Improving Student Learning: Ten Easy (and Not So Expensive) Steps
I keep about things that work, that is, practices that seem to improve student learning and engagement. While some of them can be complicated or expensive, many appear to me straightforward and do-able, even on a tight budget. This means that colleges and universities don't have to wait for a global economic recovery or the next capital campaign to try them out; they can be done now. Here are the practices, organized as a ten-step list of what I think can work.
But first, a couple of notes:
Where possible, I have included a couple of suggested resources that might be helpful in thinking about and implementing the steps. I hope readers will give me your suggestions.
The following two publications are not specific to any one step, but are in general quite helpful:
To improve student learning, it sometimes helps to have an outside perspective. The Teagle Assessment Scholars are a group of faculty, administrators, and researchers who work with colleges and universities on a consultant basis and help them use evidence change teaching practice and strengthen learning.
Lastly, before taking on any—or all!—of these steps, it makes sense to get a baseline showing where student learning stands on your campus right at this moment. That needn't be complicated. Most institutions already have survey results and other data that make it possible to draw such a baseline, but this evidence is only sometimes used by individual faculty members or curriculum committees. It can be very helpful as time goes on in determining what really works in your setting and what doesn't. Does the baseline have to provide comparability with peer institutions? Not necessarily, but such comparisons, readily derived from surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), can help identify areas of special strength or weakness, thereby helping focus efforts and resources.
Now, the ten steps:
1. Set clear, robust learning goals at whatever level you can—institutional, departmental, course.
2. Communicate those goals clearly and repeatedly, explaining why they are important to students (e.g. through your website and printed literature, through advising, during orientation week; provide them with data about their progress toward these goals), parents, alumni, governing boards, and new faculty as they come on board.
3. Align practice (individual assignment, course, program, departmental major requirements) with these goals; make explicitly how each relates to your overall institutional learning goals.
4. "High-impact educational practices" really produce results. George Kuh's recent publication, High Impact Educational Practices (see below) names ten:
First-Year Seminars and Experiences
Common Intellectual Experiences
Collaborative Assignments and Projects
Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
Capstone Courses and Projects
5. Encourage all students to participate in most or all of these practices. (Most campuses already have such programs, but participation rates are low. See Kuh, page 3. Poor advising is sometimes the impediment to wider use of these practices.)
Robert J. Thompson and Matt Serra, "Use of Course Evaluations to Assess the Contributions of Curricular and Pedagogical Initiatives to Undergraduate General Educational Learning Objectives," Education 125, no. 4 (2005): 693-703. 8.
8. Determine what is really working and where further improvements are most needed and most likely to be made. A baseline established at the outset should be helpful in this effort, but additional evidence may be needed.
These ten steps won't do everything that needs to be done, but my hunch is that they may be synergistic, that is, that success on one front will make it easier to make progress on others. Do tell you what you think about them by emailing me at email@example.com. Have you tried some of the steps and found whether they work on your campus? Are there other steps you think are more important and effective? Are there resources other should know about?