Some years ago, at another bleak moment in the economy, and an even bleaker one in the finances of the center for advanced study I was working for at the time, our chief financial officer posted on my office door a cartoon with the caption, “As an economy measure, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off.” The cartoon seems funny in retrospect, but when we transfer it to the current bleak situation in higher education, it raises a tough question about the goal to which all of us here this evening are committed: improving student learning in every way we possibly can.
The question is, of course, can we really improve student learning during a severe financial downturn when budgets are being cut – no, not cut, slashed, right and left? Wouldn’t it be better to wait it out and put educational improvements on the back burner until the money flows again? So let’s turn off the light at the end of the tunnel, just for the time being, of course, while we get the rest of the budget in order, reverse staff layoffs, provide more student aid, stop faculty pay freezes, and so on.
A False Assumption: I am sure that arguments like this are being heard on many campuses today. They are appealing because we have long assumed that the way to improve higher education is by additive change. We create new courses, departments, centers, programs; we provide new counseling services; we add faculty, reduce student/faculty ratios, build new and better facilities and hire the staff to run them and the administrators to supervise them. We reward people for this. College presidents in particular get rewarded for adding programs, pouring concrete and demonstrating that bigger is better.
No wonder, then, that American higher education by and large gets an A in addition, but at best, a C for cost control. Additive change drives costs higher, and hence makes the problems of student aid, access, and affordability all the more intense. We have come to the point, I believe, when we have to re-think the assumption that improving student learning requires adding costly new activities. If we reject that assumption, it becomes possible to improve student learning by doing what we are already doing, but doing it more effectively. We can do that right now, despite the financial difficulties.
“High-Impact Practices”: In fact, in many institutions the budget is not likely to be brought under control, unless student learning is improved. That is, because the retention of students from year to year, which is so important to the finances of “tuition-driven” institutions, improves when “high impact educational practices” are in use. That phrase, “high impact educational practices,” is a tip of the hat to George Kuh of Indiana University, who has recently published an important pamphlet with that title. The evidence he has extracted from the National Survey of Student Engagement and other sources demonstrates that almost all students, whatever their ethnic or economic background, are more likely to stay in college and to graduate if these practices are in use on their campus.
The list is not a surprising one. On it are the usual suspects, such as:
Research with Faculty
Oh, but they all cost money! Sure, but Kuh has provided an empirical basis for identifying a relatively small set of practices that really work, and hence, for focusing resources where they do most good.
And that’s not all. Kuh has also found that most colleges and universities already have many of these high impact practices in place. The shocking fact is that so few students take advantage of them. Take a look at the participation rate, by the senior year, of the six practices I just mentioned:
Learning Communities - 53%
Service Learning - 46%
Research with Faculty - 36%
Study Abroad - 32%
Service Learning - 19%
Senior Experience - 14%
Dismal! However, it does mean that there is plenty of room to bring these programs up to scale, and thereby greatly increase their transforming effects on students’ lives and learning.
That’s one way of improving student learning – make sure that all students are taking full advantage of what demonstrably works. Go where the evidence points and reap the benefits of getting those programs up to scale.
Now, George Kuh’s “high-impact practices” all operate at the institutional level. That means they may not directly affect what goes on in your classroom or program. So let’s follow Sarah Palin’s advice and “Drill, baby, drill.”
“Drill, baby, drill”: Let’s drill down to the departmental and program level. Then, a little later, I will suggest we drill down even further, into the classroom itself.
At the moment, the department and its role in liberal education is where the action is found. A recent series of Teagle White Papers, available on our website, and in the newly released journal, Liberal Education, reflects the growing interest in the role of the major in liberal or general education.
What is driving that interest? Many factors, I am sure, but an especially important one is this: As you well know, many colleges and universities are no longer content with the old general education courses or distribution requirements. They are setting ambitious, cumulative cognitive and personal goals for their students. Often, they are similar to the learning outcomes goals that the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has articulated:
Knowledge of human cultures and of the physical and natural world.
Intellectual and practical skills, including critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, teamwork and problem solving.
Personal and Social Responsibility, including civic engagement, ethical reasoning, and a foundation for life long learning.
Integrative and Applied Learning, including synthesis and advanced accomplishment across generalized and specialized studies.
For more information, click here.
Once an institution commits itself to such goals, a lot has to change. One thing that needs to change is the understanding of the major. Currently, the major is under pressure to do double duty. On one hand, it has to help students understand what it is like to think like an expert in the field. That involves mastering a lot of content and learning how to think about such information. On the other hand, the major is also crucial in the development of those long-term, cumulative cognitive capacities such as critical thinking, post-formal reasoning, and written and oral expression.
That’s a lot of pressures on the major to do both of these things – develop mastery of the content of a field and help students develop cognitive capacities.
So how are departments handling this challenge? I don’t know about your field, but I know about mine, Classics. A friend of mine, Kenny Morrell (Associate Professor at Rhodes College) recently surveyed 114 syllabi to find how many linked the course to departmental goals. Out of 114, how many do you think made this link?
The answer: one. I then asked Kenny how many explicitly linked the course to the large scale, cumulative institutional goals. And that answer: zero. (See page 13 of the report, “The Classics Major and Liberal Education,” for more on this matter.)
This is wonderful news. It convinces me that my colleagues in Classics genuinely believe what so many people in antiquity believed – the wondrous power of magic. If you want to improve student engagement and learning, don’t worry about things such as rational planning, alignment, and explicit linking of practice to objectives. It will all happen, magically, if you just go into class and chant some Homer.
