Forgetting the Word Processor

Some critics complain that students don’t seem to be studying as much as they should, or as much as they used to.

Is it getting too easy for students to get through college? A recent article in the Washington Post by Daniel de Vise indicates that,

Over the past half-century, the amount of time college students actually study — read, write and otherwise prepare for class — has dwindled from 24 hours a week to about 15, survey data show. And that invites a question: Has college become too easy?

Declining study time is a discomfiting truth about the vaunted U.S. higher-education system. The trend is generating debate over how much students really learn, even as colleges raise tuition every year.

But this debate is ridiculous. In fact students are probably studying just as much as they ever did; it’s just that technology is making schoolwork more efficient.


Declining study time has been a focus of certain researchers for many years. Some critics read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, see evidence of frat parties and students getting drunk on Thursdays and conclude that students must just be going to college to play around.

Two years ago two economists at the University of California at Santa Barbara (admittedly not a school with a reputation for hardworking students) published a paper,“ Leisure College, USA,” that demonstrated that “in 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week–a whopping ten-hour decline.”

The researchers observe a decline of about eight hours per week between 1961 and 1981 and about two hours a week between 1988 and 2004. DeVise:

Some critics say colleges and their students have grown lazy. Today’s collegiate culture, they say, rewards students with high grades for minimal effort and distracts them with athletics, clubs and climbing walls on campuses that increasingly resemble resorts.

This decline in study time looks dramatic, but it appears to really just have everything do to with how the researches defined study. It’s all time spent on school work. That means time in class, time spent studying for tests, time spent on problem sets, and probably most importantly, time spent writing papers.

This, time spent writing papers, is actually probably the major factor to explain this apparent decline in study time. While it’s true that, interestingly enough, the total study time only declined by about 2 hours between 1988 and 2004 (a change that could be linked pretty directly to the increasingly use of the Internet) what accounts for the ten hour decline between 1961 and 1981? The authors write that the “most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at postsecondary institutions in the United States.” But this seems like an odd conclusion to reach.

In fact, the period between 1961 and 1981 was a time when offices and educational institutions across the country were pretty seriously changed by technology. The 1970s, after all, was the era of the word processor.

A 1979 paper produced by Federal Judicial Center indicated that the word processor allowed staff “to handle their typing work in about half the time–2.l hours with word processing compared to 4.6 hours without word processing.”

Right, half the time. That’s admittedly considering the role of word processing only within a legal secretarial pool in the 1970s but there’s no reason to think the impact was much less dramatic on college campuses.

Leaving aside the significantly greater research time needed to produce a paper in 1961; it also just took a whole lot longer for students to type the damn thing. It’s not clear we can account for all of the time reduction through the word processor, but it’s not incidental.

College students may very well spend a lot of time playing when they’re ostensibly studying for a degree, but let’s be honest about why it happens. Some of it might be ambiguous “standards have fallen” but a lot of this is just that students are spending less time whiting out misplaced commas and reformatting footnotes. And that’s a good thing. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer