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