New from Professors Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks is an analysis of trends in how college students are spending their time. The answer is "less studying, more leisure." The summary provided by the American Enterprise Institute is well worth the read. Their conclusions:
Why might achievement standards have fallen? Quoting Babcock and Marks:
Educators have put forth a few theories. David L. Kirp, in Richard Hersch and John Merrow's Declining by Degrees, emphasizes student empowerment vis-à-vis the university and argues that increased market pressures have caused colleges to cater to students' desires for leisure. In the same volume, Murray Sperber emphasizes a change in faculty incentives: "A nonaggression pact exists 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 nonaggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other." Consistent with this explanation, recent evidence suggests that student evaluations of instructors (which exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s) create perverse incentives: "easier" instructors receive higher student evaluations, and a given instructor in a given course receives higher ratings during terms when he or she requires less or grades more leniently. Because students appear to put in less effort when grading is more lenient, grade inflation may have contributed to the decline. Perhaps it is not surprising that effort standards have fallen. We are hard-pressed to name any reliable, noninternal reward that instructors receive for maintaining high standards--and the penalties for doing so are clear.
I wish I could argue against this theory, but it matches my observations pretty well. We should be demanding more of our students and ourselves. Unfortunately, this is a problem that requires action at the campus level -- as long as students can "vote with their feet," there is not much an individual faculty member can do.