Kids these days spend less time studying and more time playing, study shows

Many a parent have said that modern college students have no idea what a work ethic is: We don’t work hard enough and we won’t know what hardship is until we walk fifteen miles uphill through snow to get to school like they did. Two University of California professors have recently attempted to prove such claims — or at least the sentiment behind them — are true.

Two months ago, Mindy Marks, assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside, and Philip Babcock, assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study comparing study hours reported by college students from 1961 to 2003. They analyzed four surveys completed at different points during the 42−year time period. What they found was a significant decline in the amount of time students devoted to studying. On average, students in 1961 studied 24 hours a week, while students in 2003 studied only 14 hours a week.

In an attempt to explain the decrease, Marks and Babcock took into account whether surveyed students had part−time jobs, what majors they were completing and what kinds of schools they were attending. What they found was that none of these factors had any influence on whether studying hours declined; studying hours fell across the board — for students of all majors, at all types of colleges, of all genders and both with and without part−time jobs.

But Marks and Babcock’s results are not necessarily obvious to long−time observers of students like Sol Gittleman, professor of German and former provost at Tufts, who said that based on 47 years of anecdotal evidence, he does not find that students have become less committed to their studies at Tufts.

“I personally don’t see any change in study habits, in intensity, in anxiety, in capacity to party,” he said. “The kids in ’64 seem, to me, to be the same as the kids in 2010.”

The researchers hypothesized that one reason for the decline in study hours might be the advent of the Internet age, resulting in speedier studying processes. The largest shift, however, took place between 1961 and 1981; over the 20−year period, studying fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours a week, long before university students had Facebook or smartphones.

Conversely, Gittleman, who has been at Tufts since 1964, believes that the Internet has only intensified students’ workloads.

“I see kids grinding, working, studying, expanding their horizons through the Internet and accumulating a greater amount of knowledge and information than the other kids 40 years ago [who] didn’t have access to it,” he said.

The researchers concluded that the only possible explanation for the drastic decrease in students’ average study time that they detected is a falling standard at postsecondary institutions in the United States.

“Students appear to be studying less in order to have more leisure time,” Marks and Babcock reported in their study.

At Tufts, however, some community members feel as though an average Jumbo’s study time is much higher than the researchers’ reported 14 hours.

“There’s doing the homework, and then there’s doing the reading, and there’s the studying. All of that together I would say it’s closer to 20 [hours per week] than to 14,” senior Samia Zahran said of her own study habits.

Zahran believes that at Tufts, students devote an immense amount of time to studying but also acknowledged that not all students at all schools follow the same model. Still, Marks and Babcock’s study found that the trend of decreased study hours is true of students at all types of schools.

“It does feel like we study all the time, [but] you also know people at other schools that aren’t studying all the time, or they just study before tests,” Zahran said.

Laura Rogers, a lecturer of education at Tufts, sees more eye−to−eye with the researchers. She said that the decrease in students’ time allotted to studying has been slow and steady and that there has also been a decrease in students’ time spent in class.

“The greatest decline occurred during the years when the role of ‘student’ in this nation was being redefined and increasingly being a ‘student of life,’ and actively engaging in a range of other activities during the student’s years became just as important as studying or going to football games,” she said.

Despite not observing a downward shift in student study hours, Gittleman said he has noticed a shift in student schedules overall. Students are not necessarily devoting less time to their work but, rather, are choosing to do work at times traditionally not deemed study time, he said.

“We’re sort of asynchronous in terms of our time, but they stay up late, they start going to their activities at ten and they have a hard time getting up earlier in the morning,” he said. “Sunday morning, the library is open, and at other schools you find that Sunday is still a day of rest. Here it is not.”

Rogers pointed out that the researchers’ definitions of “studying” and “leisure” could also affect their results and misrepresent the intricacies of student study habits.

“The authors report that there has been a rise of ‘leisure,’ commensurate with the fall in studying,” Rogers said, “which is not surprising since ‘leisure’ is defined as all time that is not academic or paid work, which includes sleep. It might be interesting to learn whether students during the ’60s and ’70s, when academic time declined most, began to spend more time in professional apprenticeships, or political activism, or arts, or athletics, or social activities,” she said. “For women, for example, pursuing athletics took up more time, once Title IX [which equalized men’s and women’s college athletic programs] allocated the resources and opportunities to do so.”

In addition, an increase in leisure activity does not necessarily cut into students’ work hours, Gittleman said.

“Work? Constantly. Play? Constantly. And that’s what you get. Kids that have the capacity to do everything,” Gittleman said. “I’m pretty much in awe of them.”