Do students change after four years of college?

Posted May 10, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa—How do students change after four years of college? Do they become more academically motivated, thirstier for knowledge or better critical thinkers? That is precisely what a study by Wabash College in Indiana has been looking at for the past five years.

The Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (opens new window) began in 2006. It was designed to explore the extent to which students develop because of their college experience, the conditions that contribute to this development and ways that liberal arts institutions can access and use this knowledge to benefit student learning.

Although the study is still in progress—it is expected to conclude by 2012—there are key preliminary findings from 2,200 students representing the first 17 four-year colleges and universities (out of 19 participating institutions).

During the first four years of the study, large percentages of the students showed moderate to high growth on outcomes such as moral reasoning (62%) and critical thinking (57%), followed by socially responsible leadership (52%), psychological well-being (51%) and need for intellectual challenge (49%).

In contrast, large percentages of students showed no growth or a decline on learning outcomes such as academic motivation (66%) and a desire to make a contribution to the sciences (79%).

Charles F. Blaich (opens new window), director of the study, said, “The goal was to create a ‘gold-standard’ longitudinal study that included measures of what students brought to college, what they experienced during college and a wide range of learning outcomes.”

The Wabash National Study is a groundbreaker. It is a large-scale longitudinal project, and these types of studies are not common in higher education. It is also unique because there are few studies that obtain both quantitative and qualitative data about non-traditional educational outcomes such as effective reasoning and problem-solving, inclination to inquire and lifelong learning, integration of learning, intercultural effectiveness, leadership, moral reasoning and psychological well-being directly from students. Moreover, the study is also distinctive because Blaich and his colleagues help participating postsecondary institutions (PDF; 3 pages) understand and use evidence of student learning to determine what can be done to improve the college experience.

Blaich, who is also director of inquiries at the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College (opens new window) and director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) (opens new window), will visit Iowa City on May 12, as a lecturer in ACT’s Visiting Scholars Lecture Series. He will address liberal arts education and the findings of the Wabash study.

ACT Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency’s (CAAP) Critical Thinking Test is being used in the study to assess effective reasoning. ACT also coordinated survey design and administration, data collection, database maintenance and preparation of summary reports for participating colleges.