance is increasing, then it may be better efficiency.

Of course, all that would have to stack against professor expectations. Personally, I think instructors have become laxer, which could also be an outcome not related to the students themselves.

Good find.

All my best,

10 05 2010

Andrew, Thanks for the ungated version of the paper, and my apologies for the poorly written comment (my last one) I tend to press the send button before I edit my comments, to my own disservice. Now I shall rest easier knowing how they came to their conclusion. 🙂

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