Kenny Morrell’s survey matches, moreover, what we can extrapolate from a recent survey by the AAC&U. When the Association recently surveyed its member institutions, it found a very large majority now espouse the cumulative cognitive and personal outcomes we have been discussing.
But when they asked administrators how confident they were that students understood these goals, they found that “Among those who say they have learning outcomes for all undergraduates, just 5% say that they think almost all students understand their institution’s intended learning outcomes” (page 5).
Is that a high estimate or a low one for your campus?
Why such a low level? Could it be that the administrators who responded to the survey had themselves never got around to telling the students what outcomes they wanted to achieve, and why?
Or was it poor communication at the faculty level?
The AAC&U missed a bet, I think, by not asking a parallel question about faculty. “How confident are you, Mr. or Ms. Administrator, that almost all the faculty at your institution understand the institution’s intended learning outcomes?”
Whether or not the faculty understand the institution’s intended learning outcomes, it seems to be a fact that many undergraduates today haven’t a clue about the high-minded outcomes their institutions espouse. Not a clue.
And that is very encouraging news.
Why? Because in such a situation there is a great opportunity for improving student learning, especially at the departmental level.
Let’s do a thought experiment about critical thinking. The institution pays lip service to it but has never done much to explain what it is or why it is important. Ditto the department. Ditto each course and the individual assignments. What is the likely base line for development of critical thinking capacities under such circumstances?
Now let’s extend the experiment – a department asks itself if critical thinking is indeed an important goal and whether the material it teaches provides good opportunities for developing that capacity. It makes that explicit, takes time to determine what are the issues that constrain student progress toward that goal, identifies strategies to help them around those constriction points, and it incorporates topics or problems into the courses that can challenge and develop students’ capacities in critical thinking and – well, you get the idea – at every stage they make explicit the connection between the desired result and the actual practice in assignments, individual courses and in capstones, senior theses, and the whole structure of the major. Now let’s compare results. Does student learning increase?
I’d like to learn of more case studies where this has been tried – and carefully evaluated. But I know right now how I would bet. Surely the likely outcome is improved student learning – without significant additional cost.
Now we have drilled through two levels at which relatively low cost improvements in student learning can be achieved. The first is bringing up to scale certain “high impact practices.” The second is aligning departmental, or program goals, with robust college or institution wide objectives.
So it is “Drill, baby, drill” and then drill some more. Let’s see if we can get at what works on a specific day in the individual classroom when the door closes and class starts. The cognitive psychologists and their allies are bringing us some good news and practical help. Here is one example. Over the past year a group of arts and sciences faculty at Columbia University have teamed up with colleagues from the medical school and Teachers College and have been trying to find out how cognitive science can help improve teaching and learning. They have nine major “findings” which will soon be reported on the Teagle Liblog. Check them out.
None of these practices costs a penny. Once they are in use they can often save time and energy in preparing for class. And despite the terminology, you don’t have to wear a white lab coat to put them to use.
Let me give one example.
Metacognition: The Columbia Collegium emphasizes the importance of “metacognition,” explaining, “Metacognition refers to one’s self-awareness of one’s own thought processes. It also involves the ability to monitor comprehension and accurately evaluate one’s learning.” It turns out when you get your students to do that, they are less easily distracted, develop learning strategies that work for them, become more engaged, learn more, learn more deeply, and better retain what they have learned.
So how do you help your students develop their metacognitive capacities? Karl Wirth, Associate Professor of Geology at Macalester College, recently fired up another Teagle Collegium, this one run by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, when he described his use of “knowledge surveys” to get his students to reflect on what they know and what they needed to know. It also works to just pose questions that encourage students to reflect on how they are learning, as well as what they are learning, or ask them to recount their thought processes as they tried to solve a problem, or encourage them to make graphic representations of their thoughts -- concept maps, flow charts, semantic web charts. A relatively short time spent on such metacognitive activities pays off – big time.
So we have three ways of keeping the light on at the end of the tunnel during tough economic times:
Getting “high impact educational practices” up to scale.
Explicitly aligning the course, departmental and institutional goals.
Using the best knowledge we have about how students learn – and getting the students to use it too.
Success Story: When we at Teagle say we think your project is “most likely to succeed,” we are really thinking that as you go ahead you will identify more and more effective ways of improving student learning. I don’t want to say that this can be done on the cheap, or without significant changes in graduate education, the appointment and tenure processes, and the reward structures of colleges and universities. All these need to change and all of them will cost money. But I am saying you don’t have to wait until all of these changes take place, or until another longitudinal study has traced some cohort into the grave, or until the next capital campaign produces, at last, the support you have been hoping for – and deserve. You can do it now; in fact you are doing it now, with the very modest funds the Spencer Foundation and the Teagle Foundation have been able to provide.
You are not only getting patterns that work on your campuses, you are generating ideas and approaches that can help faculty members teach and students learn, not just at your home institution but all around the country. So here’s my plea. Don’t stop once you roll out of the driveway of Mr. Duke’s little country inn, or even back on your home campus. Put the ideas to work and put the spotlight on them in your professional meetings, on the web, wherever you can. You are showing how student learning can systematically be improved. Don’t be discouraged by the economic gloom; don’t stop and don’t let them put out the light at the end of the tunnel